Not all gloom and doom on high street, insists independent trader

Canterbury Pottery

The owners of a city centre business say the downturn on the high street may not be as bad as people fear.

As part of a new series on local businesses, the Journal dropped in for a chat with Richard and Jan Chapman, who run Canterbury Pottery in the Buttermarket.

Their turnover is increasing every year despite nearby shops becoming vacant. I ask them why they believe they are successful.

“There’s a core assumption that we’re a tourist shop, but a lot of our customers are local,” explains Jan. “Every time it’s a birthday or Christmas they’ll come and look, and if we haven’t got what they’re after, we’ll make it for them.

“Over four decades Richard has developed his own set of glazes which create our own style that you won’t find anywhere else.

“The process involves pouring Richard’s glazes over the clay which then melt at different temperatures as the items are fired in the kiln. The colours separate out and cover the surface in random patterns meaning every piece is unique.”

The family business was started by Richard’s mother who studied at the Royal College of Art and began selling pots from home.

Richard and Jan ChapmanRichard and Jan Chapman

Richard and Jan met in the shop which his family have owned since 1963 when Jan went in to order something.

“He kept telling me it wasn’t ready and to come back later,” recalls Jan. “Apparently, he was just saying it to keep me coming back.”

Richard’s trick clearly worked since they have been together since 1984.

The dynamic between the two of them is probably part of the reason for their success. The other being their ability to buck the downturn trend by providing their unique bespoke service.

“We’ve been asked for some peculiar things” Jan tells me. “The oddest is probably a dinner plate for a pet tortoise.

“A tortoise’s beak gets gradually worn down in the wild, but in captivity this doesn’t happen so the owner asked us to make a custom plate with a rough surface and a dome in the middle – which we did.”

On a more practical note, the Chapmans agree that the arrival of the high-speed train has been good for Canterbury as visitors from London now find it much easier to travel down to root out a bargain that might cost double in the fancy boutiques of Chelsea.

Jan also believes the Business Improvement District (BID) has been good for business, providing courses and organising events, and Canterbury Pottery is now part of the recently formed Cathedral Quarter which took off following the success of the King’s Mile.

“Obviously, we can’t overlook social media and the internet,” Jan adds. “We now do 10% of our turnover online.

“It’s something not all businesses have the skills for. My daughter is currently helping out, but eventually I’ll need to take over.”

It’s clear that there are challenges facing all high street businesses. With Debenhams, Patisserie Valerie, HMV, and others all facing distinctly dicey-looking futures, it would be naïve to think everything is rosy.

However, for the right business in the right place, Canterbury is a great place to trade – as long as owners are able to adapt to customer demands as they fluctuate over time.

Before I leave the shop, Richard lets me have a go on his potters’ wheel. I haven’t ridden one these babies since I was at school twenty-five years ago. And strangely enough my sugar bowl looks like it was made by a toddler.

It’s probably something best left to the professionals.

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  1. Fair play to the Chapmans, it is wonderful to see independent businesses succeeding in Canterbury.

    But glossed on in the article is that they’ve owned the shop since 1963 – so presumably they don’y have to face the high rents that other businesses in Canterbury have to face.

    So the downtown may not be so bad for those who own the buildings – but I worry that will not be much relief for most businesses who don’t own the building.


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