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Retail debate: Independents’ night

Retailers discussed their most pressing issues at a networking dinner.

London Fashion Week, strong brands with high mark-ups and business rates were among the hot topics at a dinner and networking event with some of the UK’s top womenswear independents.

London retailers such as Feathers, Anna and Pamela Shiffer met with Edinburgh boutique Jane Davidson, Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire business Doyles, and Dorset indie Roberta, as well as a host of other indies from Surrey, Sussex and Kent.

The dinner, which was hosted by premium retailer and brand Charli London, took place at the Four Seasons Hotel on Park Lane. It had been organised to coincide with LFW but virtually none of the attendees had been to the catwalk shows or the static exhibition.

One store owner complained that LFW was “showboating” rather than exhibiting commercial items, and many more noted that the event fell too late in the calendar.

“Scoop has rather overtaken LFW because its timing is bang-on,” Janine O’Keefe, owner of Okeefe in Esher, Surrey, said. “I’ve finished my buying now and don’t really have any budget left.”

Sangita Ebrahim, creative director of Charli London, agreed. “We all carry premium or luxury brands and we didn’t go - what does that tell you?”

However, Sarah Murray, owner of Jane Davidson, was more positive. “Of course there are parts of the exhibition that are geared for an international market and not UK indies, but the week as a whole with key shows such as Burberry Prorsum and Christopher Kane was a success.

But it was the challenges faced by independent retailers that dominated conversation, with taxes and overheads particularly hot topics.

Many complained that the increase in VAT from 17.5% to 20% in January 2011 had been entirely absorbed by retailers without suppliers taking on any of the burden, but at the same time mark-ups have fallen to bring retail prices down.

Anna Park, owner of eight-store business Anna, described the situation as “hideous”.

“The retail price has come down but I’m taking the hit so you [the supplier] can make more money - how does that work?” she asked. Park added that unless she received a mark-up of 2.7 or more she refused to buy into a collection.

Retailers agreed they sought lesser-known or foreign brands that could offer a higher mark-up to balance the books, with labels like Selected Femme praised for generous margins and strong sales.

But some brands came in for condemnation rather than praise. Nancy Hamilton, buyer for Gerrards in Reigate, Surrey, compared a recent experience with one premium brand to being bullied, after the team threatened to sell to a nearby competitor unless she increased her order.

“It would be like me saying to a customer: ‘Last season you bought a T-shirt and a pair of jeans so you can’t just buy a T-shirt this season, you have to buy some jeans and a jumper as well, otherwise you can’t have it at all’,” she said.

As well as problems presented by the fractious relationship with brands, businesses discussed rates, rent and parking fees - the three issues that are often blamed for the demise of the high street.

Peter Burstein, owner of Knightsbridge boutique Feathers, said: “Overheads are getting higher and higher but revenue is not.”

There was a focus among the retailers on Sales, and concern around the way discounting now dominates the high street. Roberta Williamson, owner of two Roberta stores in Bournemouth and one in Chichester, spoke of how one big high street name had asked a supplier to give a 40% discount on new-season stock so the retailer could run a Sale.

Although the supplier declined, Williamson and her fellow indies felt this was a sign of how badly the balance of power has shifted away from small retailers and suppliers in favour of multiples.

Ebrahim told Drapers her next move would be to create a panel of independents to work towards bringing change for the sector by approaching the Government and British Fashion Council. The panel will consider issues such as Sales, VAT and better support for British businesses.

“We need a voice,” Ebrahim said. “There are very few independents left of our calibre and we really do need our voice to be heard.”


● Suzanne and Peter Burstein, Feathers, London
● Shirley Doyle, Doyles, Market Harborough, Leicestershire and Woburn Sands, Buckinghamshire
● Sangita Ebrahim and Ital Ebrahim, Charli London
● Zoe Ellison and Alex Legendre, I Gigi, Hove, East Sussex
● Nancy and Paul Hamilton, Gerrards, Reigate, Surrey
● Liz Jefferson, Doodie Stark, Haywards Heath, West Sussex
● Sarah Murray, Jane Davidson, Edinburgh
● Janine O’Keefe, Okeefe, Esher, Surrey
● Anna Park, Anna, various locations,
● Helene Rapaport, Bernard Boutique, Esher, Surrey
● Pamela Shiffer, Pamela Shiffer, London
● Victoria Suffield, The Hambledon, Winchester
● Joan Taylor, Tutu, Nottingham
● Roberta and Keith Williamson, Roberta, Bournemouth


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