Drapers’ Footwear Independent of the Year Tower London is determined to build on its success by ramping up its expansion.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the High Road in Wood Green, north London, the new Tower London store certainly stands out.
The striking dark interior with flashes of neon highlights would not be out of place in Covent Garden or Shoreditch - a fact that reflects the high ambitions of this family-run independent.
Director Gerry Demopoulos says he wants the 1,500 sq ft store, located at number 119, to resemble the city the business is named after: “We wanted it to reflect London itself: the yellow and black of the streets at night. The design is grittier than most high street stores, more urban. It needed to be new and fresh. We wanted to create a brand and identity, we didn’t want to be just another store.”
Founded in 1980 by Gerry’s father Harry, Tower London’s first store opened in Palmers Green under the name Silver Shoes.
Following the closure of the Palmers Green branch, which is now a fried chicken shop, a store was opened at 6 The Broadway on Wood Green’s High Road in 1988. Another followed at 2 Palace Parade in Walthamstow in 2006.
Turnover has increased from £2.7m in 2012 to £3.9m last year, and this is expected to rise further to more than £5m for 2014.
The new Wood Green store, which opened in April and is Tower London’s third, was designed through a collaboration between design agency I-am and Dorset-based contractor Kiwi Designs - and the £350,000 investment seems to have been well spent.
The slick look features a digital light wall, a community wall with information on local events, and a ‘steal’ - or last chance to buy - section. On the right-hand side of the store, shoes are placed in a back-lit boxed wall to show them off.
Subtle branding at the top of the wall indicates the location of some of the core labels, including Tommy Hilfiger and Dr Martens, but Tower London was adamant it would use its own in-house signposting rather than branding from other companies in order to create a more “premium, curated” feel. Light grey tiled floors and large, full-length mirrors placed throughout the store stop it feeling too dark.
“The concept comes from our own understanding of who we are,” Gerry says. “We’re an independent and that’s becoming popular again in other sectors - independent coffee shops, for example, rather than big chains are on the rise.”
He says there is a big gap between large multiples and what today’s customer wants, which is a more personal experience: “The community wall where shoppers talk about local issues, for example, is great because the big institutions can’t really do that any more.”
The notion of community and interacting with customers has been paramount to the business’s strategy. Gerry’s brother Yiannis Demopoulos, also a company director, says there has been an “evolution” in the way retailers are expected to engage with shoppers, and this inspired the refit.
“We had to catch up with that trend,” he says. “You have to look at how young people are interacting, how they are browsing, what they are wearing and who else is wearing it. The pile-it-high approach to product is just not working any more - hence the need to jump forward with the new concept.”
Gerry adds: “It’s about more than price. Price is important, but it’s the lowest common denominator - anyone can change their price overnight. It’s the service people are interested in and that lifestyle demand from customers.”
Tower London aims to be the go-to destination for 15 to 25-year-olds from not only London, but across the globe through its website, which was launched in 2011. More than half (52%) of its trade now comes from online orders and 42% of those sales are from international customers. “It’s not just about the person walking down the high street,” Yiannis says. “We’ve got a strong European business, particularly in Germany. Pushing the fact that we are a London-based independent really works.”
It was the popularity of the London connection that made Tower London rebrand from its former moniker Tower Boots at the beginning of 2014. It has also tailored its brand mix to cash in on the interest in Britain, adding UK labels including Shellys, Barker, Barbour and Ted Baker. The total number of brands stocked has risen from 70 to 100 since the rebrand.
“There was a lot of trial and error. We’re open-minded as to what brands we carry, but we’re trying to be more focused now - it has to be more thematic,” Yiannis says.
According to Gerry, the retailer is happy to be a bit different compared with often “uninspiring” multiples: “Of course we also need to be commercial, but we are happy to pick up something slightly different. Maybe some of the brands won’t work in our north London store, but they could be perfect for the German market, for example. We’re learning which venue makes sense and which customer base suits each brand.”
The heritage of Tower London is paramount for this father-and-sons team. Both Gerry and Yiannis have been heavily involved from an early age, with Gerry claiming to have sold his first pair of shoes aged just four. The brothers founded their own recruitment company for financial services firms called Delta Executive Search - which they are still involved in - after finishing university in 2002. They returned to the family business in 2012.
“We wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this if we didn’t have the strong heritage of the business and the relationships with labels,” Yiannis says. “We’re here to refresh and take it forward, but we’ve always been a great account for suppliers - always on time with payments. That’s the foundation we’re building on and that’s the springboard for development.”
There are plans to expand to between eight or 10 shops in the capital over the next five years, with the next due to open on Brick Lane in east London by the end of 2015.
The plan is to recreate the success of iconic footwear independent Shellys, which set up shop in Carnaby Street in 1945 and filled the gap between large multiples and small independents.
“There’s nothing in between,” says Yiannis. “There isn’t a representation of what young London is that delivers what Shellys achieved in the 1970s. There is a gap and our race is to get there first. That’s what the revamp is about.”
It’s this kind of ambition that Tower London says sets it apart from its rivals and led to it scooping the award for Independent Footwear Retailer of the Year at the Drapers Footwear & Accessories Awards 2014 last month.
“It was a big achievement for us to have Drapers see our success. [The judges] saw us moving forward. It was a really big pat on the back,” says Harry.
Yiannis adds: “The process of entering was a fantastic exercise. It forced us to look at what we’ve done over the past year, and step back to take note of our achievements. It was great to win.”
And Tower London shows no sign of slowing down, with the search now on for “bright, enthusiastic” people to grow its current team of 46.
“We’re thinking of the future,” Gerry says. “The difference between us and our competition is a lot of small businesses see themselves as small, but no big successful business started out that way. We have a strategy.”
He adds: “It’s not about next week or next month, or about sell-through - it’s about achieving a goal four or five years down the line. There’s a lot of doom and gloom on the high street, but you can’t just think of where you are. You have to think of where you want to be.”