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The Drapers Interview: David Coe, owner of east of England indie Coes

This year’s Drapers Independent Awards Lifetime Achievement winner David Coe reveals his secrets to success over the last seven decades, and discusses the changing face of retail and keeping it in the family.

When Drapers meets David Coe at his flagship store in Ipswich, it is immediately obvious the shop is more than just a business for the veteran retailer: it’s a way of life.

“If you don’t enjoy it there’s no point,” says the smartly dressed 77-year-old.  “Bits [of me] will fall off in due course. I should probably stop tomorrow but it keeps my mind going and it interests me.”

Coe is still very much involved in the mainstream predominantly menswear company founded by his father William in 1928. He splits his time between the chain’s six stores – which stock brands such as Barbour, Double Two and Gerry Weber – spread across the East Anglia and Essex.

The family connection was extended to a third generation when he passed responsibility for the 36,000 sq ft Ipswich flagship to his son, William, 15 years ago.

“William runs me and the business,” laughs Coe. “My daughter Bridget runs the kidswear side of things,” he adds.

Coe insists he did not push his children to follow in his footsteps, believing that would be wrong. Nevertheless, given the history and connection of the company to the family, it is little surprise they followed suit.  

Early start

Initiated into the firm at the tender age of three, Coe began by folding handkerchiefs and counting clothing coupons in the shop below his family home at 24 Norwich Road in Ipswich. The shop remains on the original site but has been extended extensively to join the main shop and the adjacent boyswear store, which opened in 1933.

“I was born here. I lived here. During the war we slept in the cellar. I’ve always had an interest in the business. I started working properly at the age of 14, during the school holidays.”

Coe took over the business at the age of just 18, after his father died.

“I was shoved in at the deep end and have been involved ever since,” he says.

We will only open a shop where we can buy the property

The business grew gradually and in 1970 Coes opened its first branch outside Ipswich, in Felixstowe, Suffolk. New shops followed every couple of years in Beccles and Lowestoft in Suffolk, Dovercourt in Essex, Golding of Newmarket, Maldon in Essex, and finally Goddards in King’s Lynn.

“Sometimes opportunities come up and you have to take them or reject them. We are offered a few that we say ‘no thank you’ to because they are not profitable or its rented accommodation. We will only open a shop where we can buy the property.”

Coe explains that buying property safeguards the business against potential slumps in the economy and rent hikes: “I think it’s a security thing. You could have a much bigger business if you rented the property, as you wouldn’t be tying up capital in real estate. But if there is a downturn, or something goes wrong, property is a security anchor against the wind blowing in the wrong direction.”

Given this sensible approach, Coe, perhaps unsurprisingly, says he would have been an accountant had he not taken on the family business.

“We will buy a property if it is in the right place but you have to think is it worth it. There is no set number of shops we would like to have but we will not go more than an hour and a half away from Ipswich.” This, he explains, is so the stores can be managed and stock distributed easily.

Coe adds that the firm does invest in other external businesses – not necessarily retail – further afield but declines to name them.

Closed shops

Despite the firm’s cautious approach to business, it has not been immune to the recession and closed two stores in Beccles and Dover Court over the last few years.

“It is of course a disappointment. The Beccles shop had been profitable but it dropped away. There was no way we could make a sensible return on investment so we closed it in May 2011 after more than 40 years.

“As a rule of thumb we tend to only look at [opening in] towns with a catchment area of more than 20,000 people.”

The Dovercourt shop fell victim to new out-of-town retail parks and closed in 2013 after trading for more than 30 years.

“In their wisdom the council built two retail parks one at either end of Dover Court so people didn’t have an incentive to come into the town. When they did come in, they had the privilege of paying for parking, which they didn’t have to do in the retail parks. It was a good business but it died away, so we sold the building and moved on.”

We tend to only look at [opening in] towns with a catchment area of more than 20,000 people

Coe says the issue of car parking is “one of the most important” facing independent retailers today.

“[Parking] is vital for attracting shoppers. We have a very successful business in Maldon, where there is good parking close to the town centre that is sensibly priced. It keeps people coming into the town.

“You have to persuade politicians and planners that that’s what they have to do.”

Silver bullet

Despite its long heritage, Coes is embracing technology. In February it installed an Epos system [Microsoft Dynamics Retail Management System] to improve its stock management, and enhance its ability to observe and monitor customers’ buying patterns.

“We’ve bitten the bullet and it was a necessary step. It will give us better information and have huge advantages. 

“We can reorder standard products at the press of a button, so the workload is much less and product can be moved much more quickly.”

He adds: “As a result next spring we have not put as much down on the line but we’ve ordered a broader selection of products because we know we will be able to get the items quickly.

“Previously you might have bought half a dozen of something and filled it up during the season. Now we have bought two and can fill it up weekly or monthly or whenever we need to.

“It’s so much easier and will be a big benefit as time goes on.”

Likewise the business is embracing the internet and the potential for online sales. Although it represents less than 5% of the annual £10m turnover, Coe expects it to become “much larger” in the future.  

“The internet can be a challenge but we work alongside it. We sell product around the world, to Australia, the US and you would never normally get that.

“Also a lot of people do research online then come in and try on the product so it’s an advertising medium in its own right.”

In Coes’ most recent financial results, for the year to March 2, 2014, pre-tax profit increased 139% to £247,000 up from £103,000. Coe says trade for the current year is “comfortably” above that of 2014.

Speeding up

Coe has observed another change for the better over the years: the speed at which the industry now moves.

“We can get next-day service from Europe now. Years ago you waited a week for British Rail to deliver your parcel. Nowadays you can check online for its exact location. Speed has had a big part to play in the evolution of retail in this country.

“We are now better than we were 20 or 40 years ago,” he adds. “Not that we were bad then but we are improving products and service all the time.

“Years ago it took ages for someone to alter a pair of trousers by hand. Now you get a machine that’s computer controlled that will do it in half the time and do a better job. We give the customer a better service today.”

Men don’t like shopping. They want to come somewhere that will give them good advice

Coe attributes this level of service to his “dedicated and loyal” staff of 200: “We have a strong retention of staff at Coes. We have lots of people who spend their whole careers with us and then retire. We had one man who worked here for 66 years. He used to bring me to school when I was a lad.”

The retailer says watching his staff grow and develop is his proudest achievement in his career to date.

“Seeing people who start work with us, come through and progress: I would put that top. It’s nice to see them grow even if they grow away from you and move on.

“Others you can promote, most of our managers come from us as we promote from within.”

Man’s world

Coes’ product range is split 70% menswear, 15% womenswear and 15% kidswear, a fact the retail stalwart says works to the business’s advantage. Bestsellers include German trouser brand Meyer, British menswear label Gurteen and Coes’ own suits, labelled Coes or Golding.

The Coes label, set up 25 years ago, is made of British cloth, manufactured in Bulgaria. Retail prices for the Coes own label range from £12.50 for bow ties and go up to £250 for a wool blend suit.

“Men don’t like shopping. They want to come somewhere that will give them good advice and find a product that will work for them and fits them well. That’s what we do.

“I’m not brand orientated, I’m product orientated. If the product works, I’m happy.”

And what about the future for the department store group? After eight successful decades, it remains business as usual.

“The key to success is a large amount of stock and giving a really good service – not just paying lip service to it but actually doing it.

“People will come because they know they are going to get something that works. Life is easy if you can give them what they want.”

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