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The Drapers Interview: Archie & Karen Hume

Archie and Karen Hume have dusted off a traditional countrywear retailer to create a thoroughly modern business - and Drapers’ Indie of the Year.

October saw A Hume celebrating 85 years of trading in Kelso, a thriving town in the Scottish Borders. But it’s been a year to remember for other reasons for owners Archie and Karen Hume. It saw the husband-and-wife team scoop two Drapers Independents Awards, Independent Retailer of the Year and Best Independent Multichannel Operator, and launch a men’s and women’s own brand in autumn 14. Now heading into 2015, the retailer may expand further, with womenswear thriving and needing more space, but that is to be decided when figures for the year come in.

Creating the own label, which is manufactured by heritage brand Bladen using exclusive tweed from Lovat Mill in Hawick and has been an intensive process, but it was one that very much floated Archie’s boat as it indulged his love and extensive knowledge of tweed.

“There’s not much I don’t know about tweed. We sell it, we live and work beside the home of it, and the business has always generated much of its money from it. Yes, this is a big investment, buying the unique anniversary tweed cloths, making the collection and then you have to sell it. But I’m pleased. I’ve used colours that reflect the area -foxglove and heather pinks, a lovely pale moss green and a soft Oxford blue,” Archie explains, adding cheekily: “We will make an extra £30 profit per jacket because I bought the tweed our suppliers are making it with.”

The anniversary collection tweed will run for the 85th year, October 2014 to October 2015, or while stocks last. After that, the A Hume label will comprise different tweeds chosen by Archie. The collections are compact and cleanly edited. There are six jacket shapes for women, three different skirts and four different handbags, and prices range from £125 to £525. In menswear there are five shapes across the jackets, trousers, waistcoats and caps with a core price range of £175 to £375. A three-piece suit is £690.

The own-label collections have been designed to hang easily alongside Archie’s classic lifestyle selections from Bladen, Magee and Schoffel, both online and in store.

But ecommerce and operations director Karen Hume admits the first season for the A Hume label has been slow: “This weather has not been good for sales of tweed in general, but our label gets loads of interest and we kitted several people out for Cheltenham races. We’ve created a number of made-to-measure pieces for customers who loved it. I can see this really taking off, especially when someone needs a bespoke garment. It’s more work, but the rewards are fantastic when you see how pleased customers are. Yes, the brand will take time to build but hopefully our new PR agency, [London-based] Zambuni, will help us.”

Karen and Archie are committed to growing the own label, with tweed only the start. Knitwear is on the agenda and they feel they have the knowledge to push it even further across other ranges.

Locally, A Hume has been doing what it does well since 1929 when Archie Hume’s grandfather, Arch, opened his gentlemen’s made-to-measure outfitting store. Since then, it has been supplying the Borders country set with clothing for rural lifestyles. Under Archie’s father, Jock, the store brought in ready-to-wear but the business remained a traditional shop with the emphasis on made-to-measure.

When Archie took the reins in 1987, aged 23, following his father’s death, it was “dusty and old-fashioned”, according to Karen. After treading water for a while, Archie started the transformation in 2000 when he realised customers were ageing and he would need to bring in new suppliers to attract the next generation. It wasn’t until they took the store online in 2007 that the A Hume story changed radically.

Online development started with the pair drawing up a makeshift website plan on A4 sheets of paper and ended up taking the business in a whole new direction: “In 2006 we started talking about doing a website for the shop for a bit of fun. It was meant to be something I could do in my spare time. We both thought we would go live with a basic brochure site as a showcase of the business, using a few supplier images with maybe some product.

“A couple of months in, there was no way I was using supplier images that would make it look like everybody else; I had to have a formal photo shoot for images of our own. We went live in October 2007. The original budget of £5,000 was smashed and we had spent about £15,000 before we even went online. The web development costs and what I had asked for the web developer to pitch for bore no resemblance to what we went live with because I wanted to do it all properly. We were so naive.

“After six weeks, we’d hardly had an order and I was panicking to our web developer. I’d spent all this money; I was spending £10 a day on Google pay-per-click and yet we were getting no orders. He told me not to panic and bear with it. A customer will land on your site, they’ll look around, bookmark you and not shop the first time, or even the second time. Give it time. Then, boy, did it happen. “

They haven’t looked back since. Now the business’s turnover is generated 66% online to 34% in store, but the pair decline to provide specific sales figures. The two sides to the business complement each other as one drives the other, with both flourishing. In 2013 there was an 18.5% year-on-year increase in turnover in store, while online rose by 20.5%.

Karen admits to obsessiveness but she and James Abbott, A Hume’s digital marketing and ecommerce optimisation manager, have worked hard to create the sleek site and optimise its presence online. And it has worked. Google two of the store’s top brands, RM Williams and Dubarry, and A Hume is right up there in the first three entries.

