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Sandersons: independent pride of Sheffield

Mark Dransfield believes in the power of retail, and has transformed a Sheffield town with Sandersons Boutique Store.

The rain is driving down when Drapers arrives at the welcoming shopfront of Sandersons Boutique Store – which is fitting, says owner Mark Dransfield. Industrialist Samuel Fox invented the steel umbrella frame here in Stocksbridge, Sheffield, where Sandersons is the jewel in the crown of the Fox Valley shopping centre.

Impressively light, bright and airy, the independent department store is a 17,000 ft store home to a carefully selected range of womenswear, menswear, beauty, gifts and homeware. It opened its doors in September 2016 and took home the award for Best New Retailer at last month’s Drapers Independents Awards. Judges described Sandersons as “exactly the kind of business we need to keep independent retail exciting”.

Sporting a Guide London blazer and shirt, and Tommy Hilfiger jeans, Dransfield fizzes with energy as he chats over a green juice in the Costa Coffee on the store’s second floor. As he proudly points out, it is the coffee chain’s first branch in an independent. 

Dransfield wears two retail hats. As well as leading Sandersons, he is the founder and managing director of Dransfield Properties, a developer that specialises in retail centres and regenerating town centres. In addition to creating Fox Valley, a £50m development spread over 28 acres that houses 37 retail units and 13 offices, Dransfield Properties has developed the Five Valleys shopping centre in Stroud, Gloucestershire, and Sanderson Arcade in Morpeth, Northumberland, which was the inspiration for the store’s name. Other projects include the redevelopment of town centres in Morpeth and East Ham in London. 

Deborah holmes

Deborah Holmes

Dransfield may be a three-decade veteran of the property world, but Sandersons marks his first foray into independent retail. The store was the brainchild of his wife and business partner, Deborah Holmes, who sadly died of cancer at the start of this year.

“Fundamentally, we’re property developers and centre owners. We’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years,” Dransfield tells Drapers. “We specialise in market towns and, over the years, we found that small department stores in market towns do very well. All of our centres have a food store as an anchor to drive footfall [Fox Valley, for example, is home to an Aldi.] We knew that if we had both an independent department store and a supermarket at Fox Valley, we’d have two big anchors drawing in shoppers all the time.”

Dransfield and Holmes first met in 1989, when the two were competing on a Yorkshire business television programme, Enterprise, and got chatting in the green room before they went on air. He chuckles that Holmes “never forgave me” for ultimately beating her in the competition, but it was the start of a long and fruitful partnership.

“Debs said to me: ‘Look, Mark, if you can’t find someone to run the department store, I’ll do it.’ She was a bright spark. She used to be the head of a newspaper business [former journalist Holmes launched The Stocksbridge Trader in the late 1980s]. She did some modelling when she was younger and was passionate about clothing. She was a real clothes horse. I gave her some contacts and she started going out to the industry to find brands for the store. The very first label she secured was Barbour, and then Ted Baker. To bring those big brands to Stocksbridge has been phenomenal.” 

They have created a beautiful department store, which is fantastically merchandised

Katie Thomas, Reef Agencies

Sandersons is home to 64 womenswear brands, including Hobbs, Tommy Hilfiger and Masai, and 36 menswear brands, of which Guide London, Remus Uomo and Gant are among the bestsellers. The fashion offer is aimed at a local customer aged 35 and over. Currently, womenswear makes up around 58% of the retailer’s overall clothing sales and menswear 42%.

“We first met at a trade show, and we were very impressed with Deborah and Mark as people and their vision for Sanderson’s,” says Katie Thomas, director for Reef Agencies, which represents Guide London. “They have created a beautiful department store, which is fantastically merchandised. The staff are extremely friendly, and go above and beyond to offer excellent customer service. The brand adjacencies complement Guide London perfectly and it is lovely to play a part in a flourishing business.”

Sandersons store front

Experience above all

As well as clothing, the retailer has a strong beauty offer and pays close attention to customer experience. Sandersons’ well-stocked beauty department carries Clarins, Benefit Cosmetics, organic skincare brand Voya, and Inglot, among others. Shoppers can get their nails done at a beauty bar upstairs, as well as visit the in-store coffee shop, florist or barber. They can also partake in a treatment at the new wellness spa, which was unveiled by Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley in September.

