When it comes to kids' footwear, Start-rite shoes have been adorning the feet of the UK's children since 1921. The first retailer to focus on fitting in the post-war era, Start-rite dedicated time and money to protecting children's feet. Today the brand - born out of the UK's oldest footwear firm, with roots dating back to 1792 - is a byword for well-fitted, high quality kids' shoes.
Fast forward to today and history is far from the mind of Start-rite joint managing director David Attwood. "I was brought on board to drive growth and make sure consumers and retailers know about the service and depth of product we provide," he explains.
This forward thinking proved vital for the company after it recorded a £600,000 loss in 2003 - blamed on competition from cheaper fashion brands and supermarket offerings - just as Attwood was appointed as sales and marketing director. In 2005 he became joint managing director, a role shared by Peter Lamble, the eighth-generation family member who also holds the role of executive chairman. "As joint managing directors, we have a very clear split in responsibilities," says Attwood. "I look after the customer-facing decisions, while Peter focuses on the logistics, finance, HR and IT."
The role presented one of Attwood's toughest challenges to date. Changes had to be introduced quickly in order to get the brand back on track, and first came the decision to cease manufacturing in the UK. Attwood, along with Start-rite chairman Peter Lamble, felt the move from manufacturer and retailer to a simpler branded wholesale model was key to boosting growth while also streamlining the company.
"Start-rite was one of the biggest employers in the Norwich area, and with a 200-year history there was a lot of emotional upheaval with the decision," Attwood explains. "However, we had been working with suppliers in India for the previous eight years, and with mounting costs of production in the UK it seemed uneconomical to import all the raw materials from overseas simply to produce product here. We felt it was right to station our manufacturing abroad."
Today, 80% of the brand's manufacturing is based in India, with a further 10% to 12% in China and the rest in smaller European factories, such as in Portugal. Working conditions are audited to make sure workers are neither underage nor working over the minimum hours, and Attwood is also introducing a more ethical production manifesto.
"It's difficult to be environmentally friendly with shoes because there is such a big manufacturing process involved, but we have a dedicated team working on making us more green. Removing the glue from shoe boxes and making them self closing is the first step. I don't think we can go 100% green, but we can get pretty close."
Initial changes to Start-rite's manufacturing strategy were followed by Attwood's business plan, called Str8 - the number eight representing 2008, the year of its targeted completion. The plan covers all remaining areas of the business. "Str8 consists of three areas I wanted the team to work on," explains Attwood. "Aside from product and manufacturing, there is the people aspect, teaching our retailers how to draw in more customers, and marketing, which aims for better visual merchandising combined with tailor-made marketing plans for retailers."
Attwood's plan looks to be working. The company turned its loss into a £1.5 million profit in 2004, and sales have since grown by 20%. "We've also seen a 20% to 30% growth in the marketplace in the same period, so we are going in the right direction now," he says.
With trading back on track, the rise of online retail has presented a fresh challenge. "We can't ignore online selling, of course, but a huge part of our brand ethos is the focus we put on correctly measuring and fitting shoes," says Attwood. "Buying shoes online without a child being fitted properly is against what we stand for. How can we reassure parents they are getting the correct product for their child's feet that way?"
While online sales may be a no-go area for Start-rite's service-oriented sales model, Attwood has worked hard to exploit the web's potential as a tool for both retailers and parents. "The website allows stores to check stock and reorder at any time, so they can tell customers when their product will be arriving without having to go through a salesperson," says Attwood.
For customers, an online registration option gathers profile information such as the age of a customer's child, to trigger regular relevant emails to parents about what style of shoes they should be considering for their kids. "This gives customers an emotional connection to the brand," Attwood explains. "With families becoming more fragmented and fewer older members around to offer parental advice, we hope to go a little way towards helping with that counsel."
In terms of product, one of Start-rite's biggest achievements since Attwood came on board is the launch of the pre-walkers range, which was a slightly nervous break from Start-rite's traditional brand ethos. "We always followed the mantra that 'bare feet are best' when it comes to children who aren't yet walking," explains Attwood. "Young kids' feet are so fragile that they really can't afford to be constrained in strictly structured shoes, yet parents still want to take their kids out of the house and aren't always comfortable about their feet being completely open to the elements." The pre-walkers shoes are made from squashable non-slip materials complete with protective toe bumper, and have been an instant hit. The manufacturing volume has increased five-fold for spring 07, with more than 30% more SKUs in the past 12 months, and new styles for both girls and boys.
