Drapers Independent Footwear Retailer of the Year Bells Shoes set up its website in 2007 – a year before Clarks – and has since grown from a single store in Buxton to a global multichannel enterprise. Director Ed Martin explains how
Photograph: Christopher Nunn
“We always say we won’t move again for a while, but things change so rapidly, don’t they?”
Minutes into a drive-through tour of Bells Shoes home town of Buxton, it is clear from director Ed Martin that the independent footwear retailer has become bigger than its home town could have ever predicted. On the way to its headquarters, he points out the various office spaces the footwear retailer has called home – but swiftly outgrown – through the years.
“The more people joined the business, the more we have had space issues,” he explains. “There’s been a lot of moving around.”
In spite of all the moving around, Bells Shoes’ rapid expansion led it to be named Drapers Independent Footwear Retailer of the Year last summer. Judges praised its “impressive growth” and “passionate team”. Martin says that the win has given it more recognition in the industry and enabbled its staff to “progress the business further and grasp opportunities, many of which might not have arisen without”.
Martin says he has “always wanted to work in retail”, which is not surprising considering his heritage. Footwear retail has been in the family for generations: his grandfather, Ronald, owned several shoe stores and repairers across the West Midlands and his father, Keith, joined the family business when he was only 18.
Founded in 1890 as independent retailer E Bell & Sons, Keith bought the business in the 1960s and operated it under the name Bells of Buxton, when he moved to the Derbyshire town. When Keith’s father retired in 1982, he took the opportunity to buy his father’s store – Hills of Macclesfield – and added another Leek-based store – Bells of Leek – to his portfolio. Keith then incorporated the stores into the Clarks franchise in the 1990s.
All three remained Clarks shops until 2005 when Keith – and the recently joined Ed – relaunched Bells Shoes as a footwear store under its own name on Buxton High Street. The other stores remain as Clarks franchise and are managed by Martin’s brother, John. Keith remained in the business until three years ago.
Ed joined his father’s business in 2004. After graduating from Leeds Beckett University with a degree in business management 20 years ago, he went on to hold merchandising roles at River Island and Debenhams.
“I didn’t want to come into the family business straight away,” he explains. “It was the best thing I ever did really, to do something off my own back.”
Since then, Bells Shoes has gone from a single high street store to a global multichannel business: 95% of its sales are online – 30% overseas – which Martin attributes to making a bold move at the right time
“We went online in 2007 with both men’s and women’s shoes,” he says. “At that point, there were a lot of people saying that customers would never buy shoes or clothes online. We’re very lucky that we pushed ahead when we did.”
There were a lot of people saying that customers would never buy shoes or clothes online
Ed Martin, Bells Shoes
As an early adopter, Bells launched its website a year before Clarks. At the time, the brand made up 95% of its offering.
“We benefited a lot at the beginning, as we’re a massive Clarks stockist,” Martin explains. “Clarks wasn’t online until 2008, so we had some extra time.”
In its first year, the website made £100,000 in sales. In the year to 31 March 2017, total turnover was up 10% to £16m. Operating profit, however, fell by 60% to £491,000. Martin said this was the result of “considerably” increased retail pricing and fluctuating exchange rates after the Brexit vote.
Bells Shoes’ dramatic growth since 2007 has not gone unnoticed. Alan Scott, managing director of footwear brand Lotus, which have been sold on Bells Shoes’ website for three years, says the retailer “has embraced technology to transform the business from an independent retailer to a major online player, selling brands on a global platform”.
Martin says online business truly kicked off in 2011 when the company decided to make a “massive shift” online, and needed a bigger head office and warehouse space to match. Martin’s wife, Kat, joined the business as its HR director.
“When we first went online in 2007, we existed above the store in Buxton in a room not bigger than this [meeting room],” recalls Martin. “It was just me at the beginning. Then the team grew. We moved to above our Leek store at the end of 2009, and in 2011 decided to find a standalone office and warehouse.”
