After more than 39 years of trading, the owner of womenswear indie Sunday Best has won plenty of plaudits from her peers thanks to a relentless focus on the customer and the bottom line.
Ask indie owners who they admire among their peers, and as often as not the name on their lips is Jan Shutt.
Her premium womenswear boutique Sunday Best has survived more than 39 years in the trade, during which time Shutt can lay claim to having “discovered” model Agyness Deyn (then a local teen called Laura Hollins who posed for Sunday Best flyers), visiting Buckingham Palace as a guest of the Queen (still the highlight of Shutt’s career), and travelling the world in pursuit of new brands. She has also built a reputation for spotting emerging labels and trends, and for combining exceptional customer service and in-store experience with a keen sense of the bottom line.
Yet Shutt, a plain-speaking Lancastrian, says she would have been “just as happy” selling bacon. “Well, perhaps not bacon,” she demurs, “but flowers and buttons. I want to be an entrepreneur first and foremost.” Shutt puts this desire down to a natural competitive instinct, courtesy of an early love of sports (she played netball for Northwest England), and the ability to buy product with detachment.
She claims not to be that bothered by fashion for herself, dismissing her elegant black Vivienne Westwood jacket as “a uniform”, and branding as “immoral” the fact someone would spend £800 on a pair of shoes. “If you saw my wardrobe you would die! It’s very black and it’s this big,” she laughs, hands held little more than shoulder-width apart.
“I never buy for me. I think of the customer and the margin. I like buying something for ¤3 (£2.65) and selling it for £40. That gives me a buzz. This can’t just be about what’s nice. That’s often the mistake when you start [a business].”
Every season Shutt buys into a couple of “little foibles to keep my passion” (this season it’s contemporary womenswear brands Nelly and Iconoclast) but says she is equally happy stocking product she personally dislikes if she thinks it will shift.
Passion for product
On a walk around the Sunday Best store in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, however, it is clear she has a passion for product and for the way it is merchandised. Vintage crates serve as shelves, while the (hand-painted) lavatory has a gadget that fills the cubicle with the sound of birdsong - something Shutt first witnessed in Copenhagen and spent a “terrible” amount of money having installed.
This season, Shutt is excited by Swedish contemporary brand Hunkydory - another Copenhagen find - which sits alongside more established brands such as Barbour, Odd Molly and Vivienne Westwood Anglomania. There is also a large Oska shop-in-shop on the ground floor, and a new young fashion area, SB Diversion, stocks brands including Religion and Diesel. But Shutt says it is the emerging labels that keep customers coming back.
“All I can do as an indie is to try and find things elsewhere,” she says. She took on Ugg Australia ahead of the pack and remembers how the footwear brand had such poor sell-through she could only move its product by discounting. She is now making appointments to buy Uggs for autumn 11 and is nervous that the bubble might burst. Her other predictions for next year include a return to relaxed dressing in spring 11, with combats and plenty of khaki - though she advises caution: “You can’t imagine a size 18 [woman] in a big pair of combats, can you? But the colour will seep through.”
Shutt doesn’t always call it right though. Despite her reputation as a kind of brand oracle, one of the labels Sunday Best bought into this season has only had 2% sell-through (she won’t say which), and she recalls buying into the 1960s trend for hotpants just as they were on their way out. “I had to [dismantle them and] use them for zips and buttons”.
Over-distribution of brands, the growth in online shopping and increasingly savvy customers have made getting the right product increasingly difficult, she adds. “It’s a lot more challenging now than in the 1980s. Customers were just throwing money at us then. We’d be told what stock to buy [by the brand] and there’d be fluorescent pants and parrot prints and we’d sell the lot.”
Nowadays Shutt feels the pressure of customers’ tightening purse strings, and has reduced her buying budget for spring 11 by about a fifth. “I want to do well, but I’m not cocky. The recession could happen to anyone,” she says.
When the product is right, however, Shutt maximises sell-through by tasking each member of her 20-strong team with merchandising and sales for a particular brand or brands. The list is posted up in the meeting room, and staff are incentivised for their sales, as well as for the performance of the shop as a whole (collectively, they receive between 5% and 10% of the profits).
She only discloses turnover to staff on a need-to-know basis and recently took a unilateral decision to cancel their uniform allowance, but otherwise works on a democratic basis. There is an all-staff meeting every quarter, and Sunday Best’s department heads catch up weekly. “I’m very transparent. Everyone knows if someone is leaving or we’re bringing in a new brand. The things that go wrong in a company are usually down to bad communication,” she says, adding: “Be level and fair. You can’t have favourites. Be detached.”
Later, she points out that the women buying clothes in Sunday Best are “customers, not friends” and chuckles at an agent who once told her he would only do business with people he liked.
But seeing Shutt on the shopfloor, this detachment is hard to credit. She threatens to cry when her very glamorous on-site tailor, a deaf Hong Kong woman, signs how grateful she was for the opportunity to work at Sunday Best, and Shutt invites a newly bereaved customer to pop in at any point, “just for coffee”. It transpires she has already sent two staff to visit the woman’s house.
“I think I’m too normal for the fashion industry,” Shutt confesses. That may well be so, but for all her talk of margins and bottom lines, she’s not quite as impassive as she makes out.
2009 Opens young fashion area SB Diversion
2007 Launches transactional website
2003 Runs ad campaign with model Agyness Deyn
1997 Beats Hobbs, Selfridges and Oasis to win Drapers Retailer of the Year
1989 Opens second store in Barnoldswick, Lancashire. It is later sold
1971 Sunday Best opens in Rawtenstall, Lancashire
Indies set up for women by their husbands and boyfriends seem fated somehow not to work. Are they worried about whether they lose [their partner’s] money?
Anthropologie on Regent Street is amazing - I love its product, its merchandising and its staff. In terms of indies, Bernard of Esher [in Surrey]. The vision [co-owner] Helene Rapaport has as a buyer is remarkable. She is really adventurous with labels, and some of her shoes retail at £800 a pair. To have that confidence is quite something.
I’ve just withdrawn the clothing allowance for staff, which has gone down like a brick budgie. It cost the company £17,000 in lost revenue to do it.
The one thing that gets people through the door is jewellery. You can get the shopping experience for £6 spent on a pair of earrings.
I would go to university and do a fashion and business course, and I would stand on this street and do my market research. Rawtenstall’s not like York or Manchester. It’s a really gritty little town.
The next couple of years are going to be really difficult, with the public sector cuts and the [January] VAT increase. I’ve cut back on spring 11 buying [by about 20%] for that reason.
Airs and graces…
I find it incredibly funny, the fashion industry. All that air-kissing at London Fashion Week, and not being a real person.