Half term fun at the Merseyside Market
Earlestown Market is a traditional community market, serving the people of the town of Earlestown in the borough of St Helens, for over 700 years. Operated by St Helens Council, the market takes place each Friday in the town’s centre, surrounding a Grade II listed obelisk monument where the market’s charter was read out over 130 years ago.
Upon entering the borough of St Helen’s, the boundary signs mention the markets and Markets Manager, Kevin Gavin, organised brown tourist ‘finger’ signs to be installed last year to direct visitors to the market.
The market is often referred to as the heartbeat of the community and this is reflected in the number and variety of stalls available, having all the essential commodities required for locals to fulfil their weekly shop, with two fish stalls, two butchers, four greengrocers, as well as cheese, eggs, bakery, pies, cooked meats, groceries and household goods.
When at full capacity, they can hold 150 stalls. Occupancy usually sits at around 75% and casual traders (there were six on the day I visited) are encouraged after four visits to become licensed or pay a premium for remaining a casual. Licences are on a week by week basis and can be cancelled at any time. Cash rents are collected on the day of trading. In addition to the traditional market, Earlestown hosts a Flea and Craft market every Saturday, although there are now some of the Friday traders attending that market.
There is an active Trader’s Association and a trader’s fund, where participating stall holders contribute £1 a week, helps purchase branded carrier bags and support promotional activity. This is in addition to the small marketing budget provided by the Council. Activities are almost always community based and a couple of years ago the market sponsored the local rugby team.
The Family Fun Day takes place on the Friday before Good Friday and has been a regular fixture of the market’s calendar for around 30 years. This day was chosen as although technically the market doesn’t operate on Good Friday, it is well supported by both traders and customers and so it was felt that the celebrations should take place the week prior.
Activities have included, slides, bouncy castles, street entertainers, Disney and film characters, face painters and an Easter egg hunt. The event was promoted through the use of social media, as Kevin explained that a recent event advertised in the local press, where he ran a competition whereby customers were asked to bring in a coupon to be entered for a prize, resulted in only five entrants. One stalwart of the celebrations is Blackpool’s Town Crier, Barry McQueen, who has turned up in full regalia to announce the day’s activities for the past six years.
The 71 year old former Blackpool Guide and Queen’s trumpeter told me, ‘I love coming here. This is a great market and it’s very well supported. Everyone works really hard here.’
There was plenty going on during my visit, despite being a rather chilly day. Kids were queuing to have their faces painted, several took part in the egg hunt and others, ably assisted by Alice in Wonderland, covered egg shaped pieces of card in felt tipped pen, glitter and stickers.
My initial ‘reccy’ of the market, before meeting with Kevin and the team, was pleasantly surprising. This really is a market that has (almost) everything. It’s what markets used to be, the best of the High Street, all condensed into one area. In addition to the market staples of clothing, shoes, bags and accessories and foodstuffs, you can buy a vacuum cleaner, tools, plants CDs, beds, kitchenware and even paint.
The market was bustling and the success of a market can be shown by the speed in which produce is sold. The D&R Meats wagon was consistently busy, enticing customers to purchase bulk meat items. Many full bags made their way out of the market. As is often the case when visiting these markets, it’s difficult to get around whilst the stalls are still full, but it is always pleasing to see traders with vastly diminished stocks, which was evident certainly on many of the fresh produce stalls.
Below is a selection of some of the traders I met during my visit:
Geoff Cornthwaite is head of the Trader’s Association. He is a grower and one of two traders selling plants. He also sells a range of fruit and vegetables, more akin to farmer’s market produce than the more popular bulk purchase of fruit and vegetables. He grows his own tomatoes and all the produce he sells is local, He also sells local eggs and honey. He runs the stall with his wife Ruth and the business has been in his family for over 70 years.
He is passionate about the market and is keen for the stall upgrade to be completed. He has a lot of loyal customers, some of which he refers to as ‘almost family’. Earlestown is the only market that he trades at and he said, ‘On a good summer’s day, this market really takes some beating.’
One of the newer traders I spoke with was Danny, The Cheese Man, who joined the market a year ago. All his cheeses are from Lancashire and rather than the usual pre packed cheeses, he cuts what you want to order, straight from the wheel. He told me that he had been well supported from day one and has even had orders for cheese wedding ‘cakes’.
