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The Drapers Interview: Janie Theaker, Bridge

Dedicated customer service helped Janie Theaker turn Bridge into a Drapers Independents Award winner.

The customer is queen at womenswear independent Bridge, which sits just off Solihull’s bustling high street. Anyone walking through the doors is immediately offered a drink - tea or coffee during the week, pink Prosecco on Saturdays. The impeccably dressed staff greet shoppers by name, remember their favourite styles and carefully suggest new looks. It is this level of personal service that has kept customers coming back for over 25 years and secured Bridge the title Womenswear Independent of the Year at the 2014 Drapers Independents Awards.

“A personal shopping experience is our aim,” says founder Janie Theaker, relaxing into one of the store’s comfy armchairs. “We know the customers by name and offer whatever level of service they require. It’s all about knowing the product inside out and explaining what’s great about the brands we sell.”

Dressed in the layered tunic and trousers look her store is known for with on-trend brothel creeper shoes from Russell & Bromley, Theaker knows getting the right product mix is essential to please Bridge’s 1,800 customers. Each brand must reflect the aim to fill ‘the bridge’ between multiples and designer independents.

Theaker understands her 35-year-old-plus demographic and their desire for quality fabrics in strong colours with a quirky twist. This combination has won Bridge a committed following from as far away as Nottingham, Birmingham and Cornwall.

An eye for a sell-out style is crucial. A taster selection of 100 units from British jersey and knits brand A Postcard From Brighton, introduced for autumn 14, sold out within a week. The brand will return for spring 15, alongside new additions such as Swiss label Nile, known for its acid-wash cotton jersey, and Israeli brand Alembika’s collection of bright jersey trousers and tunics.

“It’s good to take risks and introduce new brands,” Theaker says. “I generally do two seasons to see how it works out and what the relationship is like with the supplier. Do they deliver? Are the garments good quality? How much support will they give us?”

Theaker finds inspiration at trade shows Who’s Next in Paris, Pure and Scoop in London and Panorama in Berlin. The majority of her forward ordering takes place at London showrooms such as FOS, where she buys Mac, Apanage and Repeat. Forward order represents 80% of buying and once these deliveries have finished in May and October, Theaker looks to stock houses across Paris and London to refresh the offer in season.

The current bestseller, German separates label Oska, was introduced in 2006. Theaker later saw the potential to expand it into a vacant space next door and hence it is now sold in a dedicated 1,000 sq ft store, adjacent to and interlinked with the 2,000 sq ft Bridge store.

Unveiled in January 2013, the shop is one of only three Oska partner stores in the UK and Ireland (the others are in St Ives, Cornwall, and Cork in Ireland). Theaker selects the stock herself and is supplied with the official Oska shopfit. The store represents 25% of total sales, compared with Bridge’s 75%.

“We’ve had a fantastic start with the Oska store, having already stocked the brand in Bridge,” Theaker explains. “Our customers love the high-quality fabric, comfortable cut and relaxed, soft style, which is really flattering and still fashionable. A lot of our success comes from word of mouth, although there are Oska addicts out there who wear it head to toe.” Retail prices for the brand range from £59 for a vest to £470 for a coat.

Oska sales director Sule Tiryaki confirms that Theaker is one of the largest Oska stockists in the UK. “Retail is very competitive and there are many department stores, which makes it extremely difficult for independent retailers to succeed,” says Tiryaki. “Janie, however, is a very experienced businesswoman who is great at buying the appropriate stock. The store has a great location, which is always attracting new customers to Oska.”

During autumn 14, sales in the Oska store rose 25%, with Bridge’s up 12%. The company as a whole hit £1.1m in turnover (excluding VAT) in 2014, up from £961,186 in 2013, although Theaker declines to reveal profits.

The bestselling brands at Bridge are The Masai Clothing Company, Joseph Ribkoff and Sandwich. Joseph Ribkoff’s Midlands agent Stephen Chance has worked with Bridge for four years and believes Theaker’s knowledge of product and her customers has driven its success. “Janie and the team have years of retail experience and know their customer’s likes and dislikes. This makes for a confident purchase and pleasurable shopping experience.”

Other brands among the 14 in total include Bitte Kai Rand, Michèle, Crea Concept and Sahara, covering sizes eight to 18. Prices range from £19 for a Sandwich vest to £400 for a coat by Dutch brand Creenstone.

