Shop Local: Why Watney Market almost has the big stores and online shopping licked
- Credit: Mike Brooke
The stallholders and shop owners of Watney Market know how to match the big stores and even competition from online shopping.
They can beat it—if this traditional street market off the Commercial Road had a makeover and its everyday little problems could be sorted by the council.
Many goods are sourced directly from abroad, whether saris made in Faruq Uddin’s own factory in India or dried produce from countries of origin that Nahid Ahammed imports for his Asian customers.
But the traders think the market is being run down. It doesn’t need much, just some TLC from the council to turn fortunes round, like turning the stalls round to face the shops rather than have their backs to them.
That would be a start—and little things like fixing the rainwater leaks from the council flats above the shops.
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One shopper with a mission to do just that is Tower Hamlets councillor Rabina Khan. The market is the epicentre of her Shadwell constituency.
“I’m here to see what people would like Watney Market to be,” she tells a journalist from the local paper who’s on her trail.
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“We need a major action plan for Watney Market in a time of Covid.
“The stallholders have been telling me they’d like permanent fixtures for a start, like Chrisp Street Market in Poplar, instead of having to put away their stalls in storage every time.”
But the market is also looking scruffy, she tells you.
“It needs jet-washing,” pointing to the shabby paving with fading lines marking the pitches.
“Graffiti needs removing. The shop facades need cleaning and repainting. Electric points for the stalls need checking to make sure they can pass health and safety tests.”
It’s quite a list, yet the council need not spend much, she reckons.
The shoppers, on the other hand, can’t even spend a penny—there’s no public loo. That was closed some years ago which has probably put off some shoppers.
Rabina bumps into former deputy mayor Catherine Tuitt doing her shopping. The two have a natter.
Katharine, now a solicitor, tells her: “I get most of my shopping from local businesses since Covid, because this area is struggling socially and economically, not as wealthy as other parts of London, so it’s important to support East End traders, absolutely, imperative.”
Sulaiman Miah, 37, a father-of four from Stepney Green, has run his Hoque & Sons DIY store for a decade and chairs the traders’ business association. The store has been in Watney Market 40 years.
“We want the stalls to face towards us rather than have their backs to us,” he explains. “It hides our shop fronts.
“We asked the council five years ago to flip the stalls round so people can mooch along. They walk through the middle and don’t see the sop fronts.”
Yet despite all, the traders are bouyant and ready to take on the big outlets.
Sulaiman says with pride: “We provide a personal service for people who can’t order online. People tell us what they want so we can source it and get it to our store.
“You try and stock the regular lines but it takes up shop space. So we’re happy to order anything for people who don’t do online shopping because they can’t see the goods or touch them. We order them in before they purchase.”
Opposite the DIY store Nahid Ahammed, 57, also a dad-of-four, has run his large self-service food store for 30 years.
He imports produce like seeds, spices and dry goods directly from their countries of origin, mostly India and Far East. The supermarkets, he says, don’t do the quantity or variety he offers.
“I employ 30 people,” he points out. “It’s a lot, but it helps the local economy.”
Faruq Uddin, 48, another family man with three children, has been selling saris and jewellery at his Keya store for nearly three decades. The saris are made in his own clothing factory in India.
“Small shops are the bread and butter of the community,” Faruk says philosophically.
“We have our own manufacturing in India, so no-one can match our prices.”
Ahmina Headley, 61, is a single mum with two grown-up sons who help out from time to time at her Ocean Designs school uniforms business.
Her large store used to have the counter along the middle and shoppers wandered between the racks.
Now Ahmina has had to put in screens with a new counter at the front, like stores used to be back in the 1950s.
“It’s like the old fashioned stores,” she points out. “But with a modern screen and hand gel—sort of Argos, but on a small scale.”
The shop has had a leaking ceiling from the flats above for years and she often has to shift her stock around to avoid it being ruined. You can see the water stains.
Ahmina is one of the army of small businesses that are “the backbone of this country” because she says economy is “not just about the big ‘corporates’ and supermarkets”.
The only thing concerning some of the tradesfolk during Coronavirus is having a Covid walk-in test centre set up in the council’s Idea Store public library at the top of the market which might affect business in the run-up to Christmas.
What Watney Market really needs, they say, is a seasonal lick of paint, some jet cleaning, permanent stalls turned round to face the shops and, of course, public loos to spend a penny. That would do nicely.