Menswear independent Hotspur 1364 came through tough times to prevail at this year’s Drapers Independents Awards and win Best Customer Experience.
Google menswear independent Hotspur 1364 and one of the first things to come up is a BBC News headline from November 2014: “Tottenham Hotspur backs down over Alnwick shop name.” Just two months after the shop opened in the Northumberland market town north of Newcastle, the London football club sent its owner, Lisa Aynsley, a legal letter demanding that she stop using the name.
Aynsley had spent months convincing a number of big menswear brands to take a chance on her new venture, and a sudden change of name could have spelled disaster. She wrote to the club and explained that she had named the shop after medieval knight Sir Harry Hotspur, who was born in Alnwick Castle in 1364 – after whom Tottenham Hotspur is also named.
“At the end of the email I put: ‘You’ve got to believe me, as a life-long Newcastle United fan, your football team was the furthest thing from my mind when I branded my business, and I can’t help but wonder if this has got something to do with the 2-0 trouncing we gave you last Saturday,” Aynsley recalls, chuckling at her own audacity.
My big brands were already really nervous about working with us. It was massive for us
The following Monday, Tottenham Hotspur’s head of marketing called her to say her email had given them all a laugh, and the club was happy to allow her to continue to trade, as long as she agreed not to do sportswear.
This story is typical of Aynsley. She has faced challenges over the years, but the proud Geordie is not one to lie down and accept her fate. As a result, Hotspur 1364 is not only still trading, it is thriving.
In September, Hotspur 1364 won the gong for Best Customer Experience at the Drapers Independents Awards, beating last year’s winner, Galvin Tullamore, and high-end bridal boutique Rachel Scott Couture. Judges were struck by its in-store barbershop and “Hotspur Hot Trunks” initiative, where each season the team delivers a trunk full of hand-picked product to signed-up customers, who have seven days to try the items on at home.
These additions, plus its strong brand line-up, have driven an uplift in footfall and sales over the past three years. Revenue was up 70% year on year at the end of 2016, and the first two quarters of 2017 enjoyed similar growth.
“Hotspur 1364 was an impressive winner on many fronts,” says one of the Drapers judges, Sarah Murray, owner of Edinburgh-based independent Jane Davidson. “The customer experience was unique and original, and the personal styling trunk concept stood out. Lisa, of course, is the dynamic driving force behind it all.”
Fellow judge George Graham, co-owner of premium London and New York boutique Wolf & Badger, agrees: “I was particularly impressed by Lisa’s focus on unique customer experiences – it reminds us of what is so important about real-world offline retailing and truly understanding the customer.”
Our mystery shopper, meanwhile, said he received an “excellent level of service” and found the member of staff who helped him to be “friendly and enthusiastic”, with a clear focus on finding a solution to his shopping needs. He gave it a score of 98.7%.
Aynsley was born in Alnwick and moved back to the town after a 10-year stint living in London during her twenties. Her own style is eclectic – on the day of Drapers’ visit she is wearing a bright red tartan Vivienne Westwood dress over a white shirt and skinny jeans – but her brand mix is well suited to the local male shopper. Bestsellers include Gant, Fred Perry, Henri Lloyd and the recent addition of fellow Drapers Independents Awards 2017 winner Marc Darcy.
Her interest in retail started at an early age: she had a Saturday job at the local branch of footwear chain Stead & Simpson.
“I loved it. It was really cool,” she recalls. After school, she joined a trainee scheme at SavaCentre, a chain of hypermarkets and discount supermarkets that was at the time owned and operated jointly by Sainsbury’s and BHS. She worked there for seven years, latterly as non-food manager.
After leaving SavaCentre in 2006, Aynsley went into the more lucrative recruitment business for a few years, before the industry took a downwards turn. During this time she started a family, and moved back to Alnwick.
The seed of an idea to open a shop was planted when she heard local independent Ray’s Menswear was to close, and was seeking a buyer for its premises.
“Ray’s had been in the town for 40 years and I’d loved it,” she explains. “I knew there was a market for those brands. I used to sit in the coffee shop nearby, count the amount of carrier bags that were coming out and think, ‘I could really make that work.’”
I went down to see the account manager and said, ‘You’re making a massive mistake
However, it was shortly after the global credit crunch of 2008 and banks were not lending anyone money.
“My dad offered to lend us it, but I was a bit nervous because I didn’t want to be wasting his pension pot, and I was quite battered and bruised from what happened in the recruitment industry.”
