Ravi Grewal tells Drapers how he and his brothers transformed menswear independent Stuarts London into a Drapers award-winning, global multichannel business
It’s the end of the working day and people are streaming down Uxbridge Road in west London, most of them heading for Shepherd’s Bush station. In the smog of traffic, they pass kebab shops, bookies, pawnbrokers and newsagents. It is by no means a destination for premium fashion, and yet here is where you will find the winner of this year’s Drapers Independents Awards, Stuarts London.
Over the past eight years, the three Grewal brothers, Ravi, Gurjit and Harjit, have transformed this 1,000 sq ft menswear shop into a global multichannel business. They have turned its incongruous location, on a rundown road near Shepherd’s Bush Market and in the shadow of Westfield London, into one of its strengths, and proven that independent retailers can make ecommerce work.
This strategy is what scooped the trio both the Best Independent Multichannel Operator and the top prize of Independent Retailer of the Year at the Independent Awards last month.
At that time there was no TK Maxx quick and easy shopping experience
The brothers have invested a great deal of time and money into the website, which launched in 2008. Ravi in particular has worked hard to gain a better understanding of ecommerce. He is buying and merchandising director, but the website is very much his “baby”.
A fourth, responsive version of the site is due to go live in early 2016, and an app is in the pipeline. The brothers would not reveal figures, but said the business’s overall turnover is growing at an average rate of around 35-40% per year. Today, sales are split 60:40 between the store and online.
What really put Stuarts London on the ecommerce map was when, in 2009, the decided to revisit its casualwear past; reintroducing the luxury sports brands it was known for in the late 1980s, such as Fila, Sergio Tacchini and Diadora. This, along with clever use of Google AdWords, doubled its online sales almost overnight.
“So many people who used to shop at Stuarts came back,” says Ravi. “That’s what really did it – people liked the story.”
Founded by local trader Stuart Murray in 1967, the shop was well known among terrace lads as a destination for such brands. When local team Queens Park Rangers was playing, coaches would park up outside and fans would queue to get into Stuarts. But, by 1987, Murray had had enough and decided to sell up and go into the building trade.
Man and boy
Rajinder Grewal – the three boys’ father – bought the shop in 1987. He had been in the menswear business for years: having learned to cut and sew from a man he met in east London, he would make trousers at home with his wife sewing on the buttons and zips. They wholesaled during the week and sold direct to customers at Shepherds Bush Market on Sundays, where Murray also had a stall.
“At that time there was no TK Maxx quick and easy shopping experience; everybody went to a market on a Sunday. It was a thriving business,” explains Ravi.
They have shown that new ideas, a lot of drive and a desire to see opportunities rather than challenges have allowed their business to thrive
Bobby Lane, partner at accountancy firm Shelley Stock Hutter
Rajinder began supplementing Stuarts with his own-label garments, which he had made in Turkey, India and east London – whatever gave the best margin. Gurjit and Harjit were in college at the time, and Ravi in school. But years of hard work had taken their toll and Rajinder had a heart attack in 1989, while in his late 30s.
Gurjit and Harjit stepped in to help out full time, the former in buying and customer services, the latter in finance and managing the shop floor. Rajinder stayed on to oversee the book keeping and buying for 10 years before retiring completely – although his dressmaking scissors can still be found behind the cash desk.
Ravi, who, now 39, is eight years younger than his brothers, would come into the shop as a teenager in his spare time, often rearranging the merchandising, folding clothing or tucking in swing tickets.
“He was so passionate, he’d be in here every weekend and we’d let him get on with it,” recalls Harjit. It was several years before he left university in 1998 with a degree in business studies and joined Stuarts full time.
One of the first things he did then was acquire the vacant shop next door and set up a men’s and women’s footwear business, stocking brands such as Ted Baker, Timberland and Fly London. He ran it for five years before business dropped off and the brothers decided to specialise in men’s clothing and footwear.
From then on, Ravi took over sole responsibility for buying. Bit by bit, he began introducing new brands to the business, such as C17, Peter Werth, Ball and Wexmann.
The brothers had long talked about going online, but crunch time came when Westfield London was under construction in 2007.
“We considered it when Asos was gaining momentum (in the mid-2000s), but we didn’t need the extra business. It wasn’t until Westfield got planning permission that we seriously thought about it. We couldn’t survive as a small shop next to a giant like that,” says Ravi.
Westfield took away some of its local trade. Ravi estimates sales dipped by 30% in the first year, but they gradually clawed this back online by introducing more and more niche brands not readily available in the shopping centre. Yet he insists they welcomed Westfield’s arrival: “It was good for Shepherd’s Bush. We wouldn’t despise it because it wasn’t good for our business; we’re not like that.”
