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Strike it rich in the ideas swap shop

Hilary Cookson opens her store to scrutiny and looks forward to doing some studies of her own

It was like a royal visit in the store last week, when eight independent shop owners visited en route to a regional meeting. The edict was sent to my staff telling them I wanted the store to shine - and they set about their task willingly.

For the visitors, I knew that looking at the stock was not their main interest. Instead, it was "May I see the stock rooms? Can you show me your old stock?" and so on. But how good it was to look at the store through other people's eyes. I walked round with them, seeing the corners and counters as they saw them, willing them to be free of clutter.

In fact, the counters prompted lots of comment regarding how clear they were of notes, old pens and so on. Personally, I have a thing about subliminal messaging, and I feel that if we appear haphazard and untidy at the final point of sale then that is the message the customer goes away with. We have box files under each counter for notes and messages - and another for product information for staff to have as an on-site learning tool. This also holds details about collections due, dates and colour stories.

In return for opening my doors to them, I was invited to join the group for supper. I love to hear what everyone else is doing - it can be so easy to forget there is a world out there that is managing to trade quite happily and strongly. I picked up information about labels, margins and sell-through percentage, and we even debated how much we spend with certain suppliers. Although the sizes of our various enterprises were quite different, we were all affected by the same issues.

There is another fantastic networking opportunity on the horizon - the British Shops and Stores Association is planning a study tour to Dubai and Singapore at the start of November. You don't have to be a BSSA member to come on the trip, but you must have a desire to talk shop and swap stories with other retailers from the UK and Republic of Ireland.

The days are full of trips around stores and retail opportunities, which are fascinating to anyone who likes behind-the-scenes stuff, while the nights are filled with networking and alcohol. Just imagine being able to talk shop with people far enough away from you to allow an honest exchange of ideas while sipping a gin sling in Raffles.

I am not on commission, nor have I taken an unpaid role as a travel agent, but I would like to urge anyone who wants to combine a tax-efficient holiday (in the name of 'training, research and development') with learning about our trade, at a time of year when our shops are quiet and where the weather is good. Travel on your own, bring your partner or come as a group of friends - all are welcome. You will return tanned and more relaxed, having learned how to make 2008 a great year in your store.

I apologise for using my column to advertise, but I wouldn't be a retailer if I couldn't see a chance to get a free ad. Anyone looking to find out more should email Sue Howe at s.howe@bssa.co.uk.

- Hilary Cookson is the owner of womenswear store Maureen Cookson in Whalley, Lancashire.

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