The largest of the fruit and vegetable stalls belongs to Paul Martin of P&M Fruit and Veg Ltd. He is on a prime location with a two edge facing on the corner of Market Street. He also owns one of the two fresh fish outlets on the market and his is adjacent to the main stall. He approached the Council about starting a mid-week market in neighbouring St Helen’s. This wasn’t something that St Helen’s Council wanted to operate but they have supported Paul and the market opened in July. It now has over 40 stalls and has just started trading on a Thursday. Paul says the secret to successful market trading is excellent customer service.
I witnessed some really good customer interaction, but also great banter amongst the neighbouring traders – one of the things I love about the industry, there’s still, generally, a real sense of camaraderie.
This was evident between the hardware and the household traders. James Spencer of JS Hardware has been at the market for eight years and despite being positioned very close to Wilko’s, he has a loyal following. He will get specific items for customers and people often come for advice, which he is happy to part with, even though it may not mean a sale. He told me, ‘I’m building goodwill. Advice is free and people remember that and come back to me. I’ve got some very loyal customers.’ He sells a vast range of hardware, from an L bracket at 25p to a scroll saw at £150.
For the best banter, stories and customer interaction, you have to visit David Andrew. His stall of household items and cosmetics isn’t the prettiest or the biggest range, but he has the patter and an engaging smile. He is one of a number of traders selling similar items and when he didn’t have what a customer requested, he took them over to a neighbouring retailer to find them what they wanted. David has been at Earlestown market for fifteen years and has recently qualified as a Jet2 crew member to supplement his income.
There are several traders at the market that have diversified into other ranges, some not even related to their main line. Sonya has traded at Earlestown for 20 years, selling casual men’s wear and has since added traditional sweets to her offering, when the previous sweet stall ceased trading. She has built up a strong customer base and told me that the town were great supporters of the market.
Dougie Fleming’s range of goods has a simple explanation. He started selling to caravaners, who he explained, ‘Want a good breakfast, a pie for lunch, a slice of cake and a BBQ tea.’ Therefore, he stocks, bacon, egg, sausages, pies, cakes and bread rolls. The formula clearly works as by the time I got to him, his stocks were severely depleted.
Pies are obviously popular in the North West as there were three traders selling them, however, Pimmies Pies of Warrington are renowned throughout St Helens. They sell a range of meat and fruit pies and a customer was delighted to find that the pies were still warm. The lady running the stall, who works in the bakery, explained that all the pies brought to market are baked fresh that day.
Paul Donovan is a well known face with families at Earlestown as he has been selling children’s clothing since 1979 and is now selling to his original customer’s children. He has a prime street side position on the bottom end of the market, offering clothing from 12 months to age 12. He works on volume on tight margins, with prices starting from just £3. Another pull is that a lot of the clothing depicts popular characters such as Minions, Peppa Pig and Disney characters.
Another long serving member at the market is Dennis. He now runs his own stall selling premium pillows and quilts, but has 23 years experience on the market, having worked for other traders. He’s been on his own now for three years and is making a steady business.
There is still clearly a demand for traditional market goods such as hosiery and Mohammed Hussain has been selling nightwear, lingerie and socks to the people of Earlestown for 25 years. He says he has a good regular business despite two other stalls I noticed selling socks.
Now, if you’re female and not yet of the age where ‘comfortable pants’ is part of your repertoire, then there is an alternative available from Kenny at Dress Sense. Although he does sell a limited range of ladies’ fashions, nightwear and men’s boxers, he specialises in ‘lacy lingerie’. The majority of Kenny’s stock is returns, excess stock or end of lines from M&S and John Lewis. Prices start at just £1 for undies and bra sizes range from 32A – 44G. Kenny has 30 years of market trading experience and has been at Earlestown for four years. He told me he has good local support, not only from the town itself, but from the local area and around the North West.
Selling high street shop brands has also been successful for David Litchfield as the majority of his stock is ex M&S. His winning formula is that he doesn’t buy bundles, so, ‘When it’s gone, it’s gone. It means customers buy it when they see it and keep coming back to see what’s new.’ His customer base continues to grow and he believes Earlestown is a good, well supported and well run market.
That’s exactly what every market manager wants to hear.