One of the North’s best-loved shops is coming to a revamped part of Sheffield city centre

One of the North's best-loved shops is coming to Sheffield – giving a boost to the city centre's post-pandemic fortunes and its creative industries.

By Richard Blackledge
Friday, 5th June 2020, 2:21 pm

Fred Aldous Ltd is a popular art and craft supplies business, selling tens of thousands of products from paint and yarn to paper, film cameras, clay and jewellery-making tools, plus a well-curated range of appealing homewares and gifts.

Established in the 1880s in Manchester, where it has a large flagship store in the fashionable Northern Quarter, the family-run company expanded successfully to Leeds in 2015.

Now the firm has bought a unit in Sheffield on Fitzalan Square, which is being extensively revamped as part of the council's £5 million Knowledge Gateway scheme.

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Inside Fred Aldous Ltd in Manchester. Picture: Fred Aldous Ltd.

Hallam University's Institute of Arts stands yards away from the new premises, providing a ready-made customer base. Fred Aldous already has a presence in Sheffield through a pop-up project with students, and hopes to stage a wider launch in Fitzalan Square later this year.

"We know from word of mouth that there's a need in Sheffield," says director Mark Aldous, whose great-great-grandfather was Fred, the company's founder. "There's a lot of creatives, and the universities and everything else – that's why we took the opportunity when that unit came up."

The Leeds store intensified demand for a Sheffield outlet, he said, while the Aldous family are well aware of statistics showing Sheffield has the most artists' studios outside London.

Formerly a branch of Coral bookmakers, and before that bedding retailer The Sleep Shop, the Fitzalan Square unit was discovered by chance.

Fred Aldous' Sheffield site at 9 Fitzalan Square in the city centre. Picture: Brian Eyre.

"We went to look at another unit up on West Bar underneath some student accommodation that had been on my radar," says Mark. "Then we spotted Fitzalan Square when we were walking back to the train."

People in Sheffield can expect a similar offering to Leeds, he says.

"It's two floors, and each is a bit smaller than our ground floor in Manchester, but we've managed to pretty much get every product over there, we stock approximately 30,000. The unit in Sheffield is a little bit bigger than Leeds and it's over three floors – basement, ground floor and first floor. We'd aim to just open the ground floor first because on the first floor there could be issues with the roof. There's a couple of leaks – likewise with the basement. But, based on the square footage, I think we can squeeze quite a lot of stands and stock in."

The timing might not have been perfect – both existing Fred Aldous shops have been shut during lockdown – but the family is fully committed to Sheffield despite the Covid-19 crisis.

Outside Fred Aldous Ltd in Leeds. Picture: Fred Aldous Ltd.

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"We've bought the unit, we're in it. There was never a point where we thought we were running off. We're in it for the long run," Mark says. “I'd like to get something happening by the end of the year.”

As the entire retail sector is discovering, social distancing will make in-store logistics 'slightly harder', says Mark. In recent weeks Fred Aldous has been offering a click and collect service.

"It might be that as restrictions are starting to ease it'd make it easier for us to do a series of pop-ups. We need to see what happens from June 15 with Manchester and Leeds, to see how it works with the flow of customers – and whether the customers are coming back. I think they will. We're fortunate in a way with the products we sell, people need them. It's either their livelihood, in terms of practising or semi-professional, or people who would go mad without that creativity. If we were selling clothes we'd feel it a lot harder."

An array of notebooks for sale at Fred Aldous Ltd in Manchester. Picture: Fred Aldous Ltd.

The shop will create new jobs in Sheffield, but Mark is keen to manage expectations as roles in Manchester and Leeds are so sought-after.

"We would essentially be hiring a full new team, about seven or eight people, obviously a lot of them are part-time. We've already got a lot of CVs for the part-time positions. To be honest if we advertise anything, even if it's just a temporary position, we get hundreds of CVs. The manager position is probably the trickiest one, finding the right fit.

"We've got one member of staff from Leeds who now lives in Sheffield. She's waiting for us to open up so she doesn't have to commute. It's quite nice if there's a bit of transition between staff, it bridges the way we do stuff and the company culture."

Fred set up the firm in 1886, originally to import cane for the baskets used at Manchester's cotton mills. Eventually the shop diversified into handicrafts as the cotton trade declined. Today Mark is in charge alongside his cousin Paul.

"Paul’s mum and dad, and my dad, still work here – they're semi-retired, really, and we've kind of taken it over," he says. "There's a pressure to keep it going."

More shops elsewhere are not ruled out, but the team will probably give Fred Aldous' online service 'a bit of a shot in the arm', says Mark, given the way retail has evolved within a few short months.

Inside Fred Aldous Ltd in Manchester - the shops have antique analogue photo booths that customers can use. Picture: Fred Aldous Ltd.

In the meantime there is a unit in Fitzalan Square to work on – containing an intriguing legacy from the previous occupiers.

"There's still a safe in there," Mark says amusedly, quickly adding: "I don't think it's got any money in it."

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Outside Fred Aldous Ltd in Manchester. Picture: Fred Aldous Ltd.