“They have shown that new ideas, a lot of drive and a desire to see opportunities rather than challenges have allowed their business to thrive, grow and become a business bigger than the shop where it all started,” observes Bobby Lane, partner at accountancy firm Shelley Stock Hutter.
I look for the bread and butter lines, a bit of flamboyance and that cherry on the cake to make [our offer] a bit different
Stuartslondon.com launched in 2008, the result of a lot of hard graft by Ravi – who did the graphics – and two web developers. “It was trial and error. We knew we’d make a go of it, but we didn’t know how good it was going to be.” About 15 brands agreed to go online at the start, and Ravi built this up slowly, adding a few more each season. But growth was sluggish until he hit upon the idea of going back to Stuarts’ roots.
For Ravi, the resulting doubling of its online sales was a huge relief. “I wasn’t happy with the way the online side was going at first. I’d spent so much time doing it, taking the photos, editing them, uploading them, and we had hardly any orders. I was a bit gutted. I remember thinking this is possibly the worst mistake I’ve ever made.”
He knew instantly that the reintroduction of retro brands was a winner. “We put Fila online and had a Google AdWord campaign next to it, and the stock sold out in two days.” Other retro bestsellers included the iconic Diadora Borg Elite kangaroo skin trainer worn in the 1980s by tennis player Bjorn Borg.
Ravi’s buying ability was one of the things the Drapers Independents Awards judges commended. As well as Italian retro brands, he chooses many that are rarely seen in the UK, such as Canadian brand Naked & Famous (stocked only by Liberty and Selfridges over here).
“I’ve always had a keen eye for fashion,” says Ravi. “I grew up in the business, so it became second nature. When I see something and get giddy over it, I think, that’s going to be really cool.
“But I also know I need commercial brands. I look for the bread and butter lines, a bit of flamboyance and that cherry on the cake to make [our offer] a bit different.” The business originally targeted men in their 30s or above, but it now attracts a much wider age range, from 25 to 45 and upwards.
“They have evolved their business to reach a broad cross-section of customers from what sounded like a very classic operation in the beginning – commendable in such competitive times,” observes Paula Fowler, director of fashion at menswear buying group AIS. “It is extremely stylish and perfectly crafted to appeal to the menswear consumer.”
We put Fila online and had a Google AdWord campaign next to it, and the stock sold out in two days
Online sales quickly climbed as the number of brands on the website topped 200. In January 2014, the brothers made the bold decision to close half the shop and give it over to the ecommerce operation and click-and-collect.
Perhaps surprisingly, this was Gurjit’s idea rather than Ravi’s.
“He said it wasn’t really giving us the return and we could use it for click-and-collect,” says Ravi.
“I was reluctant. I liked the décor and the flow of things. But he knew we didn’t need the space. He got his way in the end, after about six months, and it’s been the right decision.”
Online sales now make up 60% of the total. In the store, they display a selection of the brands available online – usually those with a higher price point, such as Canada Goose, Belstaff, Grenson and Armani – and remerchandise every two weeks.
Bestselling brands online include Nike, Adidas, CP Company and Paul & Shark. The brands range in price from Burlington Socks, which sell for £10, to a Belstaff jacket at £2,200. For the most part, when it comes to buying, Ravi sees the store and online as a single business.
“The store is a showroom,” he explains. “Sometimes I may buy something that is more interesting to touch and feel for the store, but the quantity would be small. If it kicks off online, next season we increase our buy.”
Key to Stuarts’ success is the relationship between the brothers. All have clear roles within the business – “We like to make sure there’s a family member in each department so we know it’s done properly,” says Ravi – and they show great respect for one another. “We’re more like friends than brothers. We’ve done it since such a young age; this is what we know. We trust each other’s judgement and let each other get on with things.”
“We get on well,” confirms Harjit, the eldest of the three. “With brothers if you don’t agree, you have to step back and give them time, then talk to them again.” Both he and Gurjit are clearly proud of Ravi, and all three are proud of the business they have built.
But there is no pressure on their own children to follow them into it. “We wouldn’t want them to do it because they have to – you have to have the drive,” says Harjit.
Ravi also runs local US and Australian sites for Stuarts, which launched in October 2014, as well as another menswear ecommerce business Dandyfellow.com, which has a smarter, suiting and eveningwear offer. Ravi hopes to expand these with time, particularly the US business, but this is a long-term goal; for now, Stuarts London is the main focus.
However, the brothers have no grand plans for growing the London business, which employs 12 people.
Ravi says: “The business deserves another store, a flagship store that’s more central and houses all the brands under one roof for people to touch and feel, but I’d have to delegate more to be able to do that, and I enjoy buying too much.
“That’s my favourite bit – finding that new gem, a new trend, bringing a new brand in, that’s what’s exciting. What we have at the moment is manageable, we’re content.”