The innovative solution that saved Sheffield’s empty shops from becoming an eyesore

Apprentices Sam Collins and Holly Evans at work in a Sheffield Showcase window
Apprentices Sam Collins and Holly Evans at work in a Sheffield Showcase window

It was an innovative solution to ease the blight caused to Sheffield city centre when its long-heralded retail development went on ice.

For seven years, while the city held its breath over the on-off plans to vamp its retail offering to the glamorous level of other Northern cities, one small project helped keep the inner heart beating.

Former Showcase apprentice Matt Webster is now manager of Rotherham's Makers' Emporium

Former Showcase apprentice Matt Webster is now manager of Rotherham's Makers' Emporium

Since 2009 the Sheffield Showcase has transformed the site of the long-stalled Sevenstone scheme from potential eyesore to vibrant shopfront gallery. It turned streets of boarded up shops into an enticing, ever changing display cabinet of the crafts, artists and retail start-ups the city still had to offer.

In the process, it also ran a charity shop which raised £13,500 for local good causes, boosted trade for more than 800 businesses, artists and designers – and has so far given 56 young people a stepping stone to flourishing retail careers.

Not so much a triple whammy, as a quadruple.

On July 1, the window displays which brightened the retail units under the former Grosvenor Hotel started to be dismantled.

Landscape artist Trevor Swanson's work has featured in many a Sheffield Showcase window display

Landscape artist Trevor Swanson's work has featured in many a Sheffield Showcase window display

The Showcase’s work on this site is done. Buildings will be demolished later this year to make way for phase one of the new £480million Sheffield Retail Quarter being created by the city council and development partner Queensberry Real Estate.

But funding has been secured from Sheffield City Council which will allow the project to run in other areas of the city centre in need of a similar short-term creative injection.

Ann Cadman, MD of The Source Skills Academy, who co-ordinated the council-funded project with the Council’s Creative Sheffield and Education Service, reflects on the success achieved so far.

“Many positives have come out of what could have been a negative situation for the city,” she says.

Artist Greg Harris with his Sheffield Showcase display

Artist Greg Harris with his Sheffield Showcase display

“We realised the windows of long-empty shop units could be used to promote people still very much in business but struggling to get footfall in a city where so much of the future had been left hanging. And we knew we could also use this as a fabulous learning tool for young people who will eventually become the talent that drives the success of the new Retail Quarter.”

David Webber, Head of Visual merchandising at The Source explains: “Every year, eight new apprenticeships were created for The Showcase. They curated over 1,000 windows and landed work placements at stores including John Lewis, Dorothy Perkins, BHS, TJ Hughes and Burtons. Over 90 per cent are now in full-time employment as a result and many are continuing NVQ retail studies.

“We got amazing results for traders, too. The 800 businesses featured reported a 65 per cent increase in profits and saw a 100 per cent increase in their website profiles.”

The scheme also won several awards. In 2010 it scooped two at the Sheffield City Council Celebration of Success and apprentices won Best Window Display at the World Retail Congress in Berlin.

David Webber, Head of Visual merchandising at The Source Skills Academy

David Webber, Head of Visual merchandising at The Source Skills Academy

Its First In Best Dressed charity shop on Cambridge Street, which ran from 2012 until this May, raised £13,500 for the Cathedral Archer Project, Brains Trust, Cruse Bereavement Care, Autism Plus, Whirlow Hall Farm and Sheffield Children’s Hospital.


Apprentices who found careers

Katie Hodgson and Matt Webster saw their futures reflected in a shop window.

They signed up to the Showcase as visual merchandising apprentices – and found retail careers.

Matt, aged 24, became the manager of the Makers’ Emporium on Rotherham’s award-winning High Street in 2014 and Katie, 20, now has a full-time job at John Lewis.

Ann Cadman, MD of The Source Skills Academy

Ann Cadman, MD of The Source Skills Academy

Each flourished after periods of uncertainty. Katie had quit A Levels and prematurely ended a course at Leeds College of Art. Matt had quit a graphic design course at Rotherham College after a year and at 17 could only find part-time work in catering and hospitality.

Signing up to Showcase apprenticeships gave them hands-on training and work placements.

Katie said: “I spent a year designing eye-catching displays using everything from fashions to silk bridal bouquets. My placement at John Lewis led to a part-time role and I now have a full-time visual merchandising job there. I wouldn’t have found this opportunity without the Showcase.”

During his Showcase year, Matt got the chance to work in Marks & Spencer’s London HQ and won two awards, including Yorkshire Training Partnership’s Learner of the Year 2013.

He landed a job at Sports Direct’s Mansfield HQ, then was asked to head up Rotherham’s Makers’ Emporium, a retail venture featuring local artists, crafters and makers, managed by The Source.

Now studying for a Level 4 retail management qualification, he says: “The Showcase developed my skills, gave me great opportunities and really good friends, most of whom are also doing well in retail careers.”

Cookshop business fuelled

Business hotted up for a city centre cookshop and its neighbouring stores, thanks to the Showcase.

Stunning window displays created by visual merchandising apprentices sent keen cooks in their droves to the Cookshop Clearance Company on Chapel Walk, formerly known as Livsstil.

“Our stock was used in dozens of Showcase windows for around four years and we lost count of the times new customers told us they had no idea we existed until they saw the displays in the city centre,” said Joy Short, manager.

“The Showcase drove people not only to find us, but to discover the whole of Chapel Walk.

“The apprentices were marvellous. They would collect our stock, let their imaginations go wild and create wonderful displays – particularly the Christmas ones. We often copied their ideas for our own shop window.”

Stroke of fortune for artists

A Hull couple who came to Sheffield shopping went home with more than they bargained for.

They fell in love with a painting in a Showcase window and happily parted with a four-figure sum for it.

It proved to be Sheffield artist Trevor Swanson’s best ever sale. The 69-year-old, who specialises in urban landscapes and coastal views, said: “The scene of Lady’s Bridge on the Wicker was of no significance to the purchasers – they just loved the image. They would never have seen it if it hadn’t been for the Showcase project.”

Self-taught Trevor, of Jordanthorpe, left a role at the Graves gallery to become an artist in 2013. He calls the Showcase displays his ‘mini exhibitions’ and says they have brought him numerous customers.

“It works brilliantly for local artists,” says Trevor, who has regularly made cash donations to the project’s charity shop, First In Best Dressed, to show his appreciation.

“Thousands of people walk past them; the footfall is far more than local galleries get.”

Fellow artist Greg Harris, whose digital illustrations of Sheffield’s iconic images now sell well in local galleries, places the credit squarely on his Showcase window displays.

“So many people who have bought my Gone But Not Forgotten prints said they had seen them while they were out shopping. Each new display also brought a big increase in hits on my website,” says the Beauchief 45-year-old.

“I can’t thank the talented apprentices enough for their excellent work.”