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The Yorkshire shoe shop dynasty marching on after 150 years

Tuesday November 2, 2010 at 12:57pm
OVER the past three years, life has been hard for many long-established family businesses in Yorkshire and some have succumbed to pressures brought on by the recession.

Shops that have been the backbone of their communities have faltered, but in the tough South Yorkshire town of Mexborough a retail dynasty has consistently defied challenging economic conditions and continues to go from strength to strength.

It has survived not only the current recession but also miners' strikes, the subsequent closure of the coal mines which surrounded Mexborough and provided jobs for many of its residents, and the general decline in an area which has been historically reliant on heavy industry and factories.

Pettits has been trading in the town since 1860, and father and son team Peter and Paul Pettit said they were determined to mark the 150-year milestone despite the downturn.

The business began when Peter Pettit's great-grandfather William Squirrel-Pettit bought the shop in Mexborough High Street for 2,100 and began selling boots, shoes and saddlery.

Since then the firm has passed through four generations, Mr Pettit Snr now giving way to son Paul, who is in charge of day-to-day operations, and the 55 staff who are employed by the company.

Mr Pettit Snr said some people would be surprised at the success of an independent shoe shop in the former mining community of Mexborough, but said the firm had developed to the point where it had a turnover extending to seven figures.

In recent years the business has also expanded to include shops in Beverley, Bridlington and Retford along with the Mexborough headquarters. That branch, which also has a coffee shop, is the most popular.

Mr Pettit said: " Mexborough is by far the most popular. People just seem to like coming here and we get repeat business.

"We get generations of the same family coming - they bring their children and grandchildren to where they got their first pair of shoes and we have staff who have been here decades.

"But it's not like Grace Brothers - my son has come into the business now and he is bringing in new brands which I wouldn't have any idea about. I think that is part of what keeps us going.

"People come from all over the area, and we have customers who are like part of the furniture. One lady even comes in every morning and helps the staff in the coffee shop fold up serviettes."

According to Mr Pettit, developments in retail like Meadowhall, which is just three stops from the town's railway station have not really had an effect on how the business has fared.

But the prices he charges have been brought down by the constant pressure from big chain stores, who buy products in bulk from the Far East and sell them very cheap.

He said that while many customers were very loyal, they were also very keen when it came to what they wanted to pay, meaning that the firm has had to adapt to survive.

The business has also taken on new staff, including 26-year-old Ben Burrows, who has a degree in retail marketing and management from Leeds Metropolitan University.

Mr Burrows said he had worked in Leeds clothes shop Flannel after his studies and then went on to work for chain store Republic, both in Sheffield's Meadowhall and the White Rose Shopping Centre in Leeds.

He had applied for a job at Pettits straight from university but had been unsuccessful, but said he was delighted when the business later contacted him with an offer to manage the Mexborough shop.

He said: "I have been working here for four years now and I love the fact that I can have an influence, with the directors on site we can talk about how to move forward with the business.

"Some of my friends from university thought it was a strange choice to come and work in what they see as a family business, but it offers more opportunities if you work hard," he said.

While the shop has become something of an institution in Mexborough over the last century and a half, Mr Pettit Snr said it was difficult to predict whether the shop would still be trading in another 150 years time, and whether his granddaughters would take an interest in Pettits.

But he added: "There will always be a place for independent businesses, but as far as I am concerned they have got to give that service but also keep young people and new ideas coming through."
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