Resigning herself to the fact it wasn’t going to happen, Aynsley joined newspaper publisher Johnston Press in the events team. However, three years later, in July 2014, she found an investment partner. She approached the owner of Ray’s, which was still on the market – only to discover it had been sold three days earlier.
“I was devastated,” she says. But she was also determined. Soon after, an estate agent told her about the unit at 24 Narrowgate, in the “Castle Quarter” of Alnwick. She shook hands on the lease and the same day flew to Spain for a family holiday, where she spent every spare moment on the phone to brands arranging appointments.
“Looking back, it was the best thing because it meant I didn’t have to inherit all [of Ray’s] stock and my rent’s a third of what it would have been, which is probably one of the key reasons we made it through the first two years. And this end of town is really popular now, thanks to Alnwick Castle.”
Her Next challenge was to convince the big brands to take a gamble on the shop. Her first port of call was Gant, which was on the cusp of agreeing to supply one of her competitors.
“I thought, ’If I don’t get Gant, it’s not going to happen.’ I went down to see the account manager and said, ‘You’re making a massive mistake,’” she remembers.
At first, he was adamant that it was too much of a risk. But they got chatting, and Aynsley told him about her then two-year-old son, Jude, whom she had when she was 40.
“He said, hang on, I’m 42 and I’ve got a two-year-old and we’ve called him Jude as well.”
She clicks her fingers: “Just like that, the whole meeting changed.”
With Gant’s backing, she was able to get all of the other big brands on board.
I thought I’d have loads of fun with good-looking male models, doing photoshoots and whacking them online
“We have been working with Hotspur from the start and the store has remained unique in its offer and ethos,” says Simon Wotton, account manager at Gant. “Their understanding of the local market is second to none. Whenever I visit the store I am always pleasantly surprised by how many people engage in conversation with Lisa and her team, whether they be customers or just passersby.”
Soon after the meeting with Gant, the letter from Tottenham Hotspur arrived.
“My big brands were already really nervous about working with us, so if I then went back and said, ‘All those details I’ve given you are different now,’ they might have said, ‘Forget it. Come back in a couple of years’ time,’” says Aynsley. “It was massive for us.”
There was a silver lining, however. The local paper got wind of the story, and it was picked up by the BBC, ITV and some of the nationals.
“I didn’t have an online presence at that point, so it actually worked out well,” she laughs.
As well as the free publicity from the Tottenham Hotspur incident, the barbershop – with its £8 haircuts – has proved surprisingly successful.
“I knew I would have a good connection to those of my age group and over, say 40-plus, but I needed a way to connect with the young lads, too,” she explains. “So I thought, why not include a barbershop? I completely underestimated how popular it would be. We do 180 lads a week. From a footfall point of view that’s great.”
Obviously we don’t have a lot of footfall, so we have to maximise everything we get
Aynsley says she would “love” to sell womenswear, but is wary of the risks: “Every night when the Boohoo.com advert comes on, offering free next-day delivery for an £8 dress … I’m just like, ‘how on earth?!’ Womenswear indies can’t touch that model.
“Men, on the other hand, are really loyal to their brands. People walking past see Gant or Fred Perry in the window, and they come in because they recognise the brand.”
Aynsley would love to open more stores but is put off by the cost, and so is trying to grow sales online. However, like many indies, she is struggling to make this side of the business profitable.
“I thought I’d have loads of fun with good-looking male models, doing photoshoots and whacking them online, but I underestimated how hard it is. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve had in my career. I’m three years down the line with it and I still can’t make it work. What do you mean search engine optimisation, metatags, keywords? It blows my mind. I sell branded product and I’m never going to be able to SEO my product like Gant or House of Fraser do.
“It takes hours and I might not see any return on that investment for three weeks. Whereas I can put a coat in the shop window, sell it and make £300.”
However, she is persevering with it for now: “Every time I think, ‘Right, that’s it. I’m going to pack it in,’ someone walks in and says, ‘Online you have these shoes …’.”
Meanwhile, her focus is on maintaining a high level of customer service and experience in the store. New initiatives over the past year include assigning regular customers an account manager who knows their style, sizes, likes and dislikes. She has also introduced a same-day tailoring service, shoe tattooing – popular with grooms – and Hotspur Hot Trunks.
“We’re very much about one-to-one service and obviously we don’t have a lot of footfall, so we have to maximise everything we get,” she says.
She is fiercely proud of what she does – on the train back from the Drapers Independents Awards ceremony in London, she showed off her trophy to complete strangers.
Aynsley epitomises the successful independent retailer. She knows how to create an experience in store, and is customer focused and bloody minded: “My mantra is there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you want it enough.”