Opinion: Gunns played their own part in the closure of their Bedford shop


It was a great shame to hear that another of Bedford’s historic businesses, Gunns Bakery, was closing its Bedford High Street branch last week. However, while the announcement itself was a surprise I am not actually surprised it’s happened.

And that’s not just because of business rates, limited town centre marketing (more on that later), online shopping, cost of living, etc.

Of course, they all play a part, but it’s time to also address the fact that some businesses are part of the problem. Some businesses need to shoulder part of the blame when things don’t go as well as they’d like and leave holes in our high street.

Gunns was established in Bedfordshire in 1928 and has a main bakery and shop in Sandy with another branch in Biggleswade.

They’re well known for their Bedfordshire Clanger but speaking to people locally, that’s about all they seem to be known for. I don’t know anyone who goes there for a daily fresh loaf or weekly cream cake treat.

In fact, I’ve walked past their shop front in its prime high street location many times and their window display was always lacking anything exciting and I’ve not once seen them promote themselves on or offline.

They have no website, and their social media presence is all about Sandy, even the top line of their listing on the Love Bedford website promotes their Sandy and Biggleswade stores and doesn’t mention Bedford at all until the address at the bottom of the page.

If Gunns’ Bedford branch was in trouble, where were the notices to say they were struggling, where were the enticing window displays, the posts on social media, the advertising in the local newspaper, and collaborations with local businesses?

Bedford is full of coffee shops, why weren’t they partnering with them to supply products? Where were the free samples to those walking by? Did they speak to Bedford BID for advice and support?

Gunns closing their Bedford branch and blaming it on “current trading conditions” when they appear to have done little to meet these challenges let alone overcome them, is a bit of a cop-out.

Don’t make the same mistake

It’s easy to blame external issues for the lack of business success, and they must absolutely not be taken lightly, but while customers need to live by the “use it or lose it” rule, business owners must adhere to the “adapt or die” mantra.

Financial media website, Investopia, says complacency is one of the top six reasons a business fails, another is lack of marketing and advertising.

When you then take into account that 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years, it’s crazy that many of the new business owners I’ve spoken to say they don’t have a marketing budget or plan.

It’s basic business management that 5% to 10% of what you make from sales should go toward marketing. Although Business magazine Forbes says new businesses should commit a fixed amount of about £1000 per month until income starts to take over.

The often misquoted and misunderstood line from the film Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come” is not a strategy upon which you can build a business.

You can’t just set something up and expect people to shop with you or use your services and let the cash roll in.

What the phrase really means is that if you put effort and belief in the success of a project into that project, it’s more likely to succeed, that’s likely, not definitely, you must put effort into ‘building’ your business too.

Gunns Bakery on the last day of trading. Image: Ann Collett-White
Gunns Bakery on the last day of trading in Bedford. Image: Ann Collett-White

Sure, you could do everything right and those external challenges could still be too much, but at least you can hold your own head up and say you did everything that was in your own control to succeed.

There are some absolute gems of businesses in Bedford that are unique, or at least so much better than their competitors that they will succeed with little to no effort in promoting themselves.

However, what if that changes? What happens when someone else comes along to cash in on your idea? What are you going to do to fend off a competitor?

You may have a few die-hard loyal customers but how are you going to make sure those on the fence, or those that don’t know about you, are going to continue to shop with you?

As soon as there is a new shiny business offering cheaper services, trendier drinks, better clothes, and tastier food, customers will gravitate towards them, unless you do something about it and remind them why you’re the business they should spend their money with.

Part of the reason why the likes of Gunns (and others) have failed is because they did nothing, if not little, to remind people why they should be Bedford’s bakers of choice.

If you do own a business, times are indeed tough, but the closure of Gunns should serve as a point of reference as to what you can do to help yourself.

Get on social media, collaborate with other businesses, buy advertising in local media and make sure you do all of these things because people need to see your business on average eight times before they make a conscious decision to spend their money with you.

Town centre marketing

Another factor in all this is how the town centre promotes itself as a whole. Bedford has a Business Improvement District who are responsible for a number of things, one of which is to promote Bedford Town Centre.

They are paid for by local businesses in their zone with the aim of attracting “new customers and investment to Bedford”, which they mostly do through their Love Bedford ‘brand’. You may have seen their logo around town from time to time.

Love Bedford (Bedford BID) logo
Love Bedford (Bedford BID) logo

Sounds like a great idea, but is it working?

Promoting Gunns’ stores outside of Bedford on their outdated website, for example, isn’t great, giving out vouchers to shoppers who are already in town seems a bit backward.

‘The passion and hard work of the BID team is not in question, but they are overstretched and their efforts seem to be directed in the wrong way.

When everything they do is funded by the local businesses they represent, and they don’t seem to be modernising their tactics or very publically tackling some very real issues, you can understand why we often get less than favourable comments about them from Bedford businesses.

This, again is something local businesses can control. If you’re not happy with how your money is being spent, say so. Stand up and be counted, make your frustrations known and get those who should be working for you to work harder.

High streets all over the world do indeed have many challenges, and some of these are not going to be solved easily no matter what the ‘experts’ commenting on social media may think.

However, everything from marketing yourself to making organisations that represent you work harder is in your control and while the closure of Gunns is still in your mind, it’s a perfect time to see what more you can do.

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