Poised to conduct a major refurb and with the title of Drapers’ Most Inspiring Indie tucked under its belt, this premium retailer goes from strength to strength.
On the face of it, the name Sarah Coggles sounds comforting and perhaps not unlike the kind of nom de plume a mass-market writer of romantic fiction for women might adopt. Now consider a location. York, like the writers of women’s fiction, is comforting – a place filled with tearooms and ancient walls, as well as one of our more genteel universities.
Finally, put the name Sarah Coggles and York together and you might appear to have a formula that would get the thumbs up from a Women’s Institute meeting, between mouthfuls of Madeira cake and a cup of Earl Grey.
Yet the truth is that Sarah Coggles is an independent retailer, with two separate, yet connected, shops in York. This is a retail business with a reputation that extends nationwide for being a cutting-edge purveyor of fashion, books and, in the not too distant future, bikes.
It was also the recipient, last week, of the Drapers Most Inspiring Indie award, beating off competition to emerge as the place where you are most likely to walk out feeling that you’ve had a great retail experience. A visit to the two stores, which between them total 10,000 sq ft of floorspace, far bigger than most indies, is therefore something of a must if you are to understand the sector. And it is worth noting that unlike many others, Sarah Coggles has a buying and marketing office in London – ensuring it is well placed to pick up on trends from the capital, instead of waiting for the biannual pilgrimage made by so many and which can so easily result in tired-looking collections.
Key looks and merchandise mix
Take your pick, all life is here. Whether it’s Paul Smith, Denim & Supply from Ralph Lauren, Comme des Garçon’s Play or perhaps Odd Molly, for the older, yet style-aware female shopper, this is an inclusive assembly of familiar and unfamiliar brands.
What unites it all is the buying eye that has been applied to what the visitor sees on the rails – this really is about editing and selecting the best of what’s out there and it would actually be quite tough to walk into this store and not find something you absolutely have to have.
Sarah Coggles chief executive Mark Bage says many of the brands that are stocked are the result of long-term relationships, meaning the store has a good number of exclusive lines. It is also worth noting that the average selling price is on the up. “In the store, it’s probably around £140 and online it’s £170, but this will move closer to the £200 mark this season,” says Bage. He adds there is always a temptation in the independent sector to “move price downwards” but “what’s easier, to sell three dresses at £70 or one dress at £200?”
It’s an attitude that means that much of what is on view is about must-have wardrobe building, and with Bage stating that 40% of what’s in-store is always new, then it’s a place that demands loyalty.
There is no point-of-sale material in either store. Bage and team have deliberately eschewed the temptation to plaster the walls with images of, say, Dita Von Teese, or willowy models reclining on a foreign shore. The policy results in a very clean interior as far as the shopper’s gaze is concerned and the focus is resolutely on the stock.
Both shops are old, however, with one dating from the 17th century, while the other harks back to the 1400s. This, in its turn, means small rooms, large wooden beams and a visual merchandising challenge. A brief look at the shops’ windows provides a clue to much of what is done internally. There are no mannequins in the windows and there is a brand menu, created from a black pegboard with white letters that wouldn’t look out of place in a chip shop. Bage says this is changed regularly and the clean, uncluttered nature of the window displays is replicated across the sales floors.
There are also some non-standard touches. In the women’s shop, there is a runner rail with the usual butcher’s hooks that are currently in vogue as a way of displaying denim.
In Sarah Coggles, however, they are used to show off non-denim clothing – a simple ploy, but one that catches the eye owing to the fact that few do it.
And wherever you look, there are simple garment installations – which manage to strike a balance between filling surplus unmerchantable space and looking crowded.
Bage says there is a budget of £100 a week for visual merchandising across the two stores, but that it is rarely used.
It looks as if considerably more has been involved.
If you’re on your own when you enter either of these shops, you won’t remain that way for long. Pleasant, smiling, modishly dressed young people meet and greet and the outcome is that you are made to feel welcome, without being pressured. As is the case in most quality indies, housekeeping standards are high and the impression is that of a duck moving serenely across a pond – everything may look pleasing, but a lot of behind-the-scenes activity has gone into maintaining this.
There really is almost nothing to dislike about what’s been done in either shop. Limestone flooring, clean white walls and ancient beams allow each room to yield something different. In the women’s store, pride of place belongs to the white footwear room with its fold-up vintage cinema seats. And in the men’s shop, it would be the room at the back of the shop on the first floor with the glossy courier’s bike and the suspended despatch rider bags. This view is a selective one, however, as there is something worth looking at in almost every room.
Yet, Sarah Coggles is about to undergo a makeover that will see it recreated. The shopfit in the womenswear store has been in place for more than 20 years, so you can see why this is deemed necessary.
Does it work?
Of course it does. There is strength apparent in every facet of this business and it provides an object lesson in running an independent retail enterprise. The website, with its predominance of white, is as clean as the stores themselves and the constant striving to incorporate the new means this is an indie to seek out again and again.
It’s really not quite as impressive as nearby York Minster, but if you are interested in fashion it would be very hard to pass by. In a location full of well-presented retail, Sarah Coggles stands out.
Address 91-93 Low Petergate, York
Size 10,000 sq ft (across the two shops) Founded 1974.
Standalone menswear shop opened eight years ago
Most recent award Drapers’ Most Inspiring Indie 2012