This game of musical chairs continued after just six months in its new 1,000 sq ft space in the centre of Buxton when the business took over another floor, doubling its size. A year later, by which point its head office team of six employees had grown to 20, it added a larger building out of town. Since 2015, it has occupied four warehouses just outside Buxton’s centre, totalling 17,000 sq ft.
Space was not the only issue. Bells had to rapidly increase its headcount, which now numbers 58. As the team grew organically, the need for a new company structure became apparent.
“Believe it or not, we really didn’t have one until 2015,” says Martin. “We’d become fairly big, so we created departments and now operate with a marketing department, customer service department, merchandising department, buying department and multichannel department alongside the goods-in, finance and admin, store and dispatch teams as well.”
With the structural changes came new roles. Rather than making any redundancies, employees were moved into different parts of the business.
“Lots of it was new to us, so it wasn’t easy at times,” Martin admits. “We were putting people into new positions, and they almost had to find their own feet, as these were new areas to all of us. We provided as much training and support as we could.”
Between 2016 and 2017, it reduced the number of brands it sold from 85 to 65. Martin says the business had got to a point where it was “chasing all kinds of things in different directions”. Clarks products still drive many of Bells Shoes’ sales, although this has levelled out from 95% in 2007 to 60% today. Brands now stocked include Barbour, Birkenstock and Dr Martens in both women’s and men’s, and Noel Kids in children’s shoes. Now, Martin wants to hone its brand offering further.
“As any business – retail or not – you have to get to a point at which you think ‘we need to focus on these 10 areas, and not worry about the other 10’,” he explains. “We’ve become so much more focused on profitability in the past two or three years, and looking at everything we’re doing and selling. So inevitably, sometimes we have to look at a brand and consider what it’s actually doing for us after servicing, stocking and selling it.”
This does not stop him looking for other brands to work with, however: “At the same time, we won’t turn away an opportunity. We have acquired brands that we weren’t stocking three years ago that have contributed a lot to what we do.”
Solillas began wholesaling to Bells Shoes in 2016. Its director, Jonnie Matthew, says the level of contact offered by the company is what makes it stand out: “They’re good communicators and very open, which is really very helpful. It’s nice when you get to speak to someone directly.”
They’re good communicators and very open, which is really very helpful
Jonnie Matthew, Solillas
That personal touch is important to Martin, who believes that “service beyond expectation” is what has made Bells Shoes stand out from other footwear retailers: “We’re aware there’s a lot less loyalty online, but we’ve always tried to make sure that a customer who shops with us comes back – either thanks to speed of dispatch or very, very good customer service.
“We work on the ease of returns, too, and make sure the customer is happy to trust us.”
Word of good customer service has travelled beyond the UK: a total of 30% of Bells Shoes’ sales are international, its biggest markets being Germany, France, Spain and Italy. It launched a new German website in the second half of 2016, which Martin says has experienced “substantial growth”. Online reviews on its own Amazon and Ebay stores also help with visibility.
“Internationally, I think word of mouth spreads to Finland or Spain, say, [through reviews],” he explains. “For example, ‘I’ve shopped with these people for three years, and I’ve never had a bad experience’. I think that helps a lot.”
Besides service, Martin believes Bells Shoes’ success is down to the breadth of its offer. Full-price footwear ranges from £30 to £150 a pair, but it also offers discounts, to the ire of the managing director of one footwear brand stocked by Bells: “I have issue with a number of retailers that continually discount brand new stock – it’s damaging to brands,” he tells Drapers.
“It’s a great business and shouldn’t be knocked for that, but I can’t say it’s doing everything right.”
Martin, however, argues that discounting is part of a competitive footwear market: “Of course, price is a factor, as it is in many different product categories. It’s always our intention to gain the maximum margin possible from our stock, while at the same time giving our consumers an experience that is realistic of the marketplace we trade in.”
“I think when you have been as successful as we have so quickly and experienced exponential growth rates, you have to expect that not everyone will like it.”
Whether others in the industry like it or not, Bells’ growth has it bursting at the seams, which means there is just one thing left for Martin to sort out: “We do want to exist in one building. I don’t know when that will happen, but it’s got to at some point.”