I like to surround myself with people who are a lot more knowledgeable

Mark Dransfield

“Retail has to offer you that sense of excitement when you walk through the door – it’s got to be like going to Disneyland,” says Dransfield. “You’ve got to turn on all of the senses – sight, smell, hearing – it’s got to be switched on when the customer walks through the door. With this store, you’ve got everything you need under one roof.”

Although he does not reveal exact figures, Dransfield says sales are growing and that Sandersons expects to turn a profit next year. Both footfall and turnover between January and October 2019 are up 38% on the same period last year.

A fully transactional website launched on Black Friday 2017, and most brands available in store can also be purchased online. Dransfield would like to see online sales make up 20% of overall trade over the next 12 months, from 5% currently. 

“The internet is such a major part of retailing now, we felt we’d be foolish not to have an online offer,” he explains. “We felt, if we were going to do the store, we were going to do it properly or not at all. Our motto is: all or nothing. When it comes to our multichannel approach, we’ve tried to learn from the best. It’s about not being proud and asking for help. I like to surround myself with people who are a lot more knowledgeable. I love to learn, even now, aged 57.”

Although the store is only three years old, Dransfield is refusing to stand still. The menswear department has already been expanded twice to 1,160 sq ft in response to rising demand from male shoppers, and will be expanded again in early 2020. New brands on offer as part of the expansion will include footwear brand Loake, Swedish shirtmaker Stenströms, and tailoring label Lab Pal Zileri.

Lumley dransfield

Actress Joanna Lumley launched Sandersons’ wellness spa

The right place

Other Sandersons stores could also be on the horizon, although Dransfield stresses that he does not have a set number in mind.

“We’re looking at opening another Sandersons in Stroud [at the Five Valleys development] in around 18 months,” he explains. “It’s a very affluent area, so we’re hoping that we’ll be able to recreate the model we have here, there. I’m often asked what my five-year plan is, but we’re very opportunity led. If people come forward with an opportunity, we’ll have a look at it and decide if it is worth the investment.”

Dransfield lives just 15 minutes away from Fox Valley and was keen to work in his local community, so he jumped at the chance to redevelop the former crumbling steelworks. As well as Sandersons, the centre is home to high street heavyweights Next, M&Co, Seasalt and JoJo Maman Bébé.

Shoppers can visit eight food outlets, including restaurants NeoMed and Ponti’s Italian Kitchen.

“Mark is an entrepreneurial landlord whose tenacity when wishing to sign a tenant is legendary in the industry,” JoJo Maman Bébé founder Laura Tenison tells Drapers. “JoJo is an agile business and we enjoy the benefits of Dransfield Properties’ ‘can-do’ attitude, which is a very far cry from the hideous levels of bureaucracy we face from most other commercial property companies. Mark and Dransfield Properties have an efficient, professional business model with exemplary attention to detail in the architecture, construction, management and marketing of their centres.”

Despite Dransfield’s extensive property experience and enthusiasm to create something in his hometown, redeveloping Fox Valley did not come easy. He describes it as “the hardest centre we’ve ever developed” because of the lack of existing retail presence. The scheme was almost derailed when grocer Tesco pulled out of a planned superstore shortly before opening.

“It was a challenge,” he says. “Everyone said we couldn’t do it, because they didn’t think anyone would invest in Stocksbridge. The only national chain on the high street was [frozen foods specialist] Fultons Foods, and we had to get people to commit on the back of that. It [the development] has worked because of the design, the mix of retailers we have here and the department store. I would not underestimate the power of this building. I feel that with this development, we’ve really returned a sense of pride to Stocksbridge. All that was here before was a decaying steelworks.”

The current retail environment landscape is not an easy place for landlords, department stores or independents. Landlords are faced with falling occupancy rates and retailers with declining footfall. However, Dransfield remains positive, despite the potential challenges ahead. His developments have a 98.6% occupancy rate, he says, which he puts down to a careful blend of local and international retailers in attractive centres, who receive extensive support – such as marketing campaigns – from the Dransfield team.

Sandersons is still a relatively new business, but it has succeeded by blending a well-curated selection of big labels, an attractive shopping environment and a focus on customer service. Dransfield’s sheer enthusiasm and energy is another major boon for the independent department store. He is determined that the store will continue to prosper, regardless of a stormy wider retail landscape.

When the entrepreneur smiles and says that he enjoys every part of his business, “from when I wake up in the morning to going to bed at night”, you believe him.

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