July is Independent Retailer Month so, to celebrate, we’ve sat down with Corinne of Hackney Essentials to talk shop—from what it was like starting a business in the depths of lockdown to getting a physical store and expanding.
Hackney Essentials began life as a temporary project launched on the first day of the pandemic lockdown. Founders Corinne and Emrah wanted to provide food for local people through the fantastic network of suppliers they had built through owning a restaurant. So they got to work hiring friends who suddenly found themselves out of work and, in the process, created a solid community when people needed it the most.
What started as a necessity during lockdown has evolved into something else entirely. Three years later, Hackney Essentials has its own home in a charming shop on Columbia Road. It once kept housebound locals supplied with their favourite groceries. Now, it’s a cosy bastion of artisan products, including unusual wines, homemade ceramics, and textiles.
Corinne had no idea what kind of impact Hackney Essentials would have on the local community but now sees its existence as so much more than a shop that sells things.
“I actually see running a small business as an act of resistance,” she says. “It’s quite difficult to run a small business at the moment. The climate’s very difficult. Prices have gone up. We all know what’s happening with the economy. It’s not an easy moment. And so, when things are difficult, I’m really, really pleased and proud of what we’re doing.”
So, just how are Hackney Essentials keeping independent retail alive in a tough climate?
Creating a “customer adventure”
Corinne and the team are constantly on the hunt for unique products that spark joy in shoppers. Something that gives consumers a little flutter in their belly; something they definitely wouldn’t find in the big supermarkets.
“I think a customer coming into Hackney Essentials knows they’re getting a different experience. We make sure we sell products that you wouldn’t find in a regular supermarket. We want the shop to be an adventure for customers, so they’ll come in and find something surprising.”
And it’s worked—each day, a band of regulars scours the shelves to pick up their favourite wine, cheese, or condiments. Even a bog-standard loaf of bread can provide a small moment of joy if it’s from a shopper’s favourite bakery or boasts a flavour they’ve never tried.
“We hope that customers feel there’s something to discover here,” says Corinne. “That there will be something unusual that they weren’t expecting.”
Take inspiration from Hackney Essentials: Go beyond providing a “good customer experience” and create an in-store adventure. Transport shoppers to another world, organise your shelves so they tell a story and build a hub of joyful discovery.
Forging relationships with local makers and shakers
Columbia Road is a hotbed of independent stores. From snug coffee shops and bougie pet accessories to art galleries and handmade children’s clothes, there’s a rich collection of goods for both locals and tourists to browse—and they all support each other.
“There’s a very tight-knit small business community who support each other a lot,” says Corinne. She’s talking about the flourishing small business community in East London, an area that combines gritty charm with a sense of well-heeled wonder.
“We really enjoy the process of researching producers. That might be online or it might be in person, visiting people’s studios, having ongoing dialogues with people,” she says. “We’ve been working with some of the same producers for the last three years, ever since we opened.”
Take inspiration from Hackney Essentials: Make pals with other independent stores, makers and producers in your area. Collaborate on projects, host events together and support each other throughout the year.
Evolving with the changing needs of consumers
Hackney Essentials was on hand to help when shoppers were forced to stay at home. During the various lockdowns, Corinne and the team were able to source delicious bread, coffee, fruit, and vegetables that locals were craving but couldn’t easily access.
As the world started to open up again, Hackney Essentials found a stable home in its Columbia Road store, offering a delightful experience for shoppers emerging from almost two years of lockdowns.
Now, the team has expanded its catalogue to include homeware items, ceramics, and textiles that complement its classy selection of groceries. Corinne and Emrah are constantly researching new products, new designs, and new ideas to keep Hackney Essentials on the cusp of creative modernism. It now operates both a physical store and an online store, jumping on the burgeoning trend of online retail to maximise sales.
Take inspiration from Hackney Essentials: Keep your finger on the pulse of current consumer trends. Research what your customers love best, what’s about to be hot and how you can meet the needs of your local community. Run surveys, ask questions and invite feedback from customers.
Working with brands with similar values
It’s much easier to feel passionate about something you believe in. The Hackney Essentials team continues to work with small producers and support local makers who are committed to the values and aesthetics of their products.
“We only stock products that we would consume or have in our home,” says Corinne. “Maybe that’s not the best business strategy, but it aligns with our values and that’s what Hackey Essentials has always been about.”
At first, there was no game plan fueling the growth of Hackney Essentials. It was a temporary project born out of passion and joy that has turned into something much bigger than a lockdown grocery service.
“We have to come in here and feel like the shop reflects our interests, our personality, our ethos, and our way of being in the world,” says Corinne. “It’s one of a number of creative projects we have and we put our soul and energy into it, and I think that comes across. I think customers feel that.”
Take inspiration from Hackney Essentials: Find your tribe. Partner with brands and makers that share your values and align with your ethics. It’s much easier to sell products you believe in—and your customers will notice.
Playing to their strengths
Before Hackney Essentials, Corinne’s partner Emrah had a gallery and later a restaurant in the area. He brought his love of wine and food to the party, as well as his creative life.
“I’m a visual artist and we both come from an arts background,” Corinne says. “Together, we realised that there’s a lot of pleasure to be taken in certain aspects of running this kind of business, working with great people, and working with very creative people.”
The team now comprises five individuals with differing talents, like a sommelier who seasonally updates the wine menu complete with a staff wine-tasting session. Or the former picture editor who meticulously designs the store’s window displays.
Take inspiration from Hackney Essentials: Work to your strengths, whether that’s training you’ve had in the past or a particular industry you have experience in.
Enjoying the moment, but thinking ahead
Corinne and Emrah are pleased with how Hackney Essentials has evolved from its humble beginnings. But they’re always looking ahead. Even when they’re relaxing on holiday, the duo keep a beady eye on the foods, drinks, and art they come across—they glean inspiration from anything and everything.
Emrah has even developed and launched his own range of kitchen textiles and bags in collaboration with East London designer Viktoria Zuziak.
“We intend to put more energy into our online business and we’ve started our homeware and accessories line,” says Corinne. “We’ll begin to sell wholesale soon. The shop has given us this space for our own creative projects, really as a result of seeing what’s missing or what we can contribute. So I think our energy will go there in the future.”
Take inspiration from Hackney Essentials: Look to the future consistently and constantly. But don’t forget to appreciate where you’re at. Consider upcoming trends and where you want your business to be in one, two, five, and ten years.
Independent shops are more than just shops
It’s hard to consider Hackney Essentials as “just a shop”, as is the case with many independent retailers these days. In a bid to battle the mammoth chains, small businesses are building beautiful communities around their shelves, and Hackney Essentials is no different.
“We’re lucky that we’re on a first-name basis with a lot of customers. It’s a small community around here. We have the local people who come in every day to buy their fresh bread or buy something from the fridge.” On the weekends, tourists that descend on Hackney’s Columbia Road Flower Market find themselves transported to a charming world of fresh produce and one-off buys when they step inside the characterful shop.
“There’s a really good creative energy in the shop, with the customers, with the producers we work with, and in the neighbourhood itself.”
Hackney Essentials’ top Faire picks
London-based Sophie Home is one of Corinne’s local faves. The brand creates beautiful home textiles in bold prints. Explore pillows, throws and nursery accessories knitted in 100% cotton.
Goldrick partners with makers from all over the world to create beautiful, ethical and natural home and lifestyle products. Explore woven bags, candles and organic beauty products here.