by Zoe Harding
Another week, another independent local store closing its doors for the last time.
This week it’s the Rock Collection, Norwich’s finest purveyor of black clothing, technicolour dresses and elaborate piercings (and a rather fine The Who Onesie, complete with furry collar). After 8 years in their shop on Lower Goat Lane and more than 30 years selling alternative clothing in Norwich, owner Murray Walker announced on Facebook that his store would be closing its doors on the 31st of March, and moving entirely online to their already successful website.
I interviewed Murray a few days later, when the initial rush of closing-down sale customers had been and gone. He was keen to emphasise that this isn’t the end for the Rock Collection – in fact he sees it as a positive move. Much of the shop’s traffic is already online, and it’s been getting more and more difficult to sustain the physical store, especially given the realities of modern specialist retail.
“The younger generation are now coming in our shop, and they bring their dresses and bags and shirts and trousers into the changing room to try them on. They then leave our shop, because they know they can buy it cheaper online.”
That’s not the store getting scalped by cheaper online competitors; it’s the Rock Collection’s own site, which has started selling at a discount to keep up with the competition. “We are cheaper on our own particular website – which we have to be to keep up with our competition online.” At this point, the shop has become an artificial price booster – running costs have to be added onto shop-sold prices.
I’m a strong believer that there are younger people than myself that will be coming along, opening new businesses in Norwich Lanes. They have fresh ideas and innovation. I feel confident that independent shops won’t disappear.
But, although it’s moving online, the Rock Collection isn’t going to vanish from Norwich, or even from The Lanes. Their second location, over the road on Upper Goat lane, will remain open as an office and distribution centre. The shop’s seven staff will be staying on to run the new business, aiming to continue providing the shop’s main draw over its digital competitors: Customer service. After the pounding music, racks of zombies and piles of goth gear in the old shop, the office room is jarringly quiet. However, Murray stresses that the service will remain friendly and approachable. The now-digital customer service is “the driving force of the online business.”
High rents are a factor in the shop’s closure. Part of the problem is size – the Rock Collection is one of the largest physical units in The Lanes, and, while this means that they’ve had an extensive shop floor to display their varied inventory, it also means that they’re paying a lot for the space. The area won the National High Street award in 2014, following 10 years of development. It has therefore earned a reputation which keeps rents high and rising. That said, the shop’s business rates have actually gone down. The shop’s new owner will inherit a rates reduction of about £1500 – not a bad start, for whoever comes next (at present, Murray isn’t aware of any other party’s plans for the shop). Across Norwich, business rates are falling compared to elsewhere in the UK.
The Lanes have changed since the Rock Collection moved to its current premises, but Murray is optimistic. “I think the Lanes will continue to be a great place to shop for independent people, and I’m a strong believer that there are younger people than myself that will be coming along, opening new businesses in Norwich Lanes. They have fresh ideas and innovation. I feel confident that independent shops won’t disappear.”
One can only hope he’s correct, even as mainstream high street brands continue to spread across the city centre. As for the Rock Collection, they’re leaving their old store, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking of coming back. Tentative (and at present very much unconfirmed) plans are underway to offer a fitting room service, or possibly even move into a different, smaller location elsewhere in the city. It won’t quite be the same as the old Rock Collection, but it’s by no means the end.
Find the Rock Collection site here at https://www.rockcollection.co.uk/
Featured image credit: Andrew Flitchett, EDP.