A change of strategy during a recession is a bold move, but for the ‘control freak’ owner of two-store Aberdeen menswear indie Signature, it’s one that has paid off.
American billionaire Donald Trump’s plans for a giant
golf development just outside Aberdeen have divided opinion in the city. But one man who’s all in favour of the scheme is Patrick Ritchie, owner of menswear indie Signature.
Ritchie is already plotting how his two-store business can capitalise on the influx of wealthy tourists looking to flash their cash. “Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe. It’s a wealthy place and this new development will add to that,” he says. “I’m excited as a golfer but more as a retailer. The Americans will come to play golf and shop, and we’ve got brands that will appeal to them.”
Ritchie says that while the global recession has been felt in the city, it has been less ferocious than elsewhere in the country, as the lucrative Aberdeen oil industry has helped offset the slowdown. As a result, profits at Ritchie’s two stores are up from £174,000 to £179,000 and sales are flat at £1.8m.
Signature has been trading on Aberdeen’s Union Street for 20 years and sells brands including Hugo Boss, Mulberry and Polo Ralph Lauren. Across the street is premium casualwear store Signature 2 - rebranded from its former name Attitude in July 2008 - which stocks the likes of Lacoste and Ted Baker.
Cautious by nature, Ritchie’s move to rebrand to Signature 2 amid a recession was a bold one. But the change in strategy, which saw the business move away from the crowded young fashion market to a more premium casualwear sector, paid off, as Ritchie looked to capitalise on Aberdeen’s growing number of affluent shoppers.
Ritchie started his retail career on the shopfloor of Attitude, rising up the ranks to become manager in 1988. In 2003 he bought Attitude and Signature after the death of the stores’ founder, Alastair Black.
“He was a very highly thought of guy,” says Ritchie of Black. “I’ll never forget at his funeral, a guy said to me, ‘out of all the businessmen out there, Alistair could run his on the back of a fag packet’.”
With a new brand mix in Signature 2 that includes Armani Collezioni, Paul & Shark and Hackett, rather than the likes of Superdry, Ritchie has doubled the business’s turnover since 2003.
“It’s more professional now,” he says. “We chase labels [we want] rather than leaving labels to chase us. When we buy we don’t cherry pick, we buy in a way that represents the whole collection. We want to be the best, and product is what matters here.”
But the business is not as enthusiastic when it comes to etail, with Signature yet to launch a transactional website. “Maybe I’m old school, but there’s something about touching and feeling clothes, and sizes can vary. It’s lazy shopping and personally, I don’t get it,” he says. Ritchie’s reticence could be at the expense of additional sales, a fact recognised by his staff, who he says tell him an etail site is a business must have.
Ritchie is a self-confessed control freak and as he shows Drapers the meticulous Signature accounts, annotations on the page notch up daily variables that could have affected levels of trade over the year - “worst rain fall in 39 years” is one, while “snow” and “oil week” (a global oil industry conference) are others. Average sell-through numbers on each brand and total sales figures are calculated weekly and then circulated around the shopfloor.
“He is a perfectionist to the last detail,” confirms Mark Hickling, brand manager for Ben Sherman Tailoring, who has known Ritchie for more than 10 years. “He is a consummate professional and knows the business from top to bottom.”
Ritchie leaves little to chance and perhaps that’s why he is sleeping properly for the first time in seven years, as his fine-tooth comb approach to the Signature business begins to pay off.
“Discount stock?” He laughs. “Not a chance. I hate discounting. We are retailers and unfortunately the choice to discount comes down to some finance man from a multiple sitting in an office who has never worked the shopfloor in his life, saying ‘figures are poor, let’s go on Sale’. Well, your figures are poor because you went on Sale last year, and the year before that.”
Signature 2 notched up a 12.5% hike in sales for the five weeks to August 22 after introducing a shorter but sharper summer Sale strategy. “I’d rather put the Sale on for as short a time as possible and get my normal customer back in the door as soon as possible,” says Ritchie.
The men of Aberdeen are spoilt for choice with an excellent spread of indie and multiple retailers in the city, including indie Attic and John Lewis, while the £250m Union Square shopping centre, which opened last month, introduced 56 new stores to the city.
Rather than feel threatened by his multiple retail competitors, Ritchie takes what he can from their operations and uses the knowledge to his advantage.
It was Debenhams’ outgoing chairman John Lovering who inspired Ritchie to change his Summer Sale strategy when Lovering said earlier this year that customers were craving special products over the lowest price. Hence the limited-edition Edwin jeans hung in gilded gold picture frames in Signature. It’s this combination of independent retail vision and big-box multiple strategy that is paying off for Ritchie.
“Some customers would be lost if they didn’t have Signature - where would they go?” he says. “Signature is part of a lot of people’s lives and I feel good about that.”
Who in fashion do you most admire?
It has to be Ted Baker’s [founder and chief executive] Ray Kelvin. He has driven Ted Baker forward from day one and still plays a formidable role in the business. You can’t fail to be impressed by his passion and good humour. He doesn’t take himself too seriously in an industry that is too full of people that do. I love the story behind why he called his label Ted Baker, and the quirkiness of never allowing his photograph to be taken.
What is your favourite shop?
A food shop called The Beautiful Mountain in Aberdeen. It sells the best bacon, egg and cheese roll in the world.
What has been your proudest moment?
When Alistair died and I took the business on, it was simply surviving that first week. However, rebranding to Signature 2 and the figures that has produced show that I made the correct decision - there were a few of the old Attitude suppliers that questioned what I was doing, but I was convinced it was the right move.
What’s the most frustrating thing about retail?
In the current climate, credit insurance, and when other retailers go on Sale too early, particularly pre-Christmas.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
Identifying a label, the chase of securing it, placing the initial order, the first time the stock arrives, selling the first piece and then, finally, when you’re out for a beer and you see a customer wearing it.
What would be your dream job outside fashion?
Being the bloke that applies Cheryl Cole’s sun cream.
2008 Rebrands Attitude to Signature 2
2003 Buys Attitude and Signature
1988 Manager, Attitude
1986 Leaves school