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The Drapers Interview - Russell, Wendy and James Jones

The family behind Robinsons of Bawtry have turned a small-town indie into a big player.

With a mere 4,000 people residing in the small South Yorkshire market town of Bawtry, and the area not famed for its fashion scene, premium independent Robinsons of Bawtry at first appears somewhat of an anomaly.

But despite this, the store’s growth has been impressive in the five years since husband and wife Russell and Wendy Jones and son James took over. Turnover has more than doubled, making it into a £1.25m-a-year business.

When the family acquired the store in 2009, annual turnover was £600,000. By the end of their first year the Joneses had broken the £1m mark. What makes their efforts more intriguing is the low-budget manner in which they have built their business: through savvy use of social media, working with local retailers and, most importantly, learning to work with each other.

The two-storey shop, which comprises 2,000 sq ft of selling space with menswear on the ground floor and womenswear on the first, was opened by Tony Robinson and his wife Jeanette in 1986. When Jeanette passed away six years later, Tony was left to continue running it himself.

“It was selling to ages 17 to 70 on menswear. It was the type of place where you could get jeans for a teenager through to a suit for a retired gentleman. On ladies it was a different story - it was catering to quite a dressy market,” Russell says.

When the true scale of the recession became apparent in 2008, Robinson decided to sell up, and for the entrepreneurial Joneses it was an easy choice.
Russell had spent 15 years at Clearview, a video rental company that he founded with some 25 shops across South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. After moving into property with Wendy in 2004 and being “badly bitten” by the financial markets in 2007, they decided it was time to try something new. Son James, now 27, had just sold teeth whitening business The Bright White Company, which he had set up at the age of 20 and that had 50 salons in the UK before he exited in 2008.

“We’d been customers of Robinsons for years - we live just outside the town - but the sale was completely off our radar. Tony came to us and told us he was thinking of selling,” Russell says.

The deal almost didn’t happen because, at the time, the Joneses were about to buy a nursery business. “But it was a no-brainer. Fashion seemed more fun than nappies,” Russell reasoned, and the nursery plan was dropped. The Joneses spent the Christmas of 2008 helping Robinson run the shop as they mulled whether or not to buy it. By March 2009 the deal was agreed and the lease was taken over for just £20,000, with an annual rent of £32,000.
At the time, Robinsons was badly in need of modernising, Russell says. “Tony was rarely there and you could see that in the way the store had let itself go.” The first task in reviving it was to overhaul the store operations. Now running on EPoS system Cybertill, Russell recalls: “It was all pen and paper when we took it over. There was no office. It was all done by memory.”

Next up, Wendy says, were the interiors. “We did a lot to overhaul the shopfit. On the women’s floor, we replaced the existing stainless steel fittings with natural materials like white wood and made it as light and airy as we could. Downstairs, we went for a more traditional gentleman’s club look.”
wendy was also charged with ensuring the brands stocked were revamped. The store now features a tight edit of designer labels - rather than attempting to please a wide range of ages and tastes - including Mulberry, Moschino, Wolford, Ralph Lauren and Eton Shirts. Lower entry-price brands such as Crumpet, shirt label Eterna, and French denim brand Chefdeville were phased out.

Eton Shirts managing director Ryan Squibb says: “We have dealt with Robinsons since Russell and the family took over. I could immediately recognise there was a real freshness - not only in their vision and approach, but also how they come across as individuals. They very much keep the consumer in mind when making decisions.”

Giovanna De Marco, Moschino UK sales manager, is also supportive of the refocus: “We’ve always seen a good response from their customers.”
Another initiative the family embarked on to boost sales was to work with other retailers to help found the Bawtry Retailers Association in 2010. Some 75 of the town’s 100 businesses are members of the association, which organises town events to attract day-trippers, such as the annual Bawtry Fashion Show - which the Joneses instigated - and the Polo Cup.

Emily Harbon, owner of local lingerie boutique & She Knows, says: “I set up here two years ago in the middle of the recession and Robinsons made it possible for me to sustain my business. They’ve supported me personally, recommended their clients to see me and displayed my goods in their store. I can’t champion them enough.”

A store magazine, The Rook, was also launched in summer 2010, which is self-published five times a year and distributed in hairdressers, estate agents and coffee shops across South Yorkshire.

However, rebuilding a business in the throes of an economic crisis did prove testing. “We came into this business when times were just about as tough as they could get. We had to learn to make it work in that climate. We were frugal and thought very carefully about things before we did them,” James says.
A failed early foray into internet retailing in autumn 2010 was a misstep, the family admits, because the website was used primarily by existing, local customers, rather than pulling in new sales from further afield. The etail site ran for just a year.

Social media, however, has proved pivotal to their success. “The internet has been our biggest asset and our biggest enemy,” James says. “We’re investing our time now in Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.”

With nearly 1,900 Twitter followers and more than 5,300 Facebook fans to date, the store reaches well beyond the town boundaries. The Twitter feed shares updates on product drops, promotions and store window updates. A spokesman for men’s footwear brand Jeffery-West says the Joneses are always keen to embrace innovations. “This has enabled them to represent their brands extremely well in store.”

The next steps include a 250 sq ft accessories room, due to open this autumn, which will feature incoming label Michael Kors alongside existing brands Mulberry and Moschino. The move has required some shifting of storage and office space, but Russell says “constant forward movement” is key to their success. They are also preparing to install environmentally friendly power and lighting to reduce costs.

The changes are clearly working. Robinsons is projected to hit sales of £1.5m in 2014. After various career incarnations, from videos to teeth whitening, the Joneses say they have found their niche. Russell concludes: “There’s nothing I don’t like about running this business. I wake up every morning with a spring in my step.”

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