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In with the new

Six independents who have been open for less than three years review their business plans, ahead of what they hope will be a prosperous 2007

SUSU, OLD WELWYN, HERTFORDSHIRE

Susanne Stevens, joint owner

Opened: September 2004

Brands sold: Bandolera, CCDK, Dents, Foxes, Isabel de Pedro, Maggie Carol, Quin and Donnelly

- The thing that would make a difference this year would be if we could find one key look. There are a handful of trends, such as high-waisted trousers and cigarette pants, which I think will be popular. However, most trends seem to be aimed at a younger generation and this is challenging when your customers range from 30 to 60 years old.

We really need someone to come up with a look that can be adapted for all ages, which has not happened since the boho trend in spring 05. I am holding back about a quarter of my budget for in-season and short-order buying. The boho success has shown you just don't know what is going to be on trend a year in advance.

If I could open the store all over again I think I would concentrate a bit more on buying the exciting, unusual items. We were targeting women who would predominantly shop for clothes in department stores and played it safe. But we quickly realised women were coming to us for precisely those edgier items that they would never be able to find in a department store.

We've had an excellent autumn's trading and spring has started well. We don't sell coats and had very little heavy knitwear, focusing instead on lightweight tops, so the mild weather worked in our favour.

We will also invest in new marketing avenues. So far a lot has been down to word of mouth, but we will look at ads and promotions in the local media. The website is also another major challenge and we need to develop it.

EDEN, STRATHAVEN, LANARKSHIRE

Anne-Marie Chiswell, owner

Opened: April 2005

Brands sold: Betty Barclay, James Lakeland, John Charles, Michel Ambers, Orwell, Penny Black

- If I had the chance to open my business all over again, I would do more research into how much to spend and what to buy in for the first two seasons of trading. I wish there was a guide for beginners on how much to spend. I was a long way over budget for the first year because I felt I needed to fill the shop and bought a lot of stock from every brand. As a result I ended up with an awful lot left over that I had to mark down.

I've learnt my lesson and now have a set budget. I may go over it a bit sometimes, but now it's more like £1,000, rather than £10,000. I'm up on last year so it seems to be working.

Choosing the right clothes for the market is still a challenge. As my customers have increased, and I have got to know them better, it is easier to select the right merchandise, but there is still a large element of unpredictability. Some things fly off the rails and others don't sell at all.

Stock started shifting well from December. This will definitely affect how I buy for autumn 07 and I will spend far less on heavy knits and coats. Summer is getting longer and people are now travelling throughout the year, so they are looking for lighter clothes.

I would also like to add a few higher-end designer brands to the store, and will go to the New York catwalks to scout for labels.

This year will be about extending the store and increasing its profile. I am currently converting the flat above the shop into a bridalwear boutique. I will also spend more on marketing. We are a destination store, so we have to make sure that customers would rather come to us than go to Glasgow or Edinburgh to shop.

MICHELLE B, BARROWFORD, LANCASHIRE

Michelle Berkins, owner

Opened: April 2005

Brands sold: Christian Lacroix, D&G, Day Birger et mikkelsen, Jenny Packham, Kenzo, Paul Smith

- The biggest challenge is buying correctly for the seasons. Winter now covers a much shorter selling period and the summer season is getting longer. Sales have already been going well for spring 07. It is key to have the first drop of spring stock in store before Christmas, because so many people go abroad. For spring 07 I am making lots of in-season purchases and for autumn I will buy for a much shorter season.

The changing seasons and competition are having an impact on our Sale dates. This season we went on Sale before Christmas. If all your competitors are marking down product and you're the only one who is not, you will lose footfall.

For spring I will be buying more on the casualwear side, but I won't be pushed into buying the key looks. People up here are more nervous of trends so I will only buy what I know my customers want. I'm keen to find a more couture inspired line.

If I could open my business again I would be more cautious with forward buying from the very first season. I was not sure what my customers would want and it was extremely difficult to order a year in advance. I am now holding back about a fifth of my budget for short order and in-season purchases.

My advice for anyone buying for their first season is not to panic. If you have a £250,000 budget to fill your shop, then halve it and halve it again. Also, don't fill up the shop floor with everything right at the beginning.

The one thing that would make a difference would be if people were less afraid to come into the store. We spent £600,000 on the storefit and it was worth every penny, but on the downside lots of people think the clothes will be too expensive so they don't come in.

This year I will spend more on marketing. I will hold more fashion shows and travel out of the local area to widen the store's net.

JASMINE, GLASGOW

Rachel Black, owner

Opened: August 2005

Brands sold: B-Young, David Bitton, Inwear, Nougat, Part Two, Penny Black, St Tropez

- I will be spending more in general this year. I was quite cautious about keeping costs down in the first year, which paid off because sales were about 40% above target. So now I can invest more in areas such as marketing.

