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Attic clothes shop owners on why Union Street gamble is paying off

Owners of the long-established clothing store put their faith into the Granite Mile about a year ago - and that decision has since paid off.

Attic owner Richard McLaughlin at his Union Street shop.
Richard McLaughlin and his two brothers relocated their clothing shop from The Academy to Union Street. Image: Denny Andonova/DC Thomson.

Aberdeen clothes shop Attic boldly bucked a trend in November 2022 when owners ventured onto the Granite Mile.

Their leap of faith came as many city centre businesses were looking for a way out, and they took over a unit left empty when Dr Martens proved their boots were made for walking.

Now 16 months on, the McLaughlin brothers say their gamble in taking over 87-89 Union Street has paid off.

Richard, Craig and Adam opened their new store on the same day city leaders gathered for crisis talks on the decline of Aberdeen’s main thoroughfare.

It could have been a bad omen.

Former SNP council co-leader Alex Nicoll and Lib Dem Ian Yuill speaking on concerns for Aberdeen city centre. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.
Former SNP council co-leader Alex Nicoll and Lib Dem Ian Yuill speaking on concerns for Aberdeen city centre at the emergency summit in November 2022. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

And naturally, the McLaughlins’ decision to invest in the city centre at a time of turmoil might have seemed unconventional.

But the ambitious trio were determined to make it work.

Now looking forward to their two-year anniversary, Richard says they are very much surviving and thriving – with footfall still on the increase.

The independent retailer has been a city centre fixture since 2001. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

In the first of a week-long series on Union Street businesses, we caught up with Attic owners to see how they have been getting on.

Bosses revealed:

  • How the closure of big department stores in Aberdeen city centre has impacted trade for them
  • What their secret to success is
  • And how they plan to target a different group of customers to keep their business thriving

‘Moving to Union Street was a good decision’

Welcoming another pair of customers into the store, Richard says relocating to Union Street was the right call.

Attic had been trading in the Academy shopping centre on Belmont Street for more than two decades.

Co-owner Craig McLaughlin on the opening day at Attic in 2022. At the time, he said the move to the new unit, only a few doors down from the planned £50m market, is cause for optimism. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

But as shopping habits shifted, the McLaughlins reckoned it was time they seek a more central spot in the Granite City.

This gives them better exposure to new potential customers, Richard says.

Richard and Adam McLaughlin, co-owners of Attic store on Union Street, have a very hands-on approach and are regularly in store to help customers. Image: Denny Andonova/DC Thomson.

And he reckons that the steady flow of people walking into their store is perhaps thanks to their hands-on approach to shoppers.

“It’s been really good and we are still getting loads of positive feedback from customers,” the 49-year-old adds.

“As an independent business, we give a higher level of service – we would speak to the customers that come in, take an interest in them and show them our new products.

“I think that creates an environment that is comfortable, and people enjoy coming in as opposed to seeing it as a chore to go shopping.”

Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

What is their secret to success?

Richards adds that the key to success is to be able to adapt to an ever-changing situation and offer customers something different.

He believes this is their biggest asset when it comes to luring shoppers in and what sets them apart from chain retailers.

Actively using social media to showcase their products also plays a big role.

Richards adds: “We offer brands that you don’t get in other high street retailers or in the shopping centres.

“And whenever we get new stock in, we are quick to get it up on social media so people know there is something new coming in regularly.

“The styles change quite quickly, so we try to stay on top of that.”

Could the closure of department stores give independent retailers a chance to shine?

Richard admits that the landscape for businesses in the city centre has definitely changed in recent years, with the loss of department store like John Lewis.

The closure came after Debenhams decided to become online-only, and M&S is soon to follow suit amid bosses’ plans to shut their St Nicholas branch next year.

But Richard thinks this has helped independent retailers in a way.

The former John Lewis building, Norco House, would prove more difficult to rework into offices due to a lack of natural light, claimed Mr Tinto. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson
The former John Lewis building, Norco House, is still to be re-purpose nearly three years on. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

While the departure of John Lewis has affected footfall in the city centre as a whole, it has also given Attic owners a chance to expand their offering.

And some of the chain’s customers are now walking into their store.

“You get a little bit of that too,” Richard says.

“There has been a bit of a change when it comes to the closure of John Lewis.

“But for us, it has actually helped in terms of the brands that we sell – we are now selling products that we wouldn’t have sold before.”

Do you think the city centre has changed since the closure of John Lewis? Let us know in our comments section below.

Brand expansion amid student boost

Another thing the McLaughlins have noticed since moving onto Union Street is the increase in students walking through their doors.

And they plan to build on that, expanding their offering to attract some of the younger demographic in the city.

Attic owners hope to attract even more student customers in future. Image: AUSU.

It comes amid plans to turn several prominent buildings in the city centre into student flats –  including a huge patch of wasteland on John Street.

Braemar House, on the corner of the Granite Mile and Bon-Accord Street, has also been earmarked for more student accommodation.

Richard and his brothers are now looking at ways to capitalise on that, potentially working with Aberdeen University and Robert Gordon University to attract footfall.

Artist impression of the new student halls proposed for John Street. Image: Halliday Fraser Munro.

The co-owner adds: “We get a lot more student footfall now, which is great because we need those guys to be on board.

“So that would be the next batch of regular customers that we are targeting.

“And from there, we are just going to keep what we are doing now – focus on expanding our offering, always looking for new brands to keep things exciting and fresh.”