Lessons for the High Street: Peckham Palms

We continue our new series of articles on retailers that are operating in ways that provide some interesting and valuable lessons to the wider industry.

Name: Peckham Palms

Location: Peckham (where else), London SE15

In a nutshell: A good example of where local people and a progressive council can together create a hub of the kind of retail businesses that draw people into a High Street

It’s a well-known fact that one of the last sectors alive and kicking on the British High Street is that of hair and beauty. This is for the simple reason that you really cannot have your hair virtually braided online, it is not cheaper to have your nails click and collected or more convenient to thread your eyebrows via Amazon Prime.

So, it makes sense that an initiative to cluster a number of these businesses in one new purpose-built parade could provide a valuable boost to the local retail space more generally.

This is just what is happening off Rye Lane in Peckham where the re-development of Peckham Rye railway station led to the small businesses in the railway arches having to re-locate. Usually when this happens the enterprises simply close or are then priced out of the re-developed premises but Southwark Council very impressively decided that this would not be the case here as they wished to encourage the mainly female, mainly BAME owners of the salons to remain in the area.

A new site just off the main thoroughfare – a set of rundown garages and alleyway – was soon identified as a potential location. The area had been subject to lots of anti-social behaviour, drug dealing, illegal street parties and so forth meaning the Council achieved a double positive gain by taking over the space. The running of the Peckham Palms project was then put out to tender with enterprise collective Something & Son being the winner and there are now five directors including Monique Tomlinson who showed Retail Insider around the new arcade.

Making change happen in Peckham: Monique Tomlinson

In terms of lessons for other high streets, the first thing to note is that the Peckham collective of Afro hair and beauty stylists had clients coming to them  from all over London and far beyond and were a real draw to the area. The second thing to note is that beauty providers tend to keep their clients in situ for long periods of time. This is especially the case for the black beauty industry where hair braiding and weaving can take many hours to complete.

During this time, clients need to eat, for example, and if they are spending a whole day in one place they may also need to do their daily food shopping or buy the specialised after care products for their hair and skin or fulfil any other household chores. In short on that particular day it becomes more convenient to buy what you need from the shops near your preferred salon than online.

But Tomlinson first had to persuade the business owners that moving from their very visible position on the main thoroughfare despite its somewhat rundown appearance to a brand new set of salons was viable. However, once this fear of change had been overcome she was able to point to the very real benefits that moving from their antiquated premises would bring.

The women are typically self-employed and rent a chair from the leaseholder of the premises, there is a tendency to work very long and un-family friendly hours, although most are mothers, and to rely on an ad-hoc system of appointments and walk ins rather than having a proper booking system which means they are very much at the whim of their customers.

Peckham Palms aims to move the local beauty industry on to a very different footing by encouraging and promoting the use of payment by card, online booking systems for the stylists, late nights restricted to two or three nights a week only and generally providing more cash-flow visibility to the workforce.

There is also a longer term goal of helping the women keep their young children out of the salon and into proper child care and all salon operators will be encouraged to move towards paying the London Living Wage. In this way the project can also provide pointers in how to retain and attract the overwhelmingly female staff in retail that are needed on the high street – especially if leaving the EU has the anticipated effect on staffing levels in the UK.

Tomlinson is very confident that the new premises will allow the BAME women to unleash their entrepreneurial spirit by providing a more structured framework for their enterprise. Peckham Palms was launching fully at the end of November to consist of around 14 units which are 100% black owned and 90% female led. There will be one barber salon and also a floristry shop along with units selling hair and body products. At the rear end of the development there will be pop up food kiosks and a bar which will stay open to 10.30pm selling both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.

In a nod to the need to provide retailtainment one unit will remain empty to be used for pop-ups. Tomlinson explains that some hairdressers will have a celebrity following and cites one stylist who recently worked with the Williams’ sisters as being interested in doing a month long pop up at the Palms. She hopes being able to continually alter the mix will encourage new people to consistently come through the doors.

Fresh start: The new interiors at Peckham Palms

The chair rental levels will be in line with market rates in the area but the directors have secured a 20-year lease with Southwark Council meaning that the scourge of exorbitant rates from private landlords should be avoided. For that rental amount payees will also receive benefits including cleaning, rubbish removal, site maintenance, CCTV, security and fortnightly free business clinics. These clinics and workshops will also focus on health and well-being.

The High Street in Peckham, according to Tomlinson, was not inviting being full of rubbish and dirty – clients mainly came because they followed the stylist but the area was overcrowded and not accommodating to a good service experience. This same problem occurs in many other high streets and ideally she would like to see a Palms type project in every London borough where, in her words, disenfranchised people with little access to loans or mentoring can be given the opportunity to bring their businesses into the mainstream retail market.

Many people in Peckham, will be hoping that this redevelopment of the station into a public square alongside the opening of Peckham Palms will show everyone that there is a fairer and better way of designing our retail spaces.