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Spice still hot after 25 years in business

London footwear indie Spice will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its first store this weekend.

From humble beginnings selling plimsolls and jewellery on a Camden market stall to a solid two-store business that turns over almost £1m, selling premium brands such as Paul Smith and Chie Mihara, Spice has cemented its position on the indie landscape. It won Women’s Footwear Retailer of the Year in the 2008 Drapers Footwear Awards and has been shortlisted every year since.

Drapers quizzed owner Gerard Levy about how the family business survived two recessions and how struggling start-ups can improve.

How is the business performing now?

We’re in line to do almost £1m this year in two stores, which is good. It has grown steadily, but realistically we still don’t make enough profit. I’m at a crossroads now about where I should open a third store. I know the concept would work in southwest London, but it would mean employing managers and investing in an EPoS system.

How has Spice evolved in 25 years?

Spice was set up by my mother Helen Levy and I officially took over five years ago, but I’d worked for her since I was 15 and gradually took over the buying from about 1995. We opened the Primrose Hill store (pictured right) in 1985 then a second shop in Highgate in 1992. Primrose Hill did well, but in Highgate we weren’t getting the footfall or demographic we needed, so we closed that in 2004. We gave it a good shot but you’ve got to know when to pull out. We opened in Islington in 2005 and took £15,000 in the first three days, which was as much as we’d done in two months in Highgate.

What changes have you made since you took over?

We used to flog plimsolls for £18.99 so I’ve radically changed our buying strategy. The first thing I did was cut down the number of brands and styles. My mother over-bought and had hundreds of styles. I only carry about 50 styles and nine brands now. I spent time as an agent for French handbag brand Sequoia, which merchandised everything cleanly with space to display the product - as if you were walking into a French cosmetics store, yet the product was affordable. I’ve adopted that strategy, which is rare in footwear.

Did you make any changes during the recession?

The recession in the 1990s was far worse, and we made cuts then that put us in better shape for this one. We used to have at least two staff in each shop at a time and now it’s usually one. We hold less stock and we’ve moved most of it to behind the counter so you don’t need to leave the shopfloor.

You’re also a sales agent for footwear brands C Doux and Ras. Working from both sides, what advice do you have for floundering indies?

A lot buy to their personal tastes. You need to research the market, pick your niche then stick with it, otherwise no one will trust you. If you start buying in little side lines the consumer will know your main business is struggling. If you buy well for your market you don’t need to give them hundreds of choices.

Are you using your 25th anniversary to market the business?

We opened Primrose Hill on 28 August 1985 so officially we turn 25 this weekend, but we’re holding a party in the Light Bar at St Martins Lane hotel in London next month for about 50 people.

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