Some Shaftesbury residents have expressed disappointment at the reduced numbers of stalls at the monthly Sunday markets. That has prompted the Chamber of Commerce and the Town Council to recruit award-winning market experts to help shape a plan for a unique street-shopping experience for our town.
“We want to be known as the destination of choice for markets,” said Brie Logan. Shaftesbury Town Council’s Business Manager has set the bar high. She is working with Chamber of Commerce Chair Virginia Edwyn-Jones on a project to improve the market experience by encouraging more stallholders and unique products. A specific retail theme could be developed.
The two organisations have agreed to jointly fund a feasibility study that aims to identify opportunities for Shaftesbury. “The Sunday market has gone through highs and lows and we thought we were in a bit of a Catch-22 situation. We couldn’t get enough stalls to satisfy people who were coming to shop at the market, and we couldn’t get enough people to shop at the market to satisfy stallholders,” explained Virginia.
Frome’s monthly ‘Independent’ is the Westcountry’s market success story, filling the town’s streets with over 20,000 shoppers each month. Virginia decided to approach the charity operating Frome’s market to solicit their advice. “There is no denying that they have created a hugely successful monthly market. Whenever we have been there, we have been hugely impressed. It covers flea markets, local produce, small makers and manufacturers. All of the shops are open as well and they do that consistently, month after month. Clearly, they have found a formula and they know what they are doing,” Virginia offered.
It’s said that some shop owners bring in enough business to cover their monthly fixed costs, such as rates and rent, when they open on market day. Brie said she is keen to learn how the Frome Independent market is managed. And she wants to hear the lessons that their team have learned during their ten years of trading. “We are working with the directors of Frome’s market to understand what they have been able to achieve, what is right for them and what hasn’t worked for them,” she said.
Both women stress that there is no plan to imitate the established event 23 miles up the road. “We want something that is unique to Shaftesbury, so why on earth would we carbon copy someone else? That would be pointless,” said Virginia. “We want to create something unique to Shaftesbury that makes the most of our assets. We will look at what specifically Shaftesbury can offer, that other towns cannot offer.”
The Chamber Chair is keen to point out that our town’s size and location means it is unlikely to match the scale of Frome’s market. “Shaftesbury is completely different. We are less than one-third the size of Frome and we have a completely different catchment area. We are not near big metropolitan areas. Frome is near to Bath. We have different kinds of people living around here and the topography of our High Street is much smaller. We are restricted in what we can do.”
Virginia has a list of questions concerning the potential for Shaftesbury’s market that she wants the experts to answer. “What should we do? How frequently do we do it? How do we pitch it to people and how should we brand it?” asked Virginia. “We have three weekly markets and three monthly markets currently in Shaftesbury. Should we bring all of the markets under a new kind of ‘umbrella’ for the town? This study will look at everything that we do. It will speak to shop owners and stakeholders. There is a lot of information we need and once we have it, it is entirely up to us how we interpret and use it.”
Virginia says that once those questions are answered, the Chamber and Town Council will take the project further. She considers herself the project driver. Frome’s team will not be involved in market management after the consultation exercise. “Frome has no interest in running markets and do not dictate how you should use their information,” said Virginia.
As locals had turned to social media to lament the decline of the Sunday market, I asked why not just kill it off? “To be honest, we are very open-minded about it. There is no point putting on markets that people do not seem to be enjoying,” Virginia remarked. “One possible outcome is that we could collectively decide that this town cannot sustain a monthly Sunday market. Or we might do markets every other month. Or every season. It takes a lot of time and a lot of volunteers. In a small town it’s a lot of the same people doing the work. We have to be mindful of what we are asking people to do,” said Virginia.
She expects the research and consultancy project to commence soon after the Christmas break. “We should see the feasibility study delivered in February,” she said.
Virginia says the whatever is decided, Shaftesbury’s future Sunday market should appeal to residents and also needs to be attractive to people who will want to visit from the adjacent area, as well as holidaymakers.
“It is not just about Shaftesbury citizens but it’s also about people who visit our town. We do get a lot of tourists here. Shaftesbury is one of the few tourist destinations in Dorset that is outside the coastal area,” said Virginia. “People come to Gold Hill and there are fantastic views but it’s about making sure that there is enough for them to do when they are here. That’s one of the reasons why the Sunday market started.”
And the proof of the pudding will be busier pavements and more pounds going through tills. “The difference we are hoping for is increased footfall on the days that the market operates. We are also looking at the user satisfaction to make sure that we are really delivering the expectations of the residents who live here and of the visitors who come here specifically to use the markets”, said Brie.