Niche isn’t just fun and interesting, but it’s important. Former small business minister John Banks described small business as “the lifeblood of our economy”, employing 30 percent of New Zealand workers and contributing to a third of the GDP. As many as 97 percent of our business employ less than 20 staff, and it is often within these small teams that the most original ideas emerge (in the US, for example, it has been shown that small businesses are responsible for 16 times as many patents per employee than their larger corporate counterparts). Plus, it is, of course, from these small businesses that larger business sometimes grow.
Case in point: Johnny Cupcakes.
It doesn’t get much more niche than the ‘world’s first t-shirt bakery’ but that’s how the Johnny Cupcakes story began, with wares stacked and displayed inside industrial refrigerators and on the baking racks of an old store, then sold packaged in signature pastry boxes.
“I even made it smell like frosting,” reveals founder Johnny Earle on his blog. “This is and always has been the model for all of my stores… Our bakery aesthetic is so convincing, that customers are usually convinced they are walking into a bakery expecting to get a cupcake.”
Founded n 2001, the clothing brand—famed for its pirate-cum-pastry inspired cupcake and crossbones insignia—now boasts a flagship store in Boston and sells other clothing types and accessories all over the world.
According to the 61-country survey of 30,000 souls by Nielsen, Think Smaller for Big Growth, niche is rising, the “powerful premise: the bigger the better” is “no longer holding true”, with a “retail environment more fragmented than ever”. Niche is muscling its way into the mainstream, with natural and gourmet stores, for example, growing nearly seven percent per year.
“In an age of increased saturation and crowded, competitive markets,” notes Richard Conway, founder and CEO of Pure SEO, for NZ Business, “we’re seeing the specific focus, or specialisation, of businesses getting narrower and narrower.”
Last year, Dunedin-based Craft Company launched its No-Meat Mince, a first-of-its-kind product in New Zealand created from ingredients such as mushrooms, tomatoes, coconut oil and soy.
Lifestyle change has played a significant role in the renaissance of niche. “A decade ago they were defined as ‘niche’, but today health and wellness brands have been catapulted into the mainstream,” observes Charlotte Rogers for Marketing Week, “thanks to the popularity of nutrient-rich diets and ‘clean eating’.”
Now, a proliferation of apps are also dedicated to digging out the best deals while promoting local niche businesses.
Tokyo (of course) has neighbourhoods that host specific services such as Tsukiji, home of the world’s largest wholesale fish market the size of 44 football fields; Jimbocho that brims with bookshops that stock many an unusual tome; and Nakano, famed for its array of manga, toy and cosplay stores.
In Italy, Florence is a particularly neat niche destination thanks to the likes of artisan jeweller and silversmith Silvia Nesti, revered for her unique offerings fashioned from everything from precious metals to resins and glazed paper to gemstones. Writing for Conde Nast Traveler, Amanda Brooks reveals that the Tuscan city offers “old-world, one-of-a-kind artisans creating things I haven’t seen anywhere else or online—a rarity in this new global world”.
Berlin has some real treats that utterly embody the niche concept, such as the textile butchery named Aufschnitt. Fittingly run by a vegetarian designer, called Silvia Ward, it creates the quirkiest of cushions and other soft furnishings that all mimic meat. A bacon-and-egg eye mask is one of many other humorous offerings all hung from racks and displayed in a proper butcher’s counter.
Meanwhile, Mohamad Ghouneim runs a specialist sticky-tape store called Klebeland, that stocks the type of rolls “that mere mortals would never dare dream of”. “People who try to sell you everything are struggling more and more,” the Berliner tells the Guardian. “Specialists are the future.”