Other developments this season include more colourways which, combined with Start-rite's 200 styles, means there are now thousands of combinations to choose from. "The public are more colour-conscious now, so we felt it important to offer them this option," explains Attwood. "And, of course, the children love the bright styles."
He says keeping the kids in mind is something that will help to set Start-rite apart from other children's brands in the future. "As well as creating a brand that parents will believe in and trust, we need to make shoes that children want to wear," he adds.
To bolster this strategy, the brand now has a magnified design team. In 2004 there was just a single range manager, who has now been joined by three product managers, a product director and four in-house designers.
The design team has looked at providing more fashion-led pieces. alongside the smart navy and black styles for school. These include the best-selling pirate motif canvas shoe for boys, the butterfly-adorned girls' pink sandal and the brand's brightly coloured welly boots, complete with puddle depth ruler, so kids can see the depth of the puddles they are splashing about in.
"It is about appealing to the children as well as the parents, and trying to match good fitting with good fun," says Attwood. "Kids regularly need three, four or five pairs of shoes at once, and we want parents to buy all of these from Start-rite."
But not everyone shares Attwood's optimism. A source close to Start-rite is less sure about the brand's ability to cover all areas of kids' footwear. "In terms of fashion, it is going to be difficult for Start-rite to compete with huge kids' brands such as Geox. The advertising spend is never going to match such labels. Children, rather than parents, now drive many sales and if you can't reach the kids with big ad campaigns, you're always going to come in at second best."
But Start-rite's plans for the future are bullish. "Following on from Str8, we are now beginning to implement the InTENt plan, which features our goals for 2010," says Attwood. These include an increased presence overseas, spearheaded by new international sales manager Joost Meijerink, previously head of worldwide sales for Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin.
"Joost is on board to boost international sales and brand awareness abroad, and we hope he will expand distribution networks and find new markets," Attwood explains. "We already sell in more than 30 countries, with a particularly strong presence in the US, Italy and France - French boutiques love the Classic range - as well as Japan, Australia and the Middle East."
At present, international sales form 10% of the business, which Attwood hopes to increase to 15% by 2010. "Although we don't emphasise the family- run element of the brand, its English heritage works well in the international market and will play a part in boosting trade overseas," he adds.
At home, Start-rite already has a solid presence. It has a customer list of 400 retailers in the UK and Republic of Ireland, including independent businesses such as Johnsons and One Small Step One Giant Leap, which equates to roughly 600 doors. "I think this figure may change, rather than grow, in future," says Attwood. "The number of independent footwear stores seems to be decreasing, but the quality indies that remain are progressing well, meaning there are opportunities for sales even if we end up with fewer retailers down the line. We want to encourage quality retailers that can induce loyalty to the store and, in turn, the brand."
One of Start-rite's bigger stockists agrees. "I think it's good that Start-rite is recognising the need to focus on the quality stockists," she says. "Many independent, family-run fitting businesses are falling by the wayside, so Start-rite needs to work harder with its strong stockists to build better business. It is still second in volume to Clarks within our stores, but we believe it is a higher-quality product, and are hoping David's approach will help to close the gap."
Attwood believes a shift in consumer opinion has been key in supporting Start-rite's rebirth, and says consumers are beginning to look beyond the disposable supermarket footwear that has grown so significantly in the past decade. "I feel there is a definite undercurrent of movement back towards quality leather and well-fitting footwear," he explains. "I can't substantiate this with any real evidence, but the feeling I get in the industry is one of real optimism for quality footwear suppliers such as us."
As well as the international arm, Start-rite is also putting more emphasis on what customers want, with a sweep of market research being undertaken to gather an in-depth view of the shopping demographic. "The launch of the pre-walkers range has already shown that we are able to spot gaps in the market and fill them successfully, so that is where the market research comes in," explains Attwood. "But we will always remain within our brand essence - for example, we wouldn't sell ballerina-style pumps because they are not practical for small children and will often slip off their feet.
"We would never compromise on the fit because it is such an essential element for us. We have always been a brand that parents believe in and trust, and we want to carry this on for the future."
2005-present: joint managing director, Start-rite
2003-04: sales and managing director, Start-rite
1997-2002: managing director, OshKosh B'Gosh (Europe)
1994-96: managing director, CHG Design (part of the Chemring Group)
1989-1993: director at school and sportswear brand Trutex
1975-1988: various positions including general sales manager for the wholesale division, Courthalls.