While the warm autumn weather hit coat sales, Theaker did see an uplift in demand for separates, knitwear and dresses. “We haven’t sold coats nearly as well as we usually do. Normally by Christmas our Creenstone coats are sold out, but we’ve got a lot left. That being said, the warm weather has encouraged shoppers into the town centre.”

Both Bridge and the Oska store share a single Bridge-branded transactional website, launched five years ago with an edit of the brands in store. While the site accounts for just 5% of turnover, it has pulled in traffic from Canada, the US and Australia. Theaker has also noticed a trend for customers researching online and then visiting in store.

A family business, Theaker opened Bridge in 1988 with her father Ward Gamble, former managing director of House of Fraser in the Midlands area. She is the fourth generation in her family to work in fashion retail, having joined Harrods’ management training scheme aged 18 in 1979. Starting off as a supervisor, over six years at Harrods she progressed to assistant buyer, working with then buyer Anne Pitcher, who is now managing director of Selfridges UK.

In 1985 Theaker moved from her role as department sales manager in women’s separates at Harrods to buyer for knitwear and separates at Regent Street department store Dickins & Jones.

Three years later and ready for a new challenge, she joined forces with her father to open Bridge on Drury Lane. The 1,000 sq ft shop launched with European brands KS, Marella, Tru Blouse, L’Ultima knitwear and Michèle, this being the only original brand still stocked today.

Theaker and her mother Bernice (who retired in 1999) manned the store for four months before employing Irene Grimes in 1988, an ex-buyer at House of Fraser Midlands, as a part-time sales assistant. Grimes retired from Bridge 25 years later.

The store began to build a strong following, benefitting from increased footfall after a John Lewis store opened in Solihull in 2000. A year later Theaker set about expanding Bridge into the vacant unit next door at 12 Drury Lane. “We couldn’t get any more turnover out of the current square footage, so we took the space, which meant extending into one seamless Bridge store,” she recalls. “We worked around [the] refit and didn’t close for a single day.”

The extra 1,000 sq ft gained enabled Theaker to introduce customer toilets, bright changing rooms and comfortable seating areas, as well as expand collections from brands like Gerard Darel, Sand and Turnover. Positioning as a mainstream indie with a quirky twist helped Bridge carve out a niche in Solihull’s town centre, which also houses premium boutiques Madeleine Ann and Katherine Draisey, as well as vintage-inspired lifestyle retailer Aspire Style.

While building up the business, Theaker moved house from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire to Wakefield in West Yorkshire to join her husband, David, and raise three children. She commutes to the store three days a week and is assisted by a team of seven across Bridge and Oska, headed by store manager Shelley Lambert.

From day one, all Bridge’s staff were trained to record customers’ names and addresses, creating a comprehensive database. Shoppers are then contacted about new products and upcoming events via email or personalised letters. Next season alone Theaker will host seven in-store fashion shows for Bridge, two for Oska and two for Joseph Ribkoff. The shows are held twice a year, across three weeks in March and September.

Bridge hopes to attract more customers when a new Carluccio’s Italian restaurant opens across the road in 2016. As well as refurbishing the stockroom, from June Bridge will be offering a year’s paid work placement for an undergraduate from the University of Manchester to learn about retailing. They will be charged with improving the website and working on SEO, as well as beefing up engagement on Twitter and Facebook.

Theaker is not willing to use flash Sales as a quick fix to attract consumer spend and Bridge only discounts in July and the end of December. “We didn’t take part in Black Friday; I’m very against all of that.

“Some retailers tried to steal a march on everyone else, even in September or October, shaving 10% to 20% off their prices for no reason. Our customers respect that we have Sales twice a year. We want to keep our integrity and longevity as a business.”

She acknowledges there are many challenges ahead for independent retail, not least business rates, which cost the equivalent of 75% of her rent. In 1985 this figure was closer to 25%.

“You see independents closing, but you don’t hear of them opening because the rates are so tough,” she says. “As an indie, you’re working for yourself and the only praise you get is from the accountant. Winning the Drapers Independents Award was so good for staff morale and our customers were thrilled.” It was the first time she had entered the competition.

She adds: “As the years go by, you realise that although the customers are really important to us, we’re also really important to them. We’re the place where they bought the dress for their daughter’s wedding or the outfit for their special birthday.”
While she won’t rule out further expansion, Theaker believes running one location really well is the best way to create a truly personal experience.

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