Peacocks’ managing director Tim Bettley has led a transformation of the value chain from a ‘big knickers shop’ to a genuine trend-led competitor.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Tim Bettley doesn’t apply the same strategy to managing Peacocks as he does to skiing. “I have no technique,” he laughs, referring to a family trip earlier this year. “You know what men are like – we just go for it.”
But his daredevil attitude is not completely absent from his approach to running the value chain, where he is managing director. He talks passionately of Peacocks’ “aggressive” and “exciting” plans for growth but insists, above all, that the strategy is “measured”.
It would have to be. Given the economic climate, it would take a brave – not to mention foolish – retailer to double its domestic store portfolio and ramp up its international expansion without doing some serious planning. These are just two of Peacocks’ ambitious plans, which Bettley is confident of achieving.
“The plan is to have 1,000 stores in the UK, but we’ve been opening between 30 and 40 stores per year for the past 10 years now. We have good project and property teams and have built great relationships with landlords so that we’re always looking for the right sites and in the right way. That’s why it’s measured,” he explains. “If you think about it, you could argue that growth has actually slowed because we’re now opening 30 shops on a base of 500. But we’re always looking at bigger sites in better locations.”
While growth has remained consistent over the past 10 years, Peacocks’ strategy has certainly evolved, seeing the retailer opening out-of-town stores and, more recently, a clutch of fashion-concept shops which underline its ambition to be perceived as a fashion-led retailer. It is this diversity, according to Bettley, that allows the retailer to grow so successfully. With 500 shops in the UK, Bettley insists that Peacocks is a long way from reaching saturation point and explains that opening multiple shops in one location boosts trading in all stores in the area.
“The beauty of our brand is that it can work in a variety of locations,” he says. “It has always worked in small towns, then it started to work in out-of-town sites and now it is working in city centres. The great thing is that we can have five or six shops in one town and we find that not only do they not take sales away from each but, in fact, boost each other’s trading. It’s a way of getting more brand recognition.”
Bettley says this complementary boost in trading is one of the reasons why Peacocks has delayed opening a shop on London’s Oxford Street. The retailer has come close to opening a shop there on two occasions, but pulled out because the financials didn’t stack up. “We found that, financially, we would be better off opening in another town,” Bettley says. “We would love a store on London’s Oxford Street and it’s still something we’re looking at, but we’d probably do it for PR purposes. In fact, we may even be prepared to make a loss on it, but a loss we’re comfortable with – it would be a marketing and PR spend.”
Given Peacocks’ new target customer – it is no longer a “”adies’ big knickers shop”, to use The Peacock Group chief executive Richard Kirk’s phrase, but a more trend-led store that sees itself pitched alongside River Island and New Look – an Oxford Street shop is a must.
Although Peacocks is still very much a value business, it insists that is doesn’t compete with Primark and the supermarkets in the same way that it does with these other Oxford Street residents. Certainly, Peacocks’ online customer appears to fit that demographic. The transactional website, launched last summer, has exceeded expectations.
“We’re happy with the amount of orders we’re getting and we’ve seen almost a different customer shopping online,” says Bettley. “We’ve noticed that we’re selling some very fashionable product on the internet that was deemed too fashionable for the stores. Basically, this is a high street shopper that would visit our fashion concept stores but may not have access to one where she lives. So, the internet is opening up Peacocks to areas where we may not have a Peacocks store – or a high street store – but also to new customers who may not be aware of Peacocks or who wouldn’t think to walk into a Peacocks in a small town. There are a million hidden treasures about online which you can’t measure.”
But despite the online success and a handful of striking fashion stores, Peacocks, whose owner The Peacock Group also runs womenswear value chain Bonmarch鬠still has some work to do before it can be bracketed with the high street young fashion crew.
The boss of one young fashion chain says Peacocks is rarely mentioned in its customer research. “Our customers cross-reference Primark, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins, rather then Peacocks, because it is still relatively new to the major city locations,” he explains. “It has a few things to fix. For example, it needs more fashion authority and credibility, but it can get there.”
But Bettley is not fazed by the criticism, and nor is he complacent about Peacocks’ ambitions. “We’re not sitting here saying ‘we’ve done it’, but we’re building an identity that we’re proud of,” he says. “It’s important for us to develop a unique handwriting – our own look, palette and story. It’s where we need to push the business to better compete with the fashion retailers, especially as fast fashion is not necessarily as strong as it used to be.
“Over the past four years we’ve invested in the buying team, taking buyers from rival stores. The next stage is to focus on the design team. It’s easy when times are tough to cut costs and lay low, but we don’t believe in that. I believe in investing in our brand. If that means bringing in more designers or investing in fashion forecasting to make the product stand up against the rest, then we’ll do it.”
So what is Peacocks’ handwriting? Bettley offers a definition. “A great offer of quality, underpinning basics combined with co-ordinated fashion stories,” he explains. “At Peacocks, we have the best of both worlds because we have a higher than usual mix of basics and fashion products. Our basics, which are what we’ve been known for, are still there, but on top of those we have the fashion stories, which, combined with our store environment, means we don’t look like a supermarket.
