Retail revival: Vivien Smith and Fallon Cowley (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Vivien Smith and Fallon Cowley, retail entrepreneurs
We’ve all got used to retail being in retreat, with the loss of well-known names and once-busy shopping streets blighted by boarded up units. So the re-opening of a derelict unit in one of Scotland’s commuter hotspots has created a bit of excitement.
Vivien Smith and Fallon Cowley have refurbished the premises on a prominent corner site that was becoming an eyesore in the centre of Bridge of Weir. And the transformation has given the place a lift.
For the first time in at least a couple of years passers by are once again stopping to look in the window of one of the Renfrewshire village’s largest retail units, now re-born as luxury home interiors store Viano Interiors.
“We’ve had people tell us they’re so glad to see the unit open,” says Smith. “It was in a poor condition. It was damp and the roof had fallen in. We had to strip everything out, re-wire the place and build a new stock room.”
The two long-time friends and now business partners have invested family money into what is their third outlet believing they can beat the twin threat of the pandemic and the decline of physical retail space. It’s an exercise that may prove to be a barometer for the sector.
To add to the pressure, both have other business interests exposed to the Covid challenge. Smith has an outdoor catering company while Cowley’s family owns a small chain of restaurants.
Cowley, who trained as a civil engineer and also worked in the family-owned Manorview Hotels group, says the retail business will also to deal with the impact of the latest restrictions and she is clearly unimpressed with statements from the Scottish Government.
“They’re telling people not to go out and making them believe there will be another lockdown; that they’ll lose their jobs,” she says. “Our restaurants have just had their quietest ever week. They need to cut out the scaremongering.”
The retail business has had to cope with a number of disruptions since it launched in May 2019 with their first store in Muirend.
“We have not had a proper run at it,” says Cowley. “We went into the pandemic in March 2020 and committed to open a second store [in Bothwell] in October 2020 and then we were hit by the second lockdown.”
The Bridge of Weir store opened this month and an added problem is getting hold of stock, together with huge price increases as the cost of shipping containers and energy have rocketed.
“Customers, I think, do understand that we have to pass on some of those higher prices,” says Cowley who manages the business while her business partner looks after the content and styling, having developed an interest in interiors from regular childhood visits to the “beautiful home” of an aunt.
“I would wander around and take note of the furniture,” she says. She now displays the furniture as if positioned in the customer’s home.
The idea for the business came during a holiday in Barcelona. Within four weeks they had met suppliers, identified their first premises, got the keys, and were ready to go. Set up costs were met from their own resources. They created the name Viano from the names of two children they gave birth to at around the same time, Viviana and Luciano.
‘Even if customers buy furnishings online, they like to touch and feel the quality’
They also established an online business which has provided a steady flow of revenue when the shops have been closed.
“But even if customers buy furnishings online, people like to touch and feel the quality,” says Smith. “The shops also create a brand awareness as well as a way to build a reputation for customer service.”
Despite the challenges, they remain positive and believe they have an offering that appeals to a wealthier demographic who are likely to spend money on home furnishings that might otherwise be committed to holidays and eating out. The longer term aim is to have a large destination store that will enable them to stock more items.
“This needs to be fun,” says Cowley. “Yes, we put a lot of work in, but there is nothing better than it being enjoyable.”