Hoopers’ managing director is leading a fightback against falling sales
To describe the changes at department store Hoopers in Tunbridge Wells as a makeover would be akin to saying Donatella Versace has had a vigorous facial.
Reopened in mid-October, with a party including a burlesque show, a contortionist and live jazz, the new look has been three years in the making.
Several million pounds have been poured into the transformation, which has opened up more square footage space, as fixtures built on top of fixtures over the years have been ripped out.
A new restaurant that better reflects the ladies-who-lunch clientele has replaced the old jacket potatoes and cream teas cafe, an interior design section and new beauty, accessories, menswear and young fashion departments have all been added. An area dedicated to Power Plate exercise machines has also been introduced. Called Pure Power, workout classes will be held there for the same catchment of yummy mummies.
“It’s about having a holistic approach,” says Hoopers’ managing director Anne Horton. “We’re doing [Power Plate] a favour in having them there, but I know we’ll get it back because it enhances the overall experience of coming to the store.”
The changes have been structural, but for the undeniably hands-on Horton, it’s been a personal journey. “It’s my baby,” she tells me. “We had an original design concept but I’ve been able to make tweaks throughout. I even had my own hard hat for when I visited.”
Within the new young fashion department, brands such as Diesel, French Connection, Ted Baker and Darling have been introduced, alongside a new Mango concession. It is a departure for the store to focus on the “edgier” market, but is in keeping with the wider changes taking place across the business.
Its Carlisle store has undergone a more fundamental change to its DNA, with Horton turning it into an outlet store for items that have failed to sell through at full price in the rest of Hoopers’ five-strong chain.
Although the Carlisle branch only opened six years ago, Horton acknowledged relatively quickly that “it wasn’t working – it wasn’t making the profit we wanted.
The new configuration is something of a stop-gap: the building was put up for sale in October, with Horton looking to sell “as soon as we have the opportunity”.
Carlisle was the most recent premises added to Hoopers’ mini-chain of stores, having been picked up in 2006. Torquay was the original and the tally now includes Tunbridge Wells in the heart of Kent, Harrogate in North Yorkshire and Wilmslow in Cheshire.
Horton admits Carlisle was “the wrong town” for Hoopers’ premium branded approach, but this is not slowing her down as she continues to reinvigorate the 30-year-old independent store to meet the perennial duo of challenges – the rise of ecommerce and the country’s economic troubles.
Hoopers has certainly not been immune to the recession. Sales have dropped by two-fifths since the peak five years ago, from £50m in the 12 months to the end of January 2007 to £29.6m in the business’s most recent set of results to the end of January 2011. Pre-tax profit has declined to £373,000.
“Our customers have been loyal but their money is tight as well,” Horton explains.
Even the older, more premium demographic – typically thought to have survived the downturn better than others – has been hit. “They are nervous because of their pensions – old money doesn’t necessarily spend it as much as young, even if they have more.”
Horton has had to cut Hoopers’ cloth accordingly. Five years ago, Horton was eyeing expansion; now she says it’s still on the cards but that it has been “pushed back” indefinitely.
Given that times are tough, one may question the wisdom of ploughing several million into a store refit, but Horton insists it was the right decision: “We will be in a good position when the market comes back.”
Nevertheless, in the past couple of years the team has shrunk – Hoopers has lost a third of its buying team, leaving it with just six, and middle management has been “tightened up”. Yet it still boasts an impressive 550 staff, with Horton keen to maintain “store authenticity” through a high level of autonomy.
Hoopers’ autonomy is one of its core values; as Horton notes, the difference in demographic between Wilmslow’s more “footballers’ wives” shoppers and Tunbridge Wells’ ladies who lunch remains, even if the refit has introduced a more “vibrant, edgier” element to the latter.
“We’ll try a brand in one store, and if it works there we’ll look at opportunities for it elsewhere but we don’t take things on at once,” Horton explains. Wilmslow, for example, has recently done well with the likes of LK Bennett, Whistles and Mint Velvet, and they are now being eyed as possible entrants to the Harrogate branch.
And it works for the brands that sit in the stores, even if it makes the process more convoluted. The marketing director of one brand says it’s vital for his business to sit within Hoopers to reach the kind of customer who shops in the indie department store sector.
“It’s a great business, they work very hard,” he says. “You do have to deal with all the buyers individually, so it does take more work than dealing with other department stores, but once you get everything sorted it’s worth it.”
Although the mix of own-bought brands to concessions is the same as it was five years ago – approximately 70% to 30% respectively – the amount of womenswear stocked across the stores has dropped to 24% from about 30%. Beauty and interior design have taken a larger slice thanks to their higher profit margin.
“It’s all about profit, and markdown is our worst enemy,” says Horton. “Clothing has a short lifespan and it’s getting shorter.” Although she says Hoopers tends to keep to the biannual Sale, competitors have itchy trigger fingers and that makes it “a nightmare for the rest of us”.
Horton displays a degree of frustration at the situation and voices her support for those few retailers that have attempted to get off the discounting drug: “The high street needs to relearn how to trade – not to mark down all the time. It’s the kiss of death.”
So the battle wages online, although here the playing field is even more uphill for Hoopers’ type of business. Currently its transactional website is equivalent in terms of sales to the smallest of the bricks-and-mortar stores (Torquay), but Horton is confident that within three years it will be the biggest.
This is the one arm of the business that has seen head count grow, from nothing to a team of seven, and it will continue to grow incrementally.
“Taking Hoopers online makes it a national business and gives us real opportunities to grow,” says Horton. “We may not have been first off the starting blocks, but that does mean we’ve been able to learn from those companies who have moved earlier and perhaps made mistakes.”