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Inspirational indies offer hope for the high street

Trains, planes and automobiles have been on our mind at Drapers this week as we’ve been putting together the schedule for our judging visits to the shortlisted companies in the Drapers Independents Awards.

As this is the first time for many years that the independents have been judged separately from their larger retailing brethren, we are excited to be hitting the roads, rails and flight paths.

There are about 40 businesses on the list, a number whittled down from the much larger number of entries. Our commiserations go to those who did not make the cut this year, but we have been left with a strong field that has certainly encouraged me about the underlying vitality of the independent retailing sector. On our shortlist are businesses several decades old and some that have yet to hit two years’ trading. Despite the constant predictions of the death of the high street, there is plenty of evidence from our entrants that the sector has, and continues to attract, some very smart and committed business people.

Our judging visits will take us as far as St Helier and Aberdeen, Londonderry and Colchester. Leaving aside the tiny practical problem of feeding a website with daily copy and getting out a weekly magazine when half the team is zooming around the British Isles, these trips are a brilliant way for us all, myself included, to experience what is happening at grass-roots level. I never cease to be inspired by these judging visits.

You can share in the success of the best by joining us at the Drapers Independents Awards lunch at the Waldorf Hilton in London on Thursday November 7. Visit www.drapersindependents.co.uk for full details.

As well as considering the retailing entries, we have been spending weeks collecting and collating suggestions for our four Brand of the Year categories and for the new award for the Fashion Distributor or Agency of the Year. What’s come through in our discussions with retailers is that they appreciate a true partnership approach from suppliers.

Many buyers emphasised that their brand of the year is not necessarily their best-seller (although often it is), but it’s the one that works with them after the selling season. Keeping distribution tight, avoiding some of the more notorious discounting majors and limiting the number of mono-brand stores are also factors.

The shortlist for the brands of the year and the agency/distributor of the year will be published next week. As part of the process of arriving at the list we have revisited our Indicator pages to see which brands have consistently sold well for our independent readers. This is a good time to mention that from this week we have overhauled our approach to the Indicator page. We are now taking a narrative rather than a statistical approach, but we are still finding out what’s selling by contacting shops all over the UK. Please help us out if you get a call from us.

Elsewhere this week the subject of manufacturing in the UK and Ireland has been on my mind. A friend who works for a small fashion label doing “British tradition with a twist” contacted me to bemoan the fact that he was having to turn down orders because he cannot find factories in this country that can handle - or want to handle- small runs. I have been hearing this sort of problem for years.

Despite the increased publicity for domestic production, the reality is that there is very little new capacity being added. The existing businesses, for the most part, are busy with existing customers (often brands from overseas that value the cachet of the Made in the UK label). So we have a latent potential not being realised.

Against this background, it is encouraging to read our short report this week that tailoring manufacturer Wensum is seriously looking at opening a decent-sized production unit in the north of England. We could do with more bold companies taking a long-term view at the prospects for successfully making in Britain. I am convinced there is real potential for commercial success in such ventures. Fortune, let’s not forget, favours the bold.

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