Ever dreamed of opening your own boutique? In this new 12-part series, we present a step-by-step guide to setting up an independent shop, starting with the initial idea.
Setting up or rebranding a fashion independent comes with many challenges. With every great business proposition, a strong concept which offers a point of difference is crucial from the outset. Without it, consumers just won’t have a reason to shop with you.
It is important to decide which market to go after, rather than being something to everyone. “It’s vital to get the concept right from the start,” says Melanie Rollinson, co-owner of womenswear indie Woodie & Morris in Haslemere, Surrey. “If you change your concept after you’ve opened, you risk confusing your customers. We decided on a casual fashion/lifestyle concept and we’ve stuck to it. We are known for a range of carefully chosen products that complement each other at affordable prices, delivered by a relaxed, knowledgeable team chosen for their personality rather than experience.”
Before opening the store five years ago, Rollinson and husband Clive both worked as distributors for footwear brand Holster Australia for about three years. They then tested the water by opening a pop-up in the area for six months before setting up permanently. These experiences not only taught them how the market works, but also what type of concept would work in the area. “To hit as many customers as possible we also included beauty, gifts, footwear and accessories that were a natural fit with this theme, backed up with the sort of customer service we wanted to receive in a distinctive environment. Finally, we named the business after our two dogs to provide additional personality and fun.”
Aged just 23, Paul Monks opened Purple Menswear in Harpenden in 2009, after spotting a need for premium menswear in the area. Profitable by year two, he opened a second floor in 2013.
“I live in Hertfordshire so I knew there was a gap in the market in Harpenden. There are lots of moneyed businessmen here but previously there were only womenswear stores.” Monks was shortlisted in the Best New Business category at last year’s Drapers Independents Awards, while this year he was named one of Drapers’ 30 Under 30 rising industry stars and received a second Drapers Awards nomination in the Premium Independent category.
Rinku Loomba, chief executive of mainstream womenswear brand Viz-a-Viz, advises any new business starting out to “study your market. Who is also retailing in the proposed town, what brands they sell and market segment they cover, and to find a niche that is available to capitalise on”.
Getting to grips with local demographics and who your customer will be is essential when building your concept. Anne Wright, owner of premium retailer Young Ideas in Derbyshire, says: “I look at what shops are there, what brands are there, the type of car dealerships, and sit in a coffee shop and monitor footfall and check parking. I also pick up a local paper.”
The same applies to retailers who aren’t launching afresh, but are reopening with a new concept or launching an extra store in a new location. In 2008, Wright bought Young Ideas, which was established in 1965 in Ashbourne. In March 2012 she added a second branch within the Bennetts department store in Derby, just under 14 miles away. Having got to know the local area and clientele in and around Ashbourne, she bought the freehold of a 17th-century coaching inn and relocated there last autumn, installing a 2,500 sq ft shop within its premises. Rather than simply being a fashion independent, her lifestyle vision for Young Ideas will see the building eventually house additional shops, a cafe and brasserie, and a gastro pub with 13 hotel rooms. “In truth, I never knew for certain it would work, but you have to go on your understanding of the market. We wanted a freehold property and decided to make it a destination store, but knew we had to make it relevant. What the consumer wants has changed - and we felt we could offer the lifestyle destination they wanted.”
‘You have to understand what your market is and who your customer is. You can’t be all things to everyone’
Anne Wright, owner of triple Drapers Independent Awards winner Young Ideas
The development brought Wright the trophy for Premium Fashion Independent of the Year at this year’s Drapers Independents Awards, adding to her haul of two awards for Womenswear Independent and Independent of the Year last year.
Speaking to other local retailers, or simply visiting them, to see what works and what doesn’t, and what your town or area is lacking, is also important before making any commitments. Monks has no competitors in Harpenden - his rival menswear stores are in nearby St Albans and Luton. “I made sure I looked at what they did and tried to tweak what we do so it was different enough that customers wanted to come and shop at Purple Menswear.”
Product is central to any fashion retail concept, and Rollinson says the right brand mix is “crucial”. Woodie & Morris stocks brands including A Postcard From Brighton and American Vintage. She adds: “We identified well-priced, interesting brands not available locally that met our criteria. We still stock a significant number of the brands today that we opened with five-and-a-half years ago.”
Loomba says this is where it gets challenging. “If you are proposing to open in a town populated with other stores, certain brands might not be available to you, so that has to be a consideration. At Viz-a-Viz, for example, we do promise we will not stock another retailer in the same town.” He also advises being selective and not ordering too deeply at first, before gauging your needs. Viz-a-Viz operates a shop-in-shop business model, whereby independents take a monthly product drop and then pay for it as it sells, but are then able to send back any stock that doesn’t sell, thus alleviating this issue. Viz-a-Viz now operates this model via 200 partner shops.
Purple Menswear stocks labels including Armani Jeans, Circle of Gentlemen and Sunspel, with part of the proposition built around its own tailoring, and that of Hugo Boss and Hackett. “From day one I wanted to grow my business with the four biggest brands at my level - Hugo Boss, Armani, Paul Smith and Ralph Lauren. We opened up with all but Paul Smith, which was stocked at another store. Then we took other complementary brands such as Gant and Nicole Farhi.”
At Young Ideas, womenswear bestsellers include Armani Collezioni and Jeans ranges, MaxMara and Diane von Furstenberg. It plans to extend into one of the other retail units to grow the clothing and lifestyle offer. “We have a broad range, from premium down to more affordable, but we have zoned them. You have to understand what your market is and who your customer is. You can’t be all things to everyone, otherwise you will confuse your offer.”
Of course, for any business launching today, its concept must go beyond bricks and mortar. Consumers now expect independents to have transactional websites, to offer click-and-collect and to have a social media presence. This did not factor as highly for Rollinson in 2009, when multichannel retail was less of a requirement, but she says: “These factors now underpin every decision we make. We have embraced all manner of digital media. It plays a very important part in marketing our brand and raising awareness, particularly online. We are planning an overhaul of our website later this season.”
A three-strong team oversees the online side at Young Ideas, each tasked with different areas such as managing the website to analysing data. Wright says this has been crucial to her proposition: “It wasn’t in place when I first took on the business but it is one of the first things I did. One piece of advice I would give to anyone starting a business concept is capture your customer data. That is such valuable information. It is far more powerful than advertising in the local newspaper. I also think people do need a transactional website, but that is quite expensive to maintain.”
Purple Menswear has invested in a website but it isn’t yet transactional, with Monks preferring to focus on the growing tailoring side. However, he always had a clear view of where he wanted to take things from the start: “When we launched we only opened downstairs. I knew the upstairs would become available eventually and I wanted it to be casualwear downstairs and then tailoring upstairs, with a more classic feel.”
The key thing is to make sure, once you have decided on your concept, that it is consistent across all your sales channels, your marketing, customer service and the brands you offer.