I will spend more on the website and also increase correspondence with the customers on my database. I have about 600 of them on file and will send them fortnightly newsletters with information and pictures of what's new in the store.

I increased my spring 07 budget by about 15% and I will do the same for autumn 07. Trading has generally been good for autumn and early spring, with dresses selling well.

The main challenge for me this year will be identifying new trends. There aren't that many emerging for spring and autumn, and although I think more will appear closer to the seasons, it doesn't look like there will be just one key look.

So for spring I have held back about 25% of my budget for in-season buying. It is very important that there is fresh stock every other week. We also change the store around once a fortnight to keep things moving.

I have bought quite cautiously for spring 07 and have gone with past experience of what has sold well. But I don't think the year is going to get any easier in terms of the downturn in consumer spending. I will also start visiting the European shows. At the moment I only go to UK events, but I'd like to broaden my horizons.

Another challenge is getting the size ratios right for my store. Sometimes it seems you buy too much of one size and wish you had bought more in others.

One thing I find helps is to try on some of the items yourself if you can, so you have a better idea about the fit. Improving size ratios is also down to getting to know regular customers well.

When I opened Jasmine in August 2005 I took over an existing clothes shop. If I had the chance to start again I would make more changes to the fixtures - some people still thought it was the old shop. I plan to change the frontage, but it will be a project for 2008.

THE FIND, CRANBROOK, KENT

Wendy Leat, owner

Opened: July 2005

Brands sold: Knitwear Queen, Oui Set, Pomodoro, Quin And Donnelly, Sandwich, Shirt Passion Italia

- For 2007 the main challenge is going to be keeping people interested when everywhere they go there are Sales. This means the store must have an immediate visual impact. We have great full-length windows and we take advantage of these. The mannequins are changed each day and we'll be working very hard on the entire window displays.

Irrespective of what the rest of the high street might be doing, I will stick to the usual times of going on Sale. The summer season is getting longer and people aren't buying autumn clothes until October, so there is no point in being scared into marking down product. We'll go on Sale as usual in the second week of July for summer.

I have bought a lot more lightly for spring 07. Last year I spent my entire budget on forward order stock, which meant I couldn't buy into the in-season trends. So I have held back 20% of my spring 07 budget and will be quite strict with what I order. I will do the same for autumn and see how the year compares to 2006.

I have increased my overall budget by about 14%. We had a really good autumn 06: dresses and skirts have flown out and although it has been quieter on coats and jackets, we still sold out of a few lines. Our customers like the fact that we only buy a limited number of each item.

If I had the chance to open the shop again, the only thing I would change would be the store's hanging fixtures. The layout works well, but ideally it needs more front-facing hangers and longer-length areas for dresses and trousers.

We have another shop in the pipeline in Sevenoaks. Having two stores would make a huge difference, and managing stock would be a lot easier because if it isn't selling in one store we could move it to the other. We're also working on improving our website to increase awareness of the store. But we won't make the site transactional because it's too hard to give the same level of customer service.

SCHMOOZ, ST ANDREWS

Vicky Gorn, joint owner

Opened: May 2005

Brands sold: Adidas, Carhartt, Diesel, G-Star, Ichi, Lyle & Scott, Replay, Skunkfunk, Superdry, Vila

- The first year for Shmooz was a big learning curve; the second saw the store find its own identity and stabilise into a profitable business. So our challenge for 2007 is to take Shmooz to the next level.

In the early spring we are launching a transactional website and a customer loyalty card. From this we hope to build a strong database of regular customers.

St Andrews is a relatively small town and its economy largely driven by a wealthy student population and tourists. With this in mind, we've chosen brands according to their versatility to fit in with all three of our target markets: students, visitors and locals. We've streamlined our brands, which means we can dedicate more of our budget to the most successful ones. We will also be allocating more of our budget to footwear - we've seen considerable growth in this department.

For autumn 07 our budget will be more or less the same as that for autumn 06, with the total spend split equally between menswear and womenswear. We have always dealt with short-order brands for our womenswear ranges, and this will continue. On the menswear side, although we will dedicate most of the budget to forward order, we will also start to invest more in preview and mid-season ranges for autumn.

The first 12 months of any business involve a certain element of guesswork. If we could go back to the beginning and change something, we would set our forward-order budget in line with a more cautiously estimated turnover figure. If you don't have enough stock you can always get more, but if you have too much you're goosed.

The one thing that makes a difference to the business is Christmas. It is because of Christmas that our winter Sale has to start before we have our coldest months, the reason why summer stock starts arriving in January, why we go on Sale before summer has properly got under way and why heavy knits and jackets often get delivered in July and August.

So the thing I'd like to see happen this year would be if historians discovered that Jesus was born on about March 20 and we could change Christmas to that date. It would make things a lot easier.

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