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The ability to adapt and focus on business is back in fashion

The buzz of enthusiasm around the Drapers editorial office has been higher than usual over the past couple of weeks.

The reason is the team has been out and about visiting businesses across the British Isles as part of the judging process for the Drapers Independents Awards 2014. It really is an uplifting experience.

The network of progressive fashion retailers we visited this year stretched from the west of Ireland to East Anglia and from Cornwall to Aberdeen. From modest boutiques to department stores and from newcomers to businesses that have been around for a century or more, there has been the usual huge variety among our contenders.

What links them all, of course, is a passion for fashion retailing and a massive pride in their shops and how they serve their customers. That’s what prompts them to enter our annual contest for unique industry recognition. Despite the considerable variation in locations, products sold, size of business and attitudes to online retailing, what links many of our long-established hopefuls in particular is a readiness and ability to change their methods of trading.

Although the awards concentrate on performance over the past 12 months, it is unsurprising that much of the fruit of the recent year is the reward for changes that have been instituted since the financial collapse of 2008. Virtually every owner we spoke to agreed that fashion retailing is still tough and few, if any, expect a return to the good old free-spending days of the early millennium.

It was fascinating to learn, therefore, how each trader responded in his or her own way to the extraordinary challenges of the past six years. A common thread is that they have become better at what they do. The most impressive among them have introduced much tighter systems for buying and selling, more scientifically measuring a brand’s performance rather than relying on gut feeling, sentiment and guesswork.

As well as tighter control on inventory and margin management, the brand mix itself has been significantly overhauled in many cases. The prevalence of brands particularly on internet sites is now a major factor in influencing an independents’ buying policy. One owner I visited told me she was dropping a well-known premium brand, on which she had spent about £40,000 a year, simply because it was too easily found elsewhere. Her response to online competition was to do the old-fashioned buyer’s job of seeking out unknown labels that she felt would entice and delight her customers.

Much of my time during the visits was spent discussing the pros and cons of selling online. A prevailing view among many is that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Time-consuming, labour-intensive and costly, etail is often not profitable. Several able retailers we spoke to are reducing the selling aspect of their site and devoting more effort to social media activity, as everyone agrees this is a way of expanding the experience of a visit to the store through the digital medium. But the aim is always to get the customer to visit the shop, so the full pleasure of buying from a good independent can be enjoyed.

The accolades for all our contenders’ hard work will be distributed at a lunch in London on September 17. To book your places to join in the fun and celebration, contact george.thornton@emap.com.

While we are feeling upbeat about the fashion world, we are still reporting on too many businesses that are closing. Some, like Jane Norman, probably have run their course. Its problem was that it did not have enough of a unique proposition. In fashion retailing, without that, you will eventually be found wanting.

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