I got the opportunity to chat to Kenny Hutchinson, manager of Head Belfast about the shock closure of his store in January of this year. Despite some tough times he makes it clear that Belfast’s favourite independent entertainment retailer is going from strength to strength and that music fans in Northern Ireland have a lot to look forward to.
► It certainly came as a surprise to many of your loyal customers that Head was closing down, how much of a shock was it for the staff as presumably they thought everything was going fine?
Kenny Hutchinson : Everything was going well as far as trading was concerned, we were a profitable store. Unfortunately our lease had come to an end & we were unable to negotiate a viable extension with Victoria Square due to the fact that a large high street retailer such as Superdry was interested in the unit. It was a shock to all our staff, myself included and it was disappointing to see something that we had built up disappear.
► Did the huge number of messages of support and subsequent Facebook campaign to save the store further your resolve to try and find other suitable premises in Belfast? Surely you and your team took solace and pleasure in knowing how valued a resource you are for music fans in Belfast and further afield?
The desire to re-open was never in question. We always wanted to find another location in Belfast and had been searching for a new home as soon as we knew we could not stay in Victoria Square after January 2012. The issue was not only finding suitable premises but also to protect the business we had fought so hard to build up in Belfast. This meant being able to negotiate a sensible, viable deal on a unit so that our business in Belfast could continue to be profitable. The Facebook campaign just highlighted to our team the difference we were making in Belfast. It was clear to me that my team were not only a genuinely great bunch of people but also contributed day in and day out to the success of the shop and what HEAD offered our customers was unique, but to receive the recognition from the public, not necessarily our customers either, in that way just proved that we had made a difference in the time we had been open. We all took great pride from knowing that our shop had made a difference to peoples lives, not many shops can say that.
► With months passing since the store in Victoria Square had been shut, did you ever begin to doubt whether you might actually locate a suitable property to re-open in?
The owner of the business was still looking for new premises after we closed in Victoria Square. Myself and my team all went our separate ways and I honestly thought that was that. The owner was kind enough to stay in touch with me for the months after we closed, keeping me informed of any possible developments in finding a unit. Offers were made to secure units but for one reason or another didn’t come to fruition. So I had always hoped that we would re-open but I had to be realistic and tell myself that it may never happen.
► One of the hardest things about a store closing is the fact that the hard working staff lose their jobs, have you been able to re-hire many of the original staff?
Yes, closing a store & watching good people lose their jobs is hard, its hard for everyone involved, partners, families, friends. Its difficult to do, especially in the circumstances that surrounded our closure with our store doing well financially. But thankfully, we found a unit on Ann Street and I was able to re-hire 8 of the original 11 staff and we are now building again on our already formidable reputation.
► Size-wise, how does the new unit in Ann Street compare with the old one? Will you be able to expand your product range or have you been forced to reduce it?
Our new home is about half the size of our previous store. Our range has not suffered, in fact we have had to be a bit cleverer with our stock ranges as we have a lot less space but I certainly think we have a better offer this time around. Certainly a wider range on vinyl but still all the same fantastic offers right across the product range that we are famous for, with new offers added all the time.
► One thing that local artists often ask us is, “how do I get my music into shops?” Do you have any advice for them? Are you open to artists coming in to the store and negotiating deals with you to carry their releases?
We pride ourselves in doing our bit for local musicians and film makers. We have a dedicated area in store specifically for this niche and again, I think it adds something unique to our offer and is at the core of what we are about – Idependently minded, Independently proud. If anyone wants to contact me about us selling their product please contact Kenny at email@example.com
► Will it be tougher to compete with HMV this time round now that they are starting to re-stock vinyl and trying to develop links with local acts, something that Head was renowned for in the past?
Do you think we can compete with HMV? I don’t, but what I do know is that we offer an alternative. I just keep focused on what myshop can offer my customers.
► I know it is very early days but one of my favourite things about Head was the range and quality of in-store gigs. Have you given any thought to getting any more bands in to play a short session?
Obviously, we are really stuck for space in our new unit regarding in store performances. We have however already had Duke Special play a set in store that went very well so I am not ruling out in store performances. I’m sure we can make it work.
► Every year our local festival scene seems to get better; would you ever consider opening a pop-up shop at one of our Northern Ireland’s own like Glasgowbury to see if there was a potential untapped market?
We have toyed with the idea of taking a vinyl stall to things like that but the logistics have proved tricky. Something for me to give serious consideration to.
► How successful was your opening and have you any surprises or special offers lined up for your loyal customers?
The opening was very successful, so much goodwill from our customers that makes it all worthwhile and that is what we are here for, to provide great service for our customers. I am under no illusions as to the fact that I manage a business and I pride myself on the fact that it is profitable. That I absolutely love my job, the people I work with & for and the customers who shop with us makes it a dream job for me. We always have great offers in store!
► Finally, I know that the talented Tom McShane used to work in the old store, but without naming him who would you say is your all-time favourite Northern Irish musician or band?
Well, excluding Tom, obviously. I have been intrigued with a guy called David Hammond over the last few months. Sadly he is no longer with us, he was a Belfast folk singer who played with the likes of Donal Lunny and was a friend to Seamus Heaney. Seemed like a unique character and is a real loss. But we have such a rich history of musicians/artists/film makers/playwrites/poets In Northern Ireland and the future doesn’t look too shabby either!
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