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Malcolm Collins

The New Look footwear and accessories boss has made the retailer the leading force in footwear in just 12 years. Next on the agendais a roll-out of footwear standalones.

Malcolm Collins is an impatient man. “I’m a Virgo. It’s my nature,” he says, gesturing towards a simple women’s pump. “I know that shoe takes 20 minutes to make, so where do the other eight weeks go?” he asks, frustrated by lead times that would have most footwear retailers jumping for joy.

When Collins joined New Look to launch its footwear offer in 1997, it took the fast-fashion retailer 20 weeks to get a shoe from sketch to shopfloor. Today, it can turn around a shoe style within six to eight weeks and only commits to 40% of its footwear buy at the start of the season, giving the retailer one of the fastest reaction times in the market.

As a result, New Look has grown to become number one in the women’s footwear market by volume, with 9.5% of market share, according to figures from data company Kantar (formerly TNS Worldpanel Fashion) which have been seen by Drapers, up from 7.8% the year before. “There is still another 90.5% to go,” smiles Collins. “Not that I want to be greedy.”

New Look’s lucrative point of difference is its lightning-quick supply chain, its unfaltering grip on fashionability and its pocket-friendly pricing.

The retailer lost its women’s footwear market share crown to Primark for a month earlier this year, but Collins says it has now “taken it back strongly” and insists that 2010 will be a big year for footwear at New Look.

Drapers is interviewing Collins in New Look’s new 61,000 sq ft London head office, nestled behind bustling Oxford Street and just a stone’s throw from the head office of high street rival Arcadia. The team was based in Weymouth, Dorset, until last summer.

Earlier this month, New Look announced it would postpone plans to list on the London Stock Exchange due to “unfavourable” retail sector conditions, a move that will have disappointed the retailer’s management team but it is business as usual, according to Collins.

The decision on whether to revisit a float will be made when the markets improve. “It is on with the day job, and that doesn’t change,” says Collins.

For Collins, it is all about the product, and the footwear and accessories range review rooms at the new head office have been designed to some precise specifications set by Collins himself, who was inspired by more than 20 years of visiting footwear factories and showrooms.

Included in this are web cameras rigged up in each room, which beam live into all three of the retailer’s overseas factories, so New Look can communicate designs via video with its suppliers to make the sampling process more accurate and speed up the supply chain.

Despite the new technology and the modern labour-saving devices, Collins himself is a happy juxtaposition of an old-school trader and a modern-day retailer. He cut his teeth at footwear giant Clarks and says speed to market is one of the biggest things he has learnt over the past 13 years. “The culture at Clarks was ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’ and the culture of Tom [Singh] is that he would have liked everything ‘yesterday, yesterday’,” he says.

Plugging a gap

The New Look footwear team spend many a lunch break on Oxford Street sizing up the competition - not that there are many footwear specialists left on the stretch since the dramatic consolidation of the market in 2007

and 2008, when the likes of Dolcis, Ravel and Shellys disappeared from the high street and chains such as Barratts and Stead & Simpson shut hundreds of shops as part of restructuring processes.

It seemed then that the days of the UK multiple footwear specialist were numbered, as non-specialists such as Primark and Marks & Spencer cleaned up, becoming experts at delivering on-trend footwear at high volume and low prices.

But now New Look is going full circle and last year unveiled its first standalone footwear store in Bristol’s Cribbs Causeway shopping centre. The retailer already operates a 5,000 sq ft New Look store in the centre, but footwear was taken out of the main store and moved two doors down into a 2,300 sq ft standalone as part of a trial to see if the format had legs. If successful, this strategy would free up space for fashion in New Look’s smaller stores.

The store, which Collins describes as an “Aladdin’s Cave”, is outperforming expectations and a second will open on London’s Kensington High Street in April. The mix is 75% footwear and 25% accessories, and Collins thinks there is a gap in the market for this sort of combined format in the value sector.

He emphasises that he is not on a private mission to open standalone stores at the expense of the overall New Look business and acknowledges that the beauty of New Look - he also cites Next as able to pull off the same trick - is its ability to offer the customer a complete look across product categories. Certainly industry insiders question whether it is sensible to pull out footwear from its main stores, given it is one of New Look’s main footfall drivers.

“I do think there are some really good standalone operators - like Dune and Office - that do a very good job,” says Collins. “But nobody out there delivers great fashion footwear and accessories. You have Claire’s at the younger end of the market and Accessorize, but nobody has pulled it all together.”

Collins has cooked up the format himself and has been hands-on with everything from shopfit to store location. There are a few more London sites he is considering - he has been buoyed by the strong start to the year and has not been put off by the recession.

He says: “We are really pleased with the start to spring 10. We had a great autumn driven by boots. During the recession there has to be that wow factor to drive shoppers to buy, but like my dad said when I was getting into shoes, ‘well, son, everyone needs them’.”


2004 Director for footwear and accessories, New Look

1997 Footwear buyer, New Look

1996 Own-label footwear developer, ISA

1972 Management trainee, Clarks. Prior to that he worked Saturdays in Clarks-owned shoe store Peter Lord in Croydon

1972 Left school aged 17

Q & A

Who has inspired you?

The first person goes right back to [now-defunct footwear chain] Peter Lord in Croydon. There was a manager there called Malcolm Rogers and he set me on my retail career path. He was an absolute stickler for customer service, high standards in store, and he had a love for retail. The second is David Lockyer [former chief executive of Stead & Simpson]. He taught me how to do business and how to look after people, and that people are so key to your success.

What was the last thing you bought?

A Ted Baker shirt. I love Ted Baker. It’s a great brand; they have retail theatre in store, are focused on product and know their customer.

What is your proudest achievement?

Launching footwear at New Look and developing a team that put us as the number one retailer of women’s footwear in the UK within just 12 years.

What is the best-selling New Look shoe style to date?

The ballerina. We sold more than half a million pairs in more than 20 different colours. It appealed to all ages.

How is footwear performing online?

It’s fantastic. We sold 400,000 pairs of shoes online last year. We have big things planned for the internet this year.

It allows us to open up our ranges to everybody, wherever they live. We will be moving into doing web exclusives on footwear.

What would be your dream job (apart from fashion)?

A chef. I love Italian food, with a nice glass of red wine. It’s a good reason to go to [Milan footwear show] Micam.


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