Creative flair and impeccable customer service are two of the traits that helped Kent-based family store Elizabeth Rose clinch Independent Womenswear Retailer of the Year at The Drapers Awards 2006
Customers tend to linger when they step into the flagship branch of independent womenswear retailer Elizabeth Rose. The 4,500 sq ft store in Tenterden, nestled in the heart of this chocolate-box pretty Kent market town, oozes comfort and warmth. Magazines, newspapers, tea and coffee are all part of the cosy home-from-home atmosphere, and it all comes without a hint of stuffiness.
The two-floor, 200-year old building is full of character, with a collection of large, beamed rooms organised neatly by product category. The implicit invitation for customers to linger is one of the key factors behind the success of Elizabeth Rose, which is headed by brother and sister team Michael Busby and Helen Pritchard.
While it’s hardly unusual for businesses of this type to boast about the importance of customer service - Pritchard says they offer a “style consultancy” - it is perhaps rarer when the claims live up to the hype. But Pritchard’s charisma is tailor-made for her front-of-house role. In the two hours that Drapers spends at the store, she greets every customer by name.
The loyalty of the store’s customers is highlighted by an event that took place after The Drapers Awards 2006, where the company won Independent Womenswear Retailer of the Year. A month after the Awards ceremony, which took place in November, 350 customers joined Busby and Pritchard at a champagne event to mark the achievement. “There was so much goodwill after the Awards,” says Pritchard. “We had a mass of flowers and cards.”
Pritchard’s forte is her public role, coupled with buying and merchandising, while Busby is the financial brains. He handles the buying budgets, executes the marketing ideas and advertising, and makes sure the EPoS system runs smoothly. “I come up with the quirky ideas - Michael’s the one who makes them happen,” says Pritchard.
Those close to the business praise its attention to customer service, together with the complementary skills and personalities of Busby and Pritchard, which combine to pack a formidable punch. Rebecca Furbank, a director at womenswear independent Anne Furbank in Buckden, Cambridgeshire, and a Drapers Awards judge, says: “Helen is very creative and has the emotive drive you need in this industry. Michael is the accountant and controls the purse strings. The team strikes a really sound balance. I think this is why it works, whereas a lot of businesses have one, but not the other.”
Marianne Bainbridge, the main agent for Lucia, one of Elizabeth Rose’s biggest brands, also enthuses about the constant drive to innovate. “They’ve taken the business forward in recent years, but have also kept very high standards. They were one of the first to bring in special promotions, and put a lot of thought and care into what they do.
“They are very au fait with their customers, many of whom have been shopping there for years. And they don’t just sit back - they are real innovators. They are hugely professional, and a lot of feeling goes into what they do.”
The partners are quick to admit they play to each other’s strengths. “Helen and I are totally different,” says Busby, who adds with a wink: “Helen wouldn’t know how to send an email.” Pritchard smiles, and nods. “Well I probably would, but I am a technophobe,” she admits. “My strength is being out there. People forget what it’s all about, which is people. Unless I’m out there on the floor, which I am about 75% of the time, I find it almost impossible to buy. Running a shop is like running a restaurant - you can always tell if it’s owner-led.”
Personalities aside, the financial base of the business impresses. Turnover has risen by an average of 5% year on year; this year the company is expecting sales of £2.4 million, up from £2.2m for the year to April 2006. The gross profit margin stands at an enviable 48%.
Elizabeth Rose’s history stretches back to 1979, when the duo’s mother, Rosemarie Busby, turned her clothes-making hobby into a business by opening a small shop on Tenterden High Street. “At the time, customers said it wouldn’t work,” Pritchard explains. “They used to say the clothes were lovely, but on the wrong side of town.”
But with the help of Irene Busby, Rosemarie’s mother, it did work, and within two years they acquired another store, also in Tenterden, selling lingerie. By 1985, both shops had been relocated and amalgamated into the current store, and in January 2004 a second Elizabeth Rose shop was opened in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, with a product mix similar to the Tenterden store.
Both partners describe their involvement in their family business as almost accidental. Pritchard took a job as a PA in an accountancy business after training as a secretary. She hated it and moved to the same role at a credit card company, where she was eventually promoted to the role of conference organiser.
From here, she side-stepped into PR, before giving it all up at the age of 25 to travel to Hong Kong and Australia. She says: “When I came back, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a vague interest in the shop and fell into working there when I returned from travelling. I began working in the office, helping with advertising, and organising the therapy rooms and fashion shows.”
Busby came to the business later, several years after completing a degree in business studies in Manchester. After his training he worked for the electronics department at equipment manufacturer Schlumberger, before being persuaded to join his sister to run Elizabeth Rose. He is matter-of-fact about the reasons for his initial involvement. “Helen needed a business partner. It wasn’t really on the agenda, and it was never mapped out from an early age,” he explains.
