Children’s footwear brand Start-Rite relaunches today with a new logo, as part of a wider revamp covering brand identity, product categories and infrastructure.
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When Ian Watson was approached by a headhunter in late 2015 to consider applying for the CEO role at premium kid’s footwear brand Start-Rite – a small family business in Norwich – his initial reaction was: “I think you’ve got the wrong number!”
His curiosity was piqued, however, when he was told it wanted someone with experience in private equity, consumer goods and brands to revolutionise the business: “That caught my interest, and here I am, nearly bang on two years later,” Watson tells Drapers over generous mugs of coffee at Start-Rite’s newly refurbished headquarters at Broadland Business Park, just outside Norwich.
Watson joined Start-Rite in February 2016. Following his role as European managing director and part of the team that under the ownership of Carlyle Group engineered an impressive turnaround at child-safety product manufacturer Britax Childcare, he was brought in to transform the 226-year-old brand’s fortunes.
He soon sensed Start-Rite, believed to be the oldest children’s shoe company in the world, had become too distant from today’s families: it was “looking down from a pedestal”, rather than engaging directly with consumers and retail partners to develop the products they needed. Investing in research, Watson decided, was critical.
“When we develop products the consumers need, we can [actively] help our retail base promote them,” he says. “For me, it was different because fashion is more subjective than the other consumer categories I’ve been involved with, but fact beats anecdote: if you know a thousand consumers are crying out for an element to be built into a product, you’ll minimise the amount of risk you’re taking.”
We’re taking data from our consumers and overlaying it with our bio-mechanical knowledge of children
After assessing feedback, the answer to the question on everyone’s minds became apparent to Watson: “How are we going to win, as a tiny little business in Norwich? We’re going to win by being quicker, leaner and more nimble in everything we do. We want to be an easy-to-do-business-with company.”
But first, a lot of groundwork had to be laid. The most recent set of results filed with Companies House show that Start-Rite’s sales fell by 20.2% to £18.2m for the year to 31 December 2016, leading to a group loss before tax of £877,000, from an £840,000 pre-tax profit in 2015.
The turnaround has since begun to show signs of bearing fruit. Watson indicates that the group has “significantly” reduced its losses for the year to December 2017. However, sales for the period declined year on year, partly driven by the high-profile collapse of Brantano and store closures following the pre-pack administration last March of Jones Bootmaker.
“They were big customers for us. We managed to really focus on some of our core customers to offset some of [the loss], but losing that many stores in one hit, almost from one day to the next in some cases, was a big loss for a business our size,” he laments.
Sales also fell as the brand exited some loss-making overseas markets in the Middle East and southern Europe during the year. However, Watson predicts “high single-digit” sales growth in the year ahead, pointing to a “phenomenal start” to the autumn 18 season and positive feedback from its retail customers.
We’re not too far from where we were in 1940: a brand that defined how shoes should be made for kids of that generation through research
During the past year, there have been new hires – operations director Gavin Price and head of design Claire Russell – and promotions, including head of people and financial controller Jo Westaway to finance director. This has brought total headcount to 86.
And this week Start-Rite launches a far-reaching revamp. Alongside a website redesign and point of sale launches, it kicks off a large-scale brand campaign in which it has invested “close to £1m”.
“As we start to roll out our new brand identity, people will see things go from PowerPoint to reality,” Watson enthuses. “We are going to re-energise this brand. Now that we’ve done all the base work and understand what it should be, we’re confident to be able to invest in the position we’ve developed.”
End of an era
The famous Start-Rite twins logo, which has formed part of its brand identity for more than 80 years, has also been revamped. For Watson, it heralds a return to Start-Rite’s pioneering spirit: “We’re not too far from where we were in 1940. Back then, we were a brand that defined how shoes should be made for kids of that generation through research. The twins were an iconic image of children going off and enjoying themselves. Over time, this got lost visually. So we’ve redrawn the twins, removed them from the logo and they’re off doing something, which is what we’re about.”
British Footwear Association chief executive John Saunders says he has a “soft spot” for Start-Rite and the twins logo: his career began in 1979 as an area sales manager for the brand. He notes the children’s market has changed since, from a time when retailers budgeted more for fitted kids’ shoes, and there was better public awareness about shoe fitting and children’s foot health.
