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Expert advice is right on the money

A training course works wonders for Michael Ashison's staff while he picks up tricks from the TV

It's always good to read about the little guy triumphing over corporate bigwigs. And it is even more enjoyable when the little guy happens to be yourself - as we found at Bullfrogs when we won Young Fashion Footwear Retailer of the Year at the 2007 Drapers Footwear Awards.

OK, enough crowing. Trying to be objective, what is so relevant about a four-shop independent winning this award? Well, as highlighted by the Evening Standard's Save Our Shops campaign in London, small family- and independently-run concerns are being put out of business by exorbitant rents and pressure from the high street giants.

Why should we care? For me, the UK has always been synonymous with fashion, from Biba in the Swinging Sixties to punks in the 1970s, right up to today's second-hand flea markets. This is our heritage and should be celebrated. So, although this award was won by Bullfrogs, that's almost irrelevant; the important fact is that it shows that independents can compete.

I recently became aware that our shop merchandising has been left to individual store supervisors - with varying degrees of success. It was apparent that some training was needed. We approached the British Shops and Stores Association, whose courses we have attended in the past, and arranged a course to be run on-site at our store in Greenwich, south London, which also houses our offices.

The course was attended by all our supervisors and assistant supervisors, and was run by Peter Fleming, a business and personal development consultant with many years of retail experience. Having worked with him before, I knew the course would be comprehensive and enlightening. I wasn't disappointed. It consisted of a theory programme that took place in the conference room of a nearby hotel, as well as a more practical hands-on session in our shop.

The course was a complete success. It covered everything from floor layouts to colour and brand blocking, and the use of hotspots and magnets - in fact techniques too numerous to list here. The impact on our shops has been immediate. Staff have been keen to implement everything they learnt, with impressive results. All the shops now have a more coherent look, while the general decluttering has resulted in more space in which my staff can experiment and demonstrate their flair. This has resulted in a far more exciting shopping environment and, most importantly, improved sales.

After years of banging on to staff about the importance of display and regular merchandising, the message seems finally to have hit home. It has taught us an important lesson - if you want a specific job done, get your money out and hire a specialist. It's cheaper in the long run.

Talking of experts, I recommend watching Mary Queen of Shops, the new BBC2 programme featuring trouble-shooter Mary Portas, who uses her extensive fashion background to help ailing businesses. I started watching the show cynically, thinking: "What can she teach me?" However, there have been times when I've found myself wincing as I realise we do exactly what we shouldn't - and that I wouldn't have realised it if I hadn't seen it on TV. Which just goes to show, you can always teach an old dog new tricks.

- Michael Ashison co-owns footwear business Bullfrogs in London.

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