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Riding the peaks and the troughs

It's another year, and Hilary Cookson is no closer to solving the seasonal mysteries of fashion

It's the end of January and, as well as being the final few days of our Sale, it is also our month end, year end and season end, meaning a total remerchandising of the shop and a few days of buying. Add in the refurbishment of the powder room and relocation of our accessories department and yes, Christmas is truly just a memory.

How we middle-market independents peak and trough is a complete mystery to me. While the high street was bristling with the last week of Christmas trading, I could quite frankly have fired a gun through my store and hit no one other than the odd loiterer and ambitious bargain hunter who assumed that our Sale must have started already. It's a very different story when you compare the store then to now, in the third week in January, when the wedding season has kicked in.

If I'm not careful, I'll be going down the "why have we all got the seasons so wrong" route. I cannot envisage who is finally going to stand up and be counted by saying: "Let's all join together and not start our winter Sale until February 1."

Short-order buying is all very well, but it does mean that an influx of stock every six weeks reduces the selling window to just one month, before it needs discounting and shifting out. This way of working then infuses the shopper with a belief that a perpetual Sale is normal trading.

At Maureen Cookson we keep trying the mid-season buy, but each time we have been let down on delivery, quality, or just plain old cancellations. I still find it easier to commit to well-paced forward orders from the three programmes we see, which brings us new merchandise each month. Surely the joy of mid-season stock is that you have the freedom not to order it if trade is bad? But then if you haven't got new stock coming through, the shop looks the same for too long, even if it does mean your stock room looks healthy.

January is also the month of appraisals. As part of our normal staff training I have asked all the staff to voice what they feel we do best. They have been very vocal and their passion for what they do has quite frankly both surprised and delighted me. I am having posters made of some of their comments, which will be displayed in key places for them to see, to remind them each day of what we stand for. Not what I say we stand for, but what they say we stand for.

My state of the union address to them this year is centred around the theme that the business is only as good as those who work for us today. Not yesterday, or tomorrow, just today. Each one of us must understand exactly what we stand for and believe in it, as only then can we expect our customers to buy into our dream. I want each of my staff to be in a position to answer any question authoritatively, or at least to know where to get an accurate answer.

I close with a heartening tale of business longevity. While doing her maths homework, my daughter was posed the question: "Jane is buying crisps for the school disco. They are 35p a packet and she has £20. How many bags does she get?" Her immediate response was: "Will that be cost or retail?" That's my girl!

- Hilary Cookson is the owner of womenswear independent Maureen Cookson in Whalley, Lancashire.

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