Happy birthday! not just a shop turns 3 years old

Image of birthday card by Tom Boulton, www.typetom.com, insta @typetomdotcom

Since opening in High Holborn in September 2017, not just a shop has sold over £347,000 worth of products by over 155 UAL student and alumni artists and designers. A whopping £240,000 has been paid out to students and alumni businesses through these sales. 

The store itself has provided numerous students and graduates with creative, retail and administrative employment, including visual merchandising and paid marketing internships. 

Over the last 3 years the enterprise learning programme, which is hosted in the space and helps to develop new creative businesses, has supported over 1,700 students and graduates through over 80 events and 245 enterprise one-to-ones. 

We caught up with Vicky Fabbri (Enterprise & Events Manager, Careers and Employability) and Richard Sant (Head of Careers and Employability) to reflect on the journey so far. 

What have you learned from operating not just a shop over the past 3 years? 

Richard: We’ve learned a lot about how to capture and measure value, to show the university the benefits of the shop to the institution, which are at the same time financial, strategic, educational and profile raising. 

Within UAL, not just a shop’s physical visibility and enterprise programme has helped to increase staff and student awareness of other careers and employability events and learning opportunities. It further pushes our education agenda and engagement numbers.  

Alongside raising the profile of careers and employability, the reputation of the shop and our wider work also adds value to UAL and aligns with its core mission.  

The shop front is a window to the institution amongst a central London neighbourhood of high achieving businesses and (in normal times) busy streets. There is increased porousness from the public and a greater sense of approachability. It acts as an advertisement and ambassador for the UAL brand, helping to recruit future students.  

In addition to physical visibility not just a shop also has a digital and social presence which promotes the makers and offers business advice. It attracts media coverage which, both online and offline, is positive reputationally for both the shop and UAL, and has the potential to be seen worldwide. 

We’ve also built key strategic partnerships with industry, including Tate, Tatty Devine, Top Drawer, V&A, London Design Festival and local law businesses. The aim is for further profiling, expanding reach, sales and positive alignment for the shop and UAL. 

What was the biggest challenge to overcome?  

Richard: Apart from the pandemic, the big challenge has been to find ways for those less ‘retail ready,’ including current students, to engage with the shop whilst maintaining the high-quality standards that the customers expect.  

Vicky: Our current focus is very much around makers, and we want to broaden both our retail and education offer to support aspiring businesses, freelancers, sole traders and artists that sit outside of product businesses.  

A challenge we still have is how we make visible the other side of the work: that is, the ‘not just a..’ bit!  Publicly the brand is only really associated with retail, but so much of the work that we do is around supporting emerging creative businesses.  I’m aware that this can get rather lost in our messaging. 

Another ongoing challenge is the balance between striving to be self-sustaining by increasing income revenue, whilst maintaining priority of support for students and graduates. 

What impact has the pandemic had on your work? 

Vicky:  In common with many retail businesses the pandemic meant that we had to close our central London retail space back in March.  However at a time when online sales were booming we had no access to our stock due to UAL buildings closures, so we also had to halt selling online.     

And like so many businesses we have had to pivot constantly to respond to the crisis. Our purpose is to support our UAL alumni and student businesses so although we couldn’t make sales throughout lockdown we continued to provide a valuable service to students and graduates throughout. We’ve done this by: 

  • Hosting virtual markets 
  • Commissioning and sharing the stories of our businesses through our #MakerMondays 
  • Running our annual Christmas card completion with the Tate (5 student designed cards will be selling through them and us) 
  • Opening applications and selecting new products for the next season 
  • Collaborating with jewellery makers, Materia Rica, on a student brief and having 6 new products being produced and sold 
  • Restarting our online shop and regularly sending out orders 

We re-opened the online shop in August and are planning to open the High Holborn shop as a phased return in early November (government and UAL restrictions allowing) however we anticipate that sales will be lower and are re-shifting our focus and resource to online for 20/21.  

During this period our related enterprise events and offer that would have been hosted in the space have been moved online. Although there’s been no break in our delivery, it has meant that there is a further disconnect between our dual offers (business support and retail).  

What has been your proudest moment? 

Richard:  The first time a customer came in clutching ‘Time out’ and wanting to buy. We knew we had ‘arrived’ in some sense at that point. I would also say reaching the £250,000 turnover mark was pretty great. Oh, and winning a national award for innovation! 

Winning the AGCAS Strategic Innovation Award in 2018 was great recognition for the unique model and innovative approach we have as a Careers and Employability Service. But day to day greater pride comes from the number of students and graduates we have supported through our work and the impact we have made on them and their businesses.  We’ve paid out about £350k to students and graduates through product sales and paid work experience and engaged with nearly 2,000 through enterprise learning.   

“With very little experience selling wholesale, NJAS has been a hugely valuable relationship to have. Being stocked there has not only helped me to work out what sells well and where to focus future lines but has also given me access to opportunities such as talks, website and Instagram features and awards. 

I’ve been able to approach and discuss ideas with them for future projects such as window displays, and their belief and support of my products and ideas has helped give me the confidence to continue to build my brand going forward. ”  

Abigail Burch, MA Visual Arts Illustration, Camberwell College of Arts (2019) 

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start a similar project? 

Vicky: We’re frequently approached by other universities looking for advice who want to deliver similar projects, but feel we are unique in our position, model and offering. We have an existing central London space, a university full of talented and entrepreneurial students with creative outputs, already operated pop-up shops to test the market and a team dedicated to enterprise support who can help develop and channel new products and sellers.    

Last but not least we (of course) have a team of passionate staff to drive the vision forward. Well done to Kathy, Mel, Abbie, Rowan, Emma, Zoe (and of course also Vicky Creevey and Natalie Stevens who are both on maternity leave) as well as the many Artstemps that have worked for us, for all their excellent work over this three year period. 

What’s next for the not just a shop team? 

Vicky: Right now we are reacting to the current restrictions and market needs but our priorities and ambitions for change and progress are still there!  
We want to:  

  • Expand our range of works for sale to represent a broader range of disciplines and business models 
  • Increase the diversity of our sellers and customers 
  • Re-shift our focus to e-commerce – increasing sales, product ranges and the use of the website 
  • Work more collaboratively across UAL with other departments and courses on joint projects and in the curriculum  
  • Define our ethical position and practices, and integrate this into our brand. 

Here’s to the next 3 years! We wish the team luck and look forward to seeing their future successes. 

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