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Retail's mysteries are a closed shop

Shutting one of his stores has devastated Mark Hale, but he is determined to come back stronger

I've finally had to make the very difficult decision to close one of my five shops, and I'm not ashamed to admit that this was a massive blow to my ego. After spending so much of my time, effort, and money over the years building the business up and seeing it grow and flourish, it has been devastating to see it all taken away by a rapid decline in both the young branded fashion market and the retail trade in general, particularly in Cardiff.

When the downturn really kicked in I became, for a period of time, very self-critical. I found myself continually questioning what, if anything, I could do better. But upon close scrutiny I realised there was very little, if anything, wrong with the way I was running the business.

Our window displays are always attractive and interesting thanks to some very creative managers, and it is a pleasure to browse the shop interiors. I am convinced that the stock is as good or better than most of the local competition, and my staff look good, are very helpful and do their utmost to keep the cash flowing into every one of our stores' tills.

There has always been a standing joke in the retail trade that the business would be perfect if only we didn't have to put up with customers. But we all know - and it doesn't take a genius to tell us - that without them we wouldn't be here at all.

And here lies the crux of my problem. People's shopping habits are changing, and whether it's the out-of-town shopping malls, the smaller satellite towns with easier or cheaper parking, or the switch to internet or mail-order shopping, retailers have to put up with more direct and indirect competition than ever before. The slice of the pie we were getting two or three years ago is becoming smaller each year.

I knew we had to react to this change, but I also realised that I could not do this on my own. So with the help of my accountant, landlords, a very helpful bank manager and, of course, my great suppliers, we have put together a business plan that will see the best performing and most profitable of our brands sitting together under one roof and across two floors. We will move some staff between our remaining four branches in order to make the most of their strengths. Hopefully, this strategy will see us come out at the end of next season with a stronger and, once again, profitable business.

With this plan finalised, we put up huge neon yellow closing-down Sale signs in the windows, reduced our prices and handed out flyers throughout the city on the weekends. And guess what? Yes, the crowds descended on the store, and with them came the comments you just don't want to hear. "Oh, you're not closing are you?" or "But this is the best shop in Cardiff!" and "I've been shopping here for years and always found something special here."

As I was saying earlier, customers ... you've got to love them.

Mark Hale is the owner of menswear retailer Chessmen in Cardiff.

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