“Traditionally, Peacocks has been driven by womenswear but the good news for us now is that menswear and kidswear has started to see growth. It means that we’re presenting all genders with something.”
Fortunately for Bettley, it seems that value retailers are standing up reasonably well to the economic downturn, with consumers choosing to part with their shrinking disposable incomes at the value end of the market.
“I think our customers – and shoppers in general – are all strapped for cash but the Peacocks customer is less affected by rising mortgage rates and utility bills,” says Bettley. “We used to say that in a recession we would do well and there’s an argument that people will look to the value retailers in a recession. But the difference now is that there are so many more value retailers around than in the early 1990s, when we last saw a similar downturn. Even the middle market is offering value-led products, with Marks & Spencer selling £4 T-shirts. All we can do is make sure that our £4 T-shirt stands up in value against everyone else’s.” Bettley adds that he is yet to see a backlash against the value retailers and doesn’t believe it will happen.
Between campaigns from non-government organisations accusing the likes of Primark, Tesco and George at Asda of not paying their overseas factory workers a fair wage and reports that consumers will invest in fewer but higher-quality clothing items in an economic downturn, it looked like the value end of the market could suffer.
“I’ve heard of this backlash but haven’t felt it. People turn to value in tough times,” he says. “It’s tough and it will continue to be, but at Peacocks we have strong comparatives against last year. If you’d asked me five years ago where I would position Peacocks today given the current climate, I would position it exactly where it is. We’re offering low prices but we’ve invested in the brand. We’re in the best position we could be in a downturn.”
In a good enough position to make an acquisition and be well on its way to securing both domestic and international growth?
“There is an argument that says when times are tough, you should buy someone. There are one or two chains that could be coming up for grabs and we’re always looking at the market,” Bettley teases. “But we’re not out there to acquire – organic growth works well for us. Having said that, if the right portfolio came along, we certainly wouldn’t rule it out.”
On the international front, Bettley hopes to have as many stores in overseas markets as in the UK. Currently, the retailer has 65 international stores and is eyeing up Eastern Europe for further expansion. The plan is to open between 30 and 40 stores in Russia and up to 50 shops in Turkey over the next three years.
“The opportunity for international growth is huge and we could have as many stores overseas as we do in the UK between the next three and 10 years,” says Bettley. “Abroad, Peacocks sits a little bit above the value market, and the fact that we brand it Peacocks London gives it a bit of kudos. The international portfolio is growing at a similar rate as the UK, but it could grow faster in future.” Bettley reverts back to his mantra. “The strategy is aggressive, exciting, but measured.”
And if anyone can do it, Bettley can. As Kirk says: “Tim has a good grasp of the Peacocks business because he’s been with us from the start and seen our journey from the value retailer we used to be to where we are today. You need lots of different skills to be a good managing director and Tim has come up the ranks on the buying side of the business so he knows about product development. Plus, he’s young and enthusiastic.”
Despite Kirk’s praise for his managing director, perhaps he should be wary of Bettley eyeing up the chief executive role, having been with the business since 1991.
Bettley laughs. “I think Richard will live forever and be chief executive for another 150 years. Seriously, I love Peacocks and could definitely see something happening on the equity side in the future but the next couple of years will be survival of the fittest. I feel we’ve made more changes in the past five years than we’ll need to do in the next five years. We need to grow online, get more customers and get them to spend more. We don’t need another transformation. But who knows what’s around the corner?”
Who is your fashion mentor?
My first buying job was for Grattan, which was part of Next where George Davies was chief executive. He was always a visionary and went on to develop new brands, such as George at Asda and Per Una. He continues to reinvent brands today, so it’s got to be him.
What is your favourite shop?
I really like shopping in New York and admire the Diesel and DKNY flagship stores. But I love Colette in Paris, and not just for the clothing. I like the way it mixes product and its store environment, with the funky gadgets on the ground floor, fashion upstairs and the cafe in the basement.
What has been the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
At this point in time, I would say last year’s babydoll trend. The babydoll dress was our biggest selling product. But I also remember when I introduced the Joe Bloggs brand and its signature top for teenage boys into Grattan. It was the best selling kidswear line of the season.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Becoming managing director of Peacocks and what I’ve achieved in the past five years. If I walk into one of Peacocks’ fashion concept stores today and compare it with five years ago, it has completely transformed. I’m very proud of that and of the team. But there’s still much more to achieve.
What would be your dream job?
The chairman or chief executive of Leeds United Football Club. I would love to be the man to turn around the fortunes of the team I love. Plus, I would have loved to be a football player, but I’m too old now.
Tim Bettley CV
2004 – present Managing director of Peacocks
2002 Buying and merchandising director for Peacocks
1996 Buying manager at Peacocks
1994 Buyer, Peacocks
1991 Buyer for Poundstretcher
1988 Assistant buyer for Grattan
1984 Degree in Textile Marketing at University of Huddersfield