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The Drapers Interview: Clogg's managing director Chris Thomas

With the help of new owner JD, Cloggs boss Chris Thomas wants to position the etailer firmly in middle England.

After a challenging few years, culminating in administration at the end of 2012, etailer Cloggs is ready to once again make its mark in the footwear market. “We have the product, we have the retail best practice, now we just need to get the brand message across,” is managing director Chris Thomas’s mission statement.

Thomas, who took on the role in November 2012, is passionate about building the business into a household name for the “middle England family”. Launched by Thomas’s father Russell in 1979 in Birmingham, Cloggs was bought out of administration by JD Sports Fashion in February this year, although its one bricks-and-mortar store in Birmingham’s Bullring was subsequently shut down. However, Cloggs is now heading in the right direction, with Thomas firmly believing it is “back on track”, and it returned to the high street by opening its first store under JD’s management on December 7 in Shrewsbury.

Andy Hewat, country manager for the UK and Republic of Ireland at Timberland, shares Thomas’s optimism: “We have dealt with Cloggs over the years and the acquisition by JD will put it in a stronger position in the market and give it a clearer direction. It now knows the customer it is going after.”

The Shrewsbury store is part of the business’s longer-term strategy to open more shops in high streets in central England. Thomas, who has previously stated ambitions to grow Cloggs to 20 stores within five years, has a clearly defined strategy as to where these stores should be after closing the store in the Bullring, where the landlord is Hammerson. “I am actually quite bitter about how we were treated there and I would not want to go into a shopping centre again. There was a definite lack of communication and as an indie we didn’t feel supported at all,” Thomas says.

He believes that having a presence on the high street is the right direction for the business. “I want Cloggs to become part of the local geography. Shrewsbury first and then we have two or three other locations on the hit list for next year.” Although Thomas declines to say exactly where these locations are, he does confirm they will be in central England.

Thomas didn’t grow up with ambitions to be a retailer; in fact he says he rebelled against it, partly because it is what has father did. Russell Thomas set up The Oasis in Birmingham, which Thomas describes as “a 12,000 sq ft bazaar of shops”. Within this emporium, Russell owned two of the 40 stores - Indigogo, which sold brands such as Levi’s and Wrangler, and Cloggs, which was set up as a business selling “iconic pieces of footwear with a cult following”.

At the time Cloggs stocked brands such as Dr Martens, Kickers and New Rock boots, and some of these brands can still be found at the retailer today - in particular Dr Martens, which Thomas says is one of its bestsellers. It has also added Vans, Timberland and Ash.

Thomas’s father fell terminally ill in 2001 and Thomas and his brother Nick - who were both working in London, Chris as a trainee accountant and Nick as a strategy consultant for Premium TV (a subsidiary of now-defunct cable TV firm NTL) - went home to Birmingham to support their mother and wind up the family business.

The brothers decided to take two years out from their careers to do this, but while managing the winding-up process they became actively involved in Cloggs. “We carried on trading with Cloggs to keep us occupied and challenged while we closed the rest of the business down. Then we began to see some traction and it started to grow really quickly,” says Thomas.

Cloggs has been online at www.cloggs.co.uk since 1998, and it was this channel where the brothers saw growth. Nick’s experience in ecommerce meant he could implement a search engine optimisation strategy and the brothers put even more product online - albeit not all footwear. “We didn’t actually become a core footwear business until 2008. Before that we used to work with traders in The Oasis and sell whatever product we could from there on the site,” says Thomas.

The challenge at this time was that brands were beginning to launch their own online offerings and tighten brand distribution policies. “We just needed clarity on both sides,” he says. The brothers initially set themselves a target of £1m turnover, which they reached in the financial year 2003-04 and then went on to set a £20m target. Unfortunately they fell short of this, although Thomas says they made it to £15m by Christmas 2011. Talking of the administration, he says: “We just couldn’t find our place in the market because we hadn’t properly defined who our core customer was or how to portray our brand image.”

Thomas adds that under JD, these were the first areas to be addressed and as a result Cloggs is now able to move forward. The internal structure of the business has also been adjusted to fit the new approach. “We needed to make it more streamlined and by bringing the whole team of 35 staff under one roof [including the warehouse] we can make a better team environment, as well as quicker decisions,” he says.

The product offer on the Cloggs website has also been refocused to appeal to a more upmarket customer, with brands such as Barbour, Geox and H by Hudson brought on board. At present the product mix is made up of 60% women’s footwear, 35% men’s and 5% kids’, but Thomas says with brands increasingly launching “mini-me” ranges he expects the kids’ offering to expand. Non-executive director Andy Scott oversees buying but Cloggs has recently hired Kerry Jones as its head buyer.

As well as redefining the product mix, Cloggs has also placed a big emphasis on updating the website, which relaunched on a responsive design platform created by ecommerce provider Venda in September. Thomas says the previous website was seeing significant online traffic from mobile and tablet devices, so it needed to be adapted to sell to this audience but with a budget-friendly solution. “We just didn’t have the resource or investment to have a separate mobile proposition and back-end system.”

The investment has paid off, and since the relaunch visits on mobile devices have grown 10% and conversion across the channels has increased 40%. Thomas says Cloggs has also seen a shift in customer behaviour, with conversion on tablets now higher than on desktops.

With its new Shrewsbury store and the online and mobile platforms relaunched, Thomas now wants to create a defined cross-channel Cloggs experience to ensure a consistent customer journey. He wants to bring a digital brochure into Cloggs’ shops with in-store tablets and has been working with developers on an app, which launched this month. The app will eventually include features that will activate QR codes in store to give customers more product information. Thomas also has ambitions to build a customer loyalty scheme that connects both online and in store, and also suggests Cloggs may consider an offline marketing campaign.

With so much in the pipeline, it is clear that Thomas is determined to put Cloggs at the forefront of the footwear market and his ambition, coupled with the backing of JD, looks set to put the retailer firmly back on the route to success.

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