Family-owned department stores in the UK’s regions are disappearing fast as they are swallowed up by larger private groups such as Fenwick or they cash in on freeholds by selling to developers.
So is managing a five-store independent department store a good place to be? Anne Horton, managing director of Hoopers, which has stores in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, Torquay in Devon, Harrogate in North Yorkshire, Wilmslow in Cheshire and Carlisle in Cumbria, says it is.
“The majority of my 32 working years have been spent in the department store sector both on the buying and operational side of the business. It is true there are fewer independent department stores now, but the good ones tend to be more professional than ever. They are rooted in the communities they operate in. The canny businesses exploit that and it gives them a competitive advantage over the big boys such as House of Fraser and John Lewis,” she says.
Although Hoopers is independently owned, with the majority stakeholders being the Thompson family, who started the business in 1982 when they opened Hoopers in Torquay where its head office is still situated. Unusually, Hoopers is not regionally focused like other smaller groups. Its stores are spread right across the UK, a result of the business’s targeted acquisitions. Horton says the Thompsons were big horse racing fans, and on a visit to the races down in Devon saw that the Torquay business was up for sale and decided it would be a great place for a store.
It might have been an eccentric entry into retail, but Hoopers has been hard headed in its approach ever since, cherry picking stores with an AB1 demographic and a freehold – only its Harrogate store is on a leasehold. Bulloughs of Carlisle was the last store to be acquired by the group, in 2006.
Horton says that owning the freeholds on its stores puts Hoopers in a better position when times are tough. “It allows us to make long-term decisions and take calculated risks, which is a luxury for a business nowadays.”
In the long term the strategy is to build Hoopers to between eight to 10 stores. The argument is that the business will achieve greater economies of scale which will lead to improved profits. Total sales were £50 million for the year ending January 2007, from 198,000sq ft of trading space. Horton says she expects this year’s sales to be similar. She ruefully admits she would have liked to have had a chance to look over the Williams & Griffin store in Colchester, Essex, which was snapped up by Fenwick in March this year.
Horton says: “I am not sure we would have gone for it given that we are still bedding in Bulloughs, but it was a rare opportunity to buy a great business.”
She adds: “Even so, making another acquisition is not top of the priority list at the moment. We are not targeting any particular locations but if something came up we would not ignore it if it ticked the right boxes. The Bulloughs acquisition came about because of a conversation my predecessor had with the business; they were not ready to sell then but 10 years later they came back to me.”
Right now, Horton says, Hoopers is focused on sweating its assets in a toughening retail climate. She says she is particularly keen to work on achieving better sell-throughs.
Open-to-buy and forward commitment was concentrating her mind on the day she met Drapers. With an offer that is 70% own bought versus 30% concessions, her role overseeing her buyers’ decisions is all about risk management and she says that tougher trading times need better trading disciplines.
“I think we need to look hard at duplications on clothing categories between brands,” she says. “It may make sense to buy a white wide-leg trouser in MaxMara but do we really need to buy a white wide-leg trouser in every womenswear collection? The next couple of years are going to be all about focusing on the nitty-gritty of buying and improving our operational standards across the board.”
The business’s twice-a-year Sale accounts for just under 20% of turnover and Horton says there is an ongoing debate among store managers about how to handle discounting throughout the year. At the moment she is loathe to follow the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams down the promotional storewide “spectaculars” route. She thinks her customers appreciate the twice a year Sale because it is “genuine”.
The fashion and footwear business at Hoopers dominates the offer, representing 70% of the product mix. Of total fashion sales womenswear accounts for 55%, with the rest made up of 25% accessories, 20% menswear. The large own-bought element means Hoopers has some serious clout. For example, Horton says the company is Mulberry’s second biggest UK wholesale stockist after John Lewis.
The fashion mix largely consists of upper middle market to premium brands. For example, the womenswear department in Tunbridge Wells is driven by premium players such as MaxMara, Armani Collezioni, Nicole Farhi, Moschino Cheap & Chic and Basler, plus mainstream labels including Fenn Wright Manson and Betty Barclay.
In Tunbridge Wells the business made the decision not to have large-scale branded shopfits so that it can move the brands around and be flexible with its space. Horton believes it also gives the store more of a boutique feel.
