It’s been a breeding ground for the brains behind some of Britain’s biggest business empires.
Now a new training scheme aims to launch the next generation of market traders. Grant Woodward headed down to Kirkgate Market to see if he has what it takes.
HERE’S a quick quiz question for you: What do retail giants Tesco, JJB Sports, Marks & Spencer and Matalan have in common?
The answer is that they all started out as market stalls, one of them right here in Leeds, and they have all made the successful leap from market hall to high street.
Now, in a bid to encourage the next generation of market traders and perhaps even spark similar success stories, a training scheme has been launched for those hoping to follow in their footsteps.
It’s a response, says Julien Lewis, president of the National Market Traders’ Federation, to the increasing stranglehold exerted by big name supermarkets, a juggernaut he believes has thundered out of control.
“The major supermarkets are trying to steamroller small businesses into extinction,” he says bluntly. “Unfortunately people like the convenience of supermarket shopping and things like free car parking are obviously key to that.
“But I passionately believe that markets have a future. Markets have got such a lot more to offer in terms of personal service, quality, value and knowledge. If you need a product and they don’t have it they will get it for you. You would never get that in a supermarket.”
The federation, which represents 32,000 members nationwide, is hoping to bring in some fresh blood with the NMTF First Trader Support Programme, its slightly clumsily-titled handbook for would-be entrepreneurs tempted to dip their toes into the world of commerce.
According to Julien Lewis, the market is the best place to start for first-timers looking to set up a business. Crucially, he says, because there is far less risk involved than with trying to open a shop.
Aside from the cost of stock and transport, it’s possible to start trading from as little as £8 or £9 a day rent on a small stall.
“A market stall gives you a better opportunity to establish a business in terms of outlay, plus you’re not signing up to a long lease.
“If you’re in an outdoor market you have a daily licence. In a covered market it varies from 72 hours notice to three months. With a shop you’re often committing yourself to a long lease that can become a millstone round your neck if things don’t go as well as you hoped.”
The guide, which has the backing of the Department for Communities and Local Government, offers practical help with everything from how to decide on the products you’re going to sell to the best ways to show off your wares, along with those crucial tips for building a rapport with customers.
Costing £100 – which includes a year’s membership of the NMTF worth £90 – the programme aims to help new or would-be new market traders to survive in what is an increasingly challenging area of retail.
“This is a ground breaking exercise as this has never been done before,” says NMTF chief executive Joe Harrison.
“It is commonly known that if most new businesses are to fail they will generally fail within the first 12 months. This is certainly the case in market trading.”
Having mugged up on some of the modules that make up the NMTF First programme, I head down to Kirkgate Market in Leeds to see if they have equipped me with the skills I need to be a successful trader.
I’m taken under the wing of Malcolm Leary, boss of Malcolm Michael’s butchers, which has been a fixture in the market for nearly 20 years since being started by Malcolm and business partner Michael Saynor.
Malcolm too is worried about the future but believes an initiative like NMTF First can pay dividends.
“I think it’s a fabulous idea. We desperately need new blood coming into the market, we need new ideas. They’re talking about reducing the size of the market, which at the moment isn’t a bad idea because we’ve got the biggest indoor market in Europe but it’s not the busiest.
“We need to be working on that. Bringing in new traders is the way forward.”
Having issued me with my overalls and a blue pinstriped pinny, he puts me to work writing today’s special offer on to the shop window in red marker. My slogan is a bit wonky but just about passes muster with Malcolm and the boys.
Still, I can’t help feeling a bit of a Johnny-come-lately given that it’s nearing 9am and they have all been here since just after six.
Next it’s on to my first customer. Joe Hepworth from Dewsbury runs a catering company and has come in for his week’s supply of meat.
“The guys are all right,” he tells me when I ask why he prefers dealing with market traders than Asda or Sainsbury’s.
“Variety and cheapness are the key things. There is loads of stuff to choose from and it’s worth making the effort to come down here because it’s cheaper than the supermarket.”
Another regular, Irene Wyatt, has been coming to the market for 30 years.
“We came here from Manchester and the market made it for me, but half the stalls aren’t here any more and a lot of them are the same,” she said as she ordered beef skirt and kidney for a homemade meat and potato pie. “The meat and fish is good, though.”
So what makes a good market stall? “Fresh stuff, good quality, not the cheapest but cheaper, and variety. I get all my fruit, vegetables and fish here and for the groceries I can’t get I go to the supermarket.”
Spending time with Malcolm and his team it’s clear they set a lot of stall by customer service. They have even learnt a few phrases in everything from Polish to Portuguese so they can better engage with the steady stream of shoppers from overseas.
“Most of our customers don’t look in the window because they know what they want,” Malcolm tells me as I serve a lady from Sierra Leone who has ordered two cow’s feet for a traditional stew.
“We’ve had a big influx of people from all over the world so now we sell goat meat, turkey wings, gizzards, cow’s feet. They are market people, they will haggle with you. It’s fabulous for us.
“Half of the people who come in here couldn’t tell you the name of the shop but they know the boys’ names. They know they’ll get good service, won’t get overcharged and they’re away happy.”
It has taken Malcolm years to build his business to the point where it now occupies three units on the market’s famous Butchers’ Row. So how does he rate the chances of someone just starting out?
“If you choose the right product on a market you are instantly going to get trade,” he says. “But if you’re not good you won’t keep it. It takes years to build a trade and two minutes to lose it.
“Your cheapest commodity is customer service. Good value products, consistency, getting to know your customer, making sure your staff know what to do if you’re not there... it’s just the basics, really. Good products, good service and value for money. You don’t need much more.”
Seeing Malcolm in action convinces me that markets do have a future after all and that it is possible for someone to grow a business here.
A scheme like NMTF First may not provide all the answers but it will at least get would-be Matalans and Marks & Spencer’s off to a decent start.
And Julien Lewis believes that’s important not just for the market industry but for the country as a whole.
“David Cameron himself said small and medium-sized businesses are the key to Britain coming out of recession,” he says. “Markets give people that chance to start in business for relatively little expense.
“We’re a large industry supporting a lot of families, one that puts money into local economies through employment and obviously provides a service.
“The key is finding that niche in a market that can establish a successful business and I just think there is such a lot of willingness at the moment for entrepreneurship and for people to succeed.
“Somewhere out there could be the next Dave Whelan (the JJB Sports founder who started out as a market trader), a Marks & Spencer or a Tesco’s. I would dearly hope that this will help us to find them.”
* To find out more about the NMTF First scheme visit www.nmtf.co.uk or call 01226 749021.