So how was it that when it came to the recent Drapers Independent Awards, none of the judges had heard of them?

“We thought we did quite a good job of getting our name out there,” Karen says. “It proved we have a lot of work to do. Everybody knows A Hume within a 100-mile radius but outside of that, online, people know our brands rather than us.”

Jo Doran, UK wholesale manager at RM Williams, confirms this: “We’ve been working with A Hume since 2000 and they are fantastic brand ambassadors for all the brands they carry. They are true to their roots when it comes to their photo shoots and they complement all their brands from the styling and the intricate detailing of products.”

Karen and Archie are keen to use the Drapers Independents Awards triumphs as a springboard to get the A Hume name out there. The own label and new PR agency are just two developments. Womenswear is growing under the eye of head of the division Vanessa Murray, who is looking to expand on existing labels and look out for new ones. There is frustration internally that the flagship store on The Square in Kelso is not the natural home for womenswear and may need its own space.

The business has a relatively new store - 750 sq ftlocated less than 100 metres from the 1,750 sq ft flagship - stocking the more technical end of countrywear and, two years in, demand is growing. So A Hume will be asking itself in 2015 whether it needs to add yet another store.

Recent successes have given the Humes the confidence they perhaps lacked before. They work hard for the brands they stock, with online and print marketing, as well as building staff product knowledge, so Karen, particularly, will not suffer fools when it comes to suppliers. Archie may be head buyer but he and his team always check with Karen when they have their eye on a new brand. When they return from Pure London or their January trip to Pitti Uomo in Florence, the first thing she will do is Google-shop any prospective label. At the first sign of any price discounting it is game over.

As for existing brands she is happy to be ruthless: “I wouldn’t have felt this confident 12 months ago, but if they don’t work hard or care enough then that space is premium and someone else can have it. With the brands that really care, some of our bestselling brands like RM Williams, Dubarry and Schoffel, there is no discounting at all. Other brands need to learn from them.

“We are struggling with Loake at the moment as there is a raft of discounting in the marketplace. We are considering filling the space with a brand such as Joseph Cheaney & Sons. We can’t afford to stock brands that are discounting because our costs are too high to sustain them.”

Archie brought in Swedish outdoor brand Didriksons for autumn 14 as he was keen to have a Swedish label. Unfortunately, there have been problems with discounting, despite Karen’s stringent policies.

One of A Hume’s advantages is that Archie and Karen couldn’t be more different from one another. He’s the cheeky optimist; he oversees the retail stores and is very much the front-of-house character that appeals to customers. She, meanwhile, is the realist, with a tenacious spirit who can’t do anything by halves and knows every inch of the business. Her obsession is continuing to develop online capabilities on every device their customers use - mobile, tablet and computer - with specific apps perhaps developed for them. (The current plan is to improve on the existing mobile app and develop specific apps for tablets as soon as they can find the time.) He can’t be trusted near the admin and she can’t bear to be away from her desk, where she could be doing eight things at once.

One thing they do have in common, though, is their passion for making this the best business they can. Rather than being totally financially driven, what they strive for is providing the best customer service and experience. “Our testimonials page about our service is what makes me sleep at night. It’s what drives me,” says Karen.

From employing their own staff to drive through blizzards to pick up stock from Dubarry in Ireland when the brand’s own couriers were stuck in the snow, to the free alterations service they provide, this is a business that always puts customers first.

The double win at the Drapers Independents Awards has given them a massive boost. Neither thought they were in with a chance of winning one award, never mind two, and the disbelief at their victory took several weeks to wear off.

“We were on the Dubarry table and there was this big bottle of champagne in the middle,” says Karen, “I thought ‘Oh no, they think we are going to win. That’s so embarrassing because there is no way.’” Archie, who was confident until he arrived at London’s The Brewery, thought: “Look at all these trendy, beautiful people - what are we doing here?”

Overjoyed at winning their multichannel category, neither was aware they could win Independent Retailer of the Year as well. “As Eric [Musgrave, Drapers editorial director] spoke about the winner I was thinking I’d like to know who they were because they did so many similar things to us,” Karen says. When the announcement was made, there was disbelief from her and tears from Archie, who says he hopes his father and grandfather would be proud. The tears spring up again as he recalls it.

Paul McKee, sales director of Dubarry, brings it into perspective: “If we could have 100 A Humes as accounts, then life would be simple. They are firm but fair and their customer service is second to none. Yes, they can be demanding, but that’s because they want to deliver to their customers and they don’t want to let anyone down. It was an honour to be at the awards with them and share the success we hoped they would have.”

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