“The ethos is now different: many parents are more interested in brands and fashion. The reduction in the number of retailers specialising in and stocking multi-width fitting shoes, and the shift to consumers buying online has changed the influence of hands-on fitting specialists,” he observes. “While I don’t think this altogether a good thing, Start-Rite needed someone who could think outside the box.”
It’s about making the brand relevant to today’s families. This is driving our product development
As part of the revamp, the brand is categorising products by three lifestyle ranges, rather than by gender, from autumn 18, defined by their sole-tread patterns: “Classics” (retail prices from £39.99) focuses on its traditional styles; “Kicks” (from £29.99) is designed to transition “from classroom to playground”; and “Pioneers” (from £47.99) is its more “active” line.
The brand worked with experts in bio-mechanics, physiology and podiatry to develop the ranges.
“We’re taking data from our consumers and overlaying it with our bio-mechanical knowledge of children at different ages and [body] masses. It’s a slightly different philosophy,” he explains. “It’s about making the brand relevant to today’s families. This is driving our product development. Historically, we had very smart shoes for girls, and slightly more casual ones for boys. We’re repositioning the brand to help children move around freely – we’re not defining what they should be, but [rather, saying that] whatever they want to be, we’ve got them.”
Among its other priorities are first-walking and pre-school ranges – SKUs in the latter are being expanded by 40% for autumn 18. Geographically, its focus for the next 12 to 18 months is on territories with expatriate communities, including new markets in Hong Kong and Dubai. It has about 50 wholesale accounts – in France, Australia, Malta, Singapore and United Arab Emirates – with retailers such as Shoes & Sox in Australia and Sarenza in France. In the UK, it is sold in 400 independent and multiple retail stores, among them John Lewis, Russell & Bromley and Trotters.
In the same month Watson joined, Start-Rite sold off its retail business, One Small Step, which comprised eight stores and four concessions. There are no plans to revisit bricks and mortar: “Start-Rite has had two or three goes at retail. We are not retailers. We’re specialists in the design of children’s footwear.”
Charles Clinkard, managing director at footwear chain Clinkards, has stocked Start-Rite for more than 50 years. He notes: “Ian seems like a switched-on guy, but there are a lot of issues to tackle. Larger retailers are recognising that kids’ school shoes present a massive opportunity at that time of year, so competition has increased. Having feet measured for a good fit is still important, but the [likes of] Next and Marks & Spencer are producing shoes that come out of good factories and fit very well, so competition is strong now.”
We’ve spent a lot of time improving our service levels. That’s one of the biggest areas that’ll improve the business
Start-Rite is improving product quality through rigorous testing. Sole adhesion was the top reason for product returns, so Watson has upped testing on durability to “beyond” industry standards. Some of its slip tests, for example, involve up to 11 substrates (surface types).
Start-Rite’s overhaul extends to its infrastructure: new systems for enterprise resource planning, trade web orders, accounting and computerised warehouse management are set to go live at its Norwich distribution centre this month.
The boss at a footwear multiple says that, although it is not stocking Start-Rite “for the moment” as its product was “too classic”, after meeting with the brand, he finds it “more dynamic than it used to be”.
He adds: “You can’t get away from the fact that the consumer is shopping in a different way. Business is harder online because of the nature of fittings but, as a heritage brand with a certain niche, it has got to master ecommerce, like everyone else on the high street, or [risk falling behind].”
Watson says online represents around 15% of total sales and is showing “strong growth”. New delivery deals were signed last month with TNT for trade partners, and Royal Mail for online consumers. The distribution centre’s operating hours have been extended to two shifts. Meanwhile, 20 staff have undergone a training programme for mapping out processes.
“We’ve spent a lot of time improving our service levels. That’s one of the biggest areas that’ll improve the business, including the back-to-school period, which is getting more and more compressed,” surmises Watson. “Having better processes means we can forecast better, which means, hopefully, we’ve got less product we have to discount. That will help profitability and our stockholding.”
Fact-driven Watson seems to be making giant steps in getting Start-Rite back on track, but as a relative newcomer to footwear retail, he is still getting to grips with some aspects: “I’m very logical, and I think the fashion industry is, in some senses, not so logical.
“It’s tricky. Sometimes I look at a product and think: ‘That is going to be a winner,’ and it’s not. That bit comes with experience. That’s the learning I’ve had – you don’t stop learning.”
Turnaround expert kicks off Start-Rite relaunch