Having dressed Kate Middleton’s great aunt, the owner of occasionwear indie Snooty Frox is bearing witness to how her innovative approach can boost sales to royal proportions.
Like most of the country, you were probably watching the royal wedding last Friday. But how many of you can claim to have dressed any of the guests? Hilary Haresign, owner of occasionwear indie Snooty Frox in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, certainly can. But despite dressing no fewer than eight guests - including Kate Middleton’s great aunt - she remains discrete. “I can’t say who bought what. Telling you one of them was her great aunt is more than I’ve told anyone,” says Haresign, relieved that the interview will appear after the wedding. “They all picked different outfits. There’s been such a buzz in the shop.”
Haresign admits she hadn’t given the royal wedding “a second thought” in terms of what it could do to Snooty Frox’s bottom line, but relatives of Middleton who live nearby and the royal couple’s January visit to North Yorkshire for a friend’s wedding served to give the occasionwear indie an unexpected sales boost.
“Well, she’s very slim, isn’t she? And a beautiful girl,” says Haresign, speaking of Middleton in her bubbly Yorkshire accent. She clearly believes the princess has the potential to drive fashion sales in the UK. “People have been coming in and asking for hats and outfits that she has worn to [family and friends’] weddings. People do notice what she wears. And our customers like to buy an outfit from a store where guests of the royal wedding have shopped.”
But Snooty Frox’s success runs deeper than the benefits brought by the royal wedding. Sales are running 20% up year on year and traffic to its website hit 40,000 visits in one month in March - double the number of visits it normally gets. “We’re lucky that there is still a lot of wealth in Harrogate, but we offer what the high street can’t - complete, co-ordinating outfits. And service,” Haresign explains. “I went to River Island with my daughter the other day and took a pair of shoes to the till. There was no price on it, so the sales assistant asked me how much they were. When I said I didn’t know, he asked if I could go and find another pair [with the price on it]. I’m the customer!”
Haresign admits “Mrs Average is still watching what she spends”, but for those with a relatively large disposable income, price isn’t a problem. “We’ve almost sold out of Ian Stuart dresses, which are about £1,200.”
The same is true for Snooty Frox’s more casual department, which makes up about 20% of sales and offers a range of sizes from eight to 26. “We had a lady spend £2,900 in one day. She’s a size 24 - where else is she going to go? She said she felt like she’d had a personal shopping experience. She’ll become a regular customer now.”
For customers whose disposable incomes have shrunk, Haresign introduced entry level-priced occasionwear brand Carina for spring 11, whose collection includes a dress and jacket for £299 at retail. “I was nervous about going so low but we’ve had a very good response,” she says. “Customers are also buying the shoes and bags. While you can’t cater for everybody, before I was probably missing out on that customer.”
In January, Haresign opened the Condici Room, an in-store area devoted to the brand’s entire collection. “Condici has got it so right,” she says. “The price point [averaging between £500 and £600 for a dress], the deliveries, the product. Customers have been buying the shoes and bags too [taking individual transactions to around £1,000]. It’s a commercial brand and it spends a lot of money on advertising and brochures. Some brands don’t even have nice images for you to use on the website. So how can you promote them?”
Some of the biggest challenges facing Haresign are linked to suppliers. She explains: “Lots of suppliers are cutting down on credit terms,” while payment terms are “getting ridiculous”. One brand she was looking to take on was demanding payment within 20 days. “Are you having a laugh?” Haresign says she asked the brand. “It can take two weeks for product to get into the country if it’s coming from abroad.”
An additional hurdle for Haresign to overcome is convincing some occasionwear brands to allow her to sell their products online, even in today’s technology-driven environment. Although Snooty Frox does do some business via its website - “there’s a lady in Texas who keeps buying from us, so we send her outfits by post”, says Haresign - it won’t be fully transactional until June. “I’ll always want [bricks-and-mortarindependents to be there, but everybody has online shops now; it’s another string to our bow. Some suppliers won’t let us sell online because they worry it will [dilute] their exclusivity; I’ll have to work on that.”
She admits that selling online is “an unknown” to her, and a chat on the train with an independent boutique owner from Scotland did not put her at ease. “She said ‘whatever you do, don’t go online’. When they launched online, they had so many orders that they couldn’t cope.”
“We had a lady spend £2,900 in one day. She’s a size 24 - where else is she going to go?”
Despite the nerves, she remains unfazed and is ploughing ahead with the launch, albeit cautiously. To manage stock levels, Haresign has an integrated EPoS system and will start off by selling different product and brands online in order to keep the store and etail businesses separate. She is projecting to make £200,000 from online sales in the transactional website’s first year.
On the product front, Haresign believes designers have “played it safe” for spring 11, with most delivering similar collections based on silk dresses accessorised with boleros. “Customers have been asking for floaty dresses with jackets, as so many are going to weddings abroad [in warmer climates] that they don’t want something structured. I’ve let the suppliers know and they said other buyers have told them the same thing.”
But she praises brands for being “clever” when it comes to delivering complete, matching outfits. “I’ve sold more hats this season than ever before,” she says. “Customers have also been buying into a lot of bright colours and versatile dresses that they can wear to the races, a wedding or in the evenings. They’ll buy the same dress in a different colour and accessorise it differently.”
Whatever the customer wants, you can bet Haresign will do her best to deliver, whether it’s reporting back to suppliers or increasing the range of sizes she offers. When Drapers first met her a couple of years ago, she impressed with her ability to turn every opportunity into a sale, including renting out shelf space for jewellery designers to sell their wares. “Well, you can’t stand still, can you?” she explains. “You have to constantly reinvent.”
2011 Snooty Frox named one of the UK’s Top 50 Inspiring Independents by Drapers; opens first shop-in-shop with Condici
2009 Opens coffee shop and casualwear department
2000 Buys Beaumont’s of Harrogate for £250 and changes name to Snooty Frox
1985 Chef, The Stables Restaurant, Kearby, North Yorkshire