Pundits say trading is tough, but Drapers’ menswear retailer of the year has seen worse and has come out smiling.
Trade is not always easy. Just ask Malcolm Bird, owner of Frank Bird Menswear, which has two stores in Barnsley and one in Wakefield. Since 1973 he has steered the business through possibly the bleakest of all retail periods, surviving the miners’ strike and pit closures of the 1980s that rendered the local male populace financially poor and sometimes desperate.
“In one six-month period, we had 16 ram-raids. I would just wait for the police to call on a Saturday night,” he says. “The frustrating thing was the damage would usually cost more than the stock taken.”
In one raid the thieves took £25,000 of stock. In another, the culprit left his false teeth at the scene and was apprehended later that day when a policeman asked a man what he was doing and received a muffled, toothless reply.
Through it all, Bird says the business never dropped a penny in turnover, despite having to weather some nasty insurance premiums. “We came through a tough period stronger than we were when we went into it,” he says. “We worked incredibly hard. We earned a reputation for paying our bills on time, so people came to us when they had deals to do and we got the best business.”
Now, with many stores bemoaning tough trading, sales are up 14% year on year. The secret is a simple one: the superlative level of customer service that Bird’s staff provide. Of the 20 employees across the three stores, there are many lifers, and even three intra-store marriages. The result is both a deep knowledge and a love of the business.
But that’s not the only ingredient – the retailer’s menswear offer is comprehensive, with three distinct components. Frank Bird Menswear is anchored to contemporary tailoring, ࠬa Hugo Boss, Giorgio Armani and Hardy Amies, along with the casualwear players such as Gant, Polo Ralph Lauren and Paul & Shark.
Then there’s Boardwalk, focusing on design-led styles such as CP Company, Stone Island and Belstaff for 21- to 40-year-olds. Finally Birds, established in 2003, meets the needs of customers aged 16 to 24. It includes G-Star, Levi’s, Gio-Goi, Fred Perry, and short-order players such as Junk Food.
Back in 1939, Malcolm’s father Frank embarked on a quest to “seek out the finest menswear collections in Europe”.
“The principles are still the same,” says Bird. In an industry that craves constant newness there is something to cherish in a business that has stuck to a 68-year quest.
The owner’s easy charm is replicated by the staff, and the stores also have cheeky touches. The snooker table, for instance, provides a downstairs centrepiece at the Wakefield store. “Everyone who comes here remembers it,” says Bird. “But the truth is it used to be at home. My wife kept moaning about it, so I put it in the shop.”
Frank Bird 26/30 The Arcade, Barnsley
Birds Eldon Street, Barnsley
Boardwalk Cross Square, Wakefield
1938: The year Frank Bird Menswear was founded
20: Number of employees across the three stores
4,500sq ft: Average trading space for the shops