Hoopers’ accessories business is growing fast. It accounts for 25% of sales across all stores and the group is exploiting the success by bringing in new brands such as Paul Smith and Montblanc.
Menswear has separate shops in Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate and Wilmslow. Splitting the footfall seems to work well, as the separate stores enable Hoopers to create a specialist menswear environment. At the Tunbridge Wells store, for example, the ground floor has a younger fashion mix and the basement is dedicated to formalwear. Horton says: “We have consolidated the menswear offer over the past couple of years, reducing it to fewer brands at more premium price points.”
The business has a young women’s fashion department called Attitude, which stocks labels such as Save the Queen!, Miss Sixty and Pepe Jeans London. This is not an easy part of the market to be in, but Horton feels it helps make Hoopers a destination store for mothers and daughters .
She says: “We’ve tried running this department in two ways. Three years ago the mix was 60% short order to 40% forward order, but it is now almost entirely forward order. We were having trouble finding the right quality at short order to differentiate ourselves .
“It is the forward commitment on these departments that keeps me awake at nights. Forward-order product does better in some stores than others. It’s a balancing act getting the mix of brands right. You have to keep them edgy enough to be a draw but they need to be commercial. It’s not easy to get right.”
A third of Hoopers’ sales come from its store card, which it operates itself. Horton says: “More than half of those customers pay their balance off every month. It’s a very useful tool for me because it enables me to talk directly to customers. If I want to send a mailer out with a statement, I can.”
Not everything is so convenient. The business’s wide geographical spread presents some real operational difficulties. “Getting all buyers or managers in the same room at the same time is a challenge,” says Horton, “but we benefit from a pretty autonomous and entrepreneurial set up as a result. Our general managers have equal status with senior buyers. They report directly into me and are set a skeleton budget but they are very much their own boss in how the store is run.”
Horton believes that autonomy gives each store its own personality. “Elements of what each store does are totally down to the manager. In the restaurants, for instance, little touches such as the type of wine on offer or local cheeses will be about their enthusiasms. It’s one of the things I love about Hoopers.”
Keeping that local point of difference is why Hoopers has also opted to run all its cafes and restaurants in-house. Horton admits this is hard work and says she is lucky to have an experienced restaurant controller overseeing it. But she adds: “Despite the headache of dealing with the additional health and safety issues it means we can make our restaurants special. It’s another USP. We will invite local celebrity chefs and we can champion local products. It makes people think of us as ‘their store’ and they seem to love it.”
This focus on ‘ownership’ of the business by both customers and staff is key. Hoopers has a staff turnover rate of about 27%, and Horton says: “Keeping the good workers is a constant problem. People get poached and we lose them to higher payers in bigger towns and cities, but recently we have scored a few small victories with people coming back to us after tasting life at a bigger group.”
Those returning staff appreciate the stores’ opening hours, according to Horton. “We review our opening policy each year, but at the moment we open eight Sundays before Christmas but stay closed on Sundays the rest of the year. We also don’t have any late-night openings. It is something that staff who work elsewhere in retail really appreciate about the business when they come here.
“Department managers also have a lot of autonomy, something that many who have returned to us say they did not get in bigger businesses. I did a survey with staff recently about what sort of things can help retain staff. A lot of it is about the little touches that staff really appreciate.”
In career terms retail has paid off for Horton. But she says her father was horrified when she announced at the age of 18 that instead of going to college she was going to turn her holiday job at Harrods into a full-time career. She says: “I swear he still believes that I work on the pick ’n’ mix counter at Woolworths. He wanted me to go to university and work in a bank, but as soon as I stepped into Harrods I knew retail was the career for me.”
She says that having buyers and managers reporting directly to her gives her the variety she thrives on. “One day I am effectively a buying controller, the next a retail operations controller and the following day a concessions manager or a marketing manager. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am not the sort of person who wants to be doing the same thing every day.”
2004 Managing director, Hoopers
1998 General manager of Hoopers’ Cheltenham store (role included being group menswear buyer), rising to group buying controller
1996 Retail manager, Aquascutum
1992 Deputy manager, Dickens & Jones in London
1989 Womenswear buyer, Simpsons of Piccadilly
1976 Trainee sales executive, Harrods, working up to area sales executive on the fashion floor