Mapped out or not, both partners evidently now live and breathe Elizabeth Rose. Busby puts in 10-hour days behind the scenes, while Pritchard, who has just had her third child, works from nine to five, four days a week. Both appear equally passionate about the business and where it is going.
On the product side, Bainbridge praises the company for its willingness to take risks with brands, citing labels such as God Save the Queen as an example of a quirkier range that the pair are willing to experiment with.
However, classic womenswear for the 40-plus age range is what Elizabeth Rose is essentially all about. The business’s website describes its customer base as “discerning ladies who are looking for good quality, have a modern and stylish approach to their appearance, and are keen to keep up with the fashion while wishing to express their own individuality”.
Both partners are involved in the buying process. Pritchard scouts for new labels and chooses which products to buy into, while Busby sets the store’s budgets and compiles performance data on how well the previous season’s collections have done. In all, 70 brands are stocked at the store, with core collections comprising Ann Balon, Basler, Lucia, Marc Cain, Betty Barclay, Gerry Weber and James Lakeland.
Accessories including handbags, hosiery, hats and jewellery form about 10% of sales, while shoes - from flat ballerina styles to pumps and espadrilles - make up a further 10%. Everything else is stylish, classic womenswear, with a focus on mother-of-the-bride outfits, special occasionwear and formal co-ordinates. There is also plenty of casualwear, which makes up a growing part of the business, according to Pritchard.
“We sell a lot of separates in the stores now. Just about everyone wants to have their own style of dressing, and you can usually achieve this much more easily with separates. I’m always looking for new brands and fashions - something a little different. I think customers trust our buying.”
Pritchard’s love of the people side of the business clearly extends to networking. Both partners place an emphasis on getting out and about: they go to shows and read around the subject. Pritchard is an avid reader of Vogue. They also make an effort every couple of years to go on “spying missions” to other leading independents, nearby or in London, to see how they measure up.
Ensuring that customer service is top of the agenda for staff is another priority. Busby says that the initial three-month induction training programme is fairly rigorous - new staff either tend to leave within a few weeks, he says, or stay for the duration. Two long-serving employees have just retired after 14 and 18 years’ service respectively.
Role playing, working through manuals and learning about fitting, colours and body shapes are all part of the training package for the store’s staff, who range in age from their twenties upwards, with an average age of about 40.
A comprehensive booklet that lists every product is changed every season - staff “have got to be sharp on product knowledge”, says Pritchard - and the whole team is expected to keep up to date with this.
Pritchard also stresses the importance of the company’s career structure, which starts at junior sales consultant level and moves up to deputy manager and merchandiser. She believes this incentivises staff and encourages longevity.
Both Elizabeth Rose stores run invite-only catwalk shows, which are held in four sessions over two days. Five models are employed for each event, and champagne and canapes are served to an average of 240 attendees. The shows, which generate a five-figure sum for each shop over the two days, are described by Pritchard as “almost legendary”, and she claims that they sell out well in advance. Of course, the events are also a great marketing tool, creating a buzz and social scene around an already wide customer base.
Marketing in general is another of Elizabeth Rose’s strong points. The business employs dedicated marketer Suzy Prior, and a £40,000-a-year marketing budget is split between a seasonal brochure and newsletter, promotional events such as the catwalk shows, and national and local consumer advertising.
The marketing side of the business was given an early boost when Rosemarie Busby bought a customer comment book in the 1980s, urging visitors to write down their details and comments as they came into the shop. More than 20 years later, the customer mailing list is 10,000-strong, with brochures mailed out each season.
The growing prominence of the internet is presenting fresh challenges, and the stores are in the process of putting together a database of an initial 1,000 email addresses, which will be used to deliver e-newsletters and other promotions.
A decade after its launch, the business’s website, www.elizabeth-rose.com, was given a facelift in January, and this year a transactional section will be added, with stock totally integrated into the overall system.
Busby says they intend to “start small” and concentrate on customers who can’t get to the shops easily. “We’ll be providing another shop face, and it will help keep the business moving forward,” he adds.
So what do the next few years hold for Elizabeth Rose? Both partners emphasise that opening new stores is not a priority. Instead, the focus is on improving what they do already. “We want to carry on looking after our customers, offering good service and promoting ourselves,” says Pritchard. “In the future we would also like to turn Elizabeth Rose into a brand.
“I feel passionate about the individuality of our independent shops, and there are fewer and fewer indies left. We want to get better at what we do. It’s about keeping our name out there, at the same time as keeping our traditional values.”
It is this sentiment, together with the drive to improve and innovate, that is likely to ensure Busby and Pritchard do exactly that.