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First steps

Starting a new business is never easy and entering one of the toughest sectors doubles the challenge. Four UK footwear independents share their start-up experiences


The Bullring, Birmingham, and Bluewater, Kent

Opened: April 2006 and October 2006

Owner: Rachel Barrington

Brands: Bob & Blossom, Heelys, Plain Lazy, Stardust

"Trading is going very well across both of our main stores - we also have a stall inside Lakeside shopping centre in Essex. We only began trading a year ago so we're not yet in a position to compare like-for-like sales, but we did well over the Easter period because our main focus is kids' footwear.

"I was right on target with my budget for this season. I bought in so much stock over the Christmas period that it lasted well into February. We now have most of our summer product in, although we are planning on adding new Heelys lines in August, and boosting our clothing range in both stores with Bob & Blossom and Tracy Beaker T-shirts for the summer.

"I think Heelys' wheeled trainers will continue to be a big success story for another 12 to 18 months, so the brand will still be our main focus for autumn. Heelys make up almost 90% of the offer at our Bluewater store, whereas we do more skateboards, roller blades and jewellery at the Bullring shop, where Heelys accounts for about 60% of the offer. I know we have to evolve our product offering, so we are looking at introducing more clothing and sportswear.

"My advice to anyone starting their own footwear business would be to plan ahead. There is more to running a business than just the day-to-day workings - you need to look six months in advance so you can plan for any eventuality. Once you've got that sorted, just keeping the business going is the hardest challenge. You have to learn not to get spooked when you're having quiet months, and you must be flexible - if you need to bring in changes, you must have the means to do it."


Keswick, Windermere and Penrith, Cumbria

Owner: Andrew Marshall

Opened: April 2005

Brands include: El Naturalista, Picolinos, Relax, Rieker, Toni Pons, Wolky

"Trading is extremely good at the moment - we are up 25% on this time last year across our three branches. The warm Easter was great for us as we're based in a tourist area. Business is always fantastic when the weather is good - April trading was up by 50% on last year.

"We rely heavily on tourism, so I have kept the budget tight for autumn. We're a comfort footwear retailer and don't need as much stock for winter - we take 70% of our turnover between March and October.

"Style-wise, we've bought boots rather than dressy shoes for autumn 07 and I think the long riding boot will be big again next season. Boots do particularly well for us.

"Our website launches this month and we're supporting that by investing in local TV ads. TV is our preferred form of advertising because I think it has more impact than print.

"We hope to launch one or two new stores next year, still in the Cumbria area. It's a lot of work but we're well into the planning stages and have agents scouting for sites.

"We jumped straight into the business when we first started, opening three stores in the first two years, but we've taken a step back for the past year to work on the website and now want to concentrate on growing our portfolio. We have just six suppliers so we can keep a good eye on how things are running.

"I like to think that Strollers offers something different to other footwear stores. We offer 200 styles in a range of colours, and always have plenty of each size. Some of our brands are more alternative, such as El Naturalista, and this offer and depth of stock are key to a successful business."


Crouch End, north London

Opened: August 2004

Owner: Marilla Elliott-Morris

Brands: Angulus, Birkenstock, Camper, Converse, Diesel, Gola, Hush Puppies, Kickers, Mephisto, Petasil, Skechers, Start-rite, Step Two, Kickers

"As a family footwear retailer, business is extremely good at the moment and we're up at least 10% on last year. We've spent £100,000 more on buying this season compared with spring 06 and all our summer stock was on the shelves in time for the warm April.

"Geox is predicted to be one of our best-selling kids' brands again this season. It always flies out because it is advertised so heavily. It does really well for us, but it's sad that kids just want certain items because they are bombarded with images of them on TV.

"For adults, Wolky is selling well and Crocs are still doing amazingly - our last order sold out within a week.

"This year we're working on our website, which is under construction - we hope to launch it in time for the back- to-school period. But we're not planning to make it a transactional site, because it's vital that children come in and get fitted properly. Instead, we're creating a showcase for what we offer.

"For those starting up a footwear business, I suggest paying attention to your layout and fittings. I love the colour and look of my shop, but I don't have a retail background and feel there are elements that aren't working as well as they could. It's worth investing in a visual merchandiser to help with store layout, and maybe a brand merchandiser to look at the whole branding set-up. I'd also recommend a business mentor if you don't have experience of setting up a business.

"I think the service we offer to children really sets us apart from our competitors. We have an unchallenged selection, with sizes ranging from a tiny 16 to a boy's 42, and because we have children ourselves we understand how to work with them. We aim to make shoe shopping a survivable experience for parents and a pleasurable trip for kids, which I think we have done - children often just come in to play with the shoes, which is great.

"I have a very pragmatic approach to how I run the business and I believe in the personal touch - we are all individuals rather than a corporate body following a specific policy or protocol. It's my livelihood and I'm always here, so I really do care about what I'm doing."


Great Titchfield Street and Spitalfields, London

Owners: Lyndsey Hand and Sean Farrell

Opened: January 2006

Brands sold: Birkenstock, Chie Mihara, F Troupe, French Sole, Miss L Fire, Otto et Moi, Sniff

"We've only been open just over a year so our like-for-like sales figures only cover the past couple of months, but in that time, we're about 30% up. Our summer offer has already started selling well courtesy of the warmer weather during April, particularly the open sandals and toe thong styles. Luckily we had all the product ready and in store in time for the warm spell.

"We opened our second store in Spitalfields in east London in March, which is already trading very well. It is not particularly different to our first store on Great Titchfield Street, although we have improved the lighting to show the shoes better.

"Around the Spitalfields area the clientele is a bit more funky and slightly younger than the Great Titchfield Street location, but we researched this and felt we could offer the on-trend styles they are looking for.

"The next six months are likely to be quite exciting, because the transactional element of our website went live four weeks ago. We'll be putting money into marketing that well in time for autumn and Christmas.

"We believe there's real money to be made online, and early indications are that the website is going to do very well for us. We launched the catalogue element nine months ago and to make it work we have to constantly update prices and change the styles - we get new styles in every week.

"As part of our collection we have our own Sniff brand, which Lyndsey designs. This accounts for roughly 30% of our trading and is an important part of our business. It shows our individuality and demonstrates we're not settling for what is out there to buy in - it's about getting noticed.

"My advice to any footwear designer wanting to go down the own-brand route is to make sure you get a very good business partner. You need someone who can do the sums otherwise you risk losing a lot of money on your project.

"Our main aim for next year is to open a third store, ideally in mid-August. We're starting to scout for London locations now. Other than that, we just want to get a firm footing financially. We've spent our first 14 months paying out lots of money to different people and now we're hoping to start making some back."

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