Old-fashioned customer service and a modern buying approach helped Lauren Ferguson’s Sisters Boutique in Falkirk scoop a Drapers Award
”I buy every day,” says Lauren Ferguson, as she sits down to discuss what makes her Falkirk store Sisters Boutique and its next-door neighbour, Fergie, a success. “WhatsApp has become an increasingly useful tool for me. Most of the wholesalers and agents I work with have my mobile number and they’ll send me photos of what’s arrived throughout the day.”
Constantly switched on to both her customers and suppliers, Ferguson’s hands-on approach to running her stores is just one of many factors that has contributed to Sisters Boutique - which this year celebrates 18 years in business - picking up last year’s Drapers Award for Young Fashion Independent of the Year.
Born and raised in Falkirk, the 44-year-old knows her customer inside out and this is reflected in how she buys. “Sisters has never really been a designer shop, but we’ve always stocked some niche British brands, like Kevan Jon and Miss Milne. I mix that with budget pieces I get from wholesalers in Manchester, so that someone can always pick up a quick treat at £20.”
While prices go up to around £300 for a Kevan Jon dress at Sisters Boutique, Fergie’s more casual offering of mostly unbranded product is between £10 and £50. However, Fergie does house an Ugg Australia shop-in-shop, with some styles of sheepskin boot costing up to £350.
Ferguson describes Fergie as comparable to New Look or Topshop, and sees Sisters Boutique as more in line with Coast or Karen Millen. As she puts it: “Sisters is the place to go when you’ve got a place to go.” Sales are split almost equally between the two stores, although Ferguson explains that the ratio used to be 70/30 in favour of Fergie until Ugg Australia started selling directly through its own website.
Ferguson’s reputation as a smart buyer earns her high praise from the brands and agencies she works with. “Lauren has an old-school approach to retailing, and I mean that in the most positive sense,” says Michelle Quiligotti, director of Manchester-based Society Agencies, which represents brands including Little Mistress and Angeleye. “She believes in quality brands that offer longevity, as opposed to over-distributed labels, but at the same time she isn’t afraid to try something new.”
As a case in point, Ferguson recently picked up London-based denim brand Wåven, which launched last year for autumn 15. Rachel Thompson, its sales agent, tells Drapers: “Sisters has a fantastic reputation as one of the key indies in the UK, and we are hoping that being stocked there will raise Wåven’s profile.”
When it comes to selecting brands to work with, exclusivity is a key requirement for Ferguson, and she isn’t afraid to sever ties with companies that don’t respect this. “I’m fed up with agents who go out and sell anything to anyone,” she says. “I’ll fight tooth and nail for exclusivity. I’ve fallen out with people over it, but it’s about looking out for my business.” Likewise, she is always wary when a brand sells directly online.
Perhaps the biggest secret to Ferguson’s success is her emphasis on customer service. “You can buy a black dress anywhere,” she says, frankly. “As an independent retailer you have to go the extra mile.”
This means in-house alterations, which are usually free, a local home delivery service and even systems to help customers who may not have the money to pay there and then. “We offer two options. Customers can either come in and put cash away as part of a savings club, or they can put down a 20% deposit - and we’ll put it aside for them until they have the money to pay the balance,” explains Ferguson, acknowledging that this is something that a high street or online retailer would not be able to offer.
Her four full-time and three part-time staff know many of the customers individually. “You don’t get the level of personal service in Mango or House of Fraser that you do here. I get girls coming in at 4pm on a Saturday who have been shopping in Glasgow all day and bought nothing. Then within 10 minutes they’ll have found something in my shop.”
With an enormous dedication to her store and her clientele, it’s hard to believe that until 2005, Sisters Boutique was something of a sideline for Ferguson. During her early 20s, she held a number of full-time - and full-on - roles within the fashion industry.
When she opened Sisters Boutique in 1996, in a smaller store opposite its current location on Lint Riggs in the town centre, Ferguson was working in sales at jeans brand Lee, part of VF Corporation, based in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. She then took a merchandising role at Nike, working from her home in Falkirk, before returning after a year and a half to a more senior sales position at Lee. From there, she was headhunted by US casualwear manufacturer Fruit of the Loom.
“I led two lives for a long time,” she says. “I was working all week then driving up to Manchester every Sunday to buy for my store.”
In 2005, while at Fruit of the Loom, she gave birth to her son, Blair. “I had every intention of going back after maternity leave. I had a fantastic manager, Susan Lapsley, in place at Sisters, so the business really ran itself.” However, when a bigger store became available across the street, she was forced to re-evaluate. “After juggling everything for so long, I decided to put all of my energy into Sisters.”
She sold her house to fund the 50% mortgage deposit and bought the bigger store for £195,000. She continues to embrace the challenge of running her own business, operating to this day as a sole trader. Ferguson is unwilling to discuss financials, although does say the stores remain at the heart of her business, with only around 10% of turnover coming from the Sistersboutique.co.uk site, which sells product from both stores.
When the unit next door to Sisters Boutique became available in 2007, Ferguson quickly signed the lease on what would become Fergie. Not only was it perfectly located, the building also held special significance. “My father was a tailor. He owned a menswear shop, Browns, that used to be where Fergie is now,” she recalls. Her father’s business closed in the 1980s but Ferguson, along with her brother Greg, had grown up helping him in the stockroom.
Realising that retail was in her blood, she attended Glasgow’s Central College of Commerce after school to study Retail Display and Exhibition Design, leaving early to gain on-the-job experience, first at C&A and then at the now defunct What Everyone Wants. Her first taste of running an indie came in 1990, when she set up a menswear shop for Greg, which he still owns. Initially Tammy Troot, it is now called Brothers and is just five minutes’ walk from Sisters Boutique and Fergie, on the High Street.
Though her attachment to the town and people of Falkirk is undeniable, Ferguson readily admits it isn’t the easiest place to run a fashion business. Its location, almost equidistant between Glasgow and Edinburgh, means shoppers often opt to travel to bigger cities instead. Many high street stores, including Next and Topshop, have either moved to nearby retail parks or left the town altogether. “People thought I’d be glad that Topshop was closing, but I wasn’t. It stops Falkirk being a destination,” she says.
Ferguson believes the local council has contributed to the decline with high business rates and restrictive parking rules. Until recently, she lobbied the council on behalf of local businesses, but no more. “They [the council] have meetings about meetings about meetings and they do nothing. I spent years fighting it, but the level of apathy is just criminal.”
These challenging conditions made her triumph at the 2014 Drapers Independents Awards all the more worthwhile. “I first entered in 2006 and then made the shortlist in 2013. So to finally win last year felt amazing. I know why I didn’t get through in the past, and it made me up my game year on year. I’d absolutely recommend anybody to enter, as it makes you really examine every aspect of your business. It’s very good for morale, great for the staff, and it’s a wonderful accolade to have.”
Enter this year’s Drapers Independents Awards at www.drapersindependents.co.uk