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The Drapers Interview: Victoria Suffield's award-winning indie formula

The owner of The Hambledon, Drapers’ Independent Retailer of the Year, is proud to be a shopkeeper extraordinaire

Victoria Suffield The Hambledon

Victoria Suffield The Hambledon

Victoria Suffield The Hambledon

Tucked away from the high street and a stone’s throw from an impressive cathedral, it is difficult to picture a lovelier spot for an independent retailer than The Hambledon’s Winchester home.

Once you step inside, what looks like an average-sized shop from the outside unfolds into a deceptively large department store, where it would be easy to while away the hours browsing the quirky and carefully curated range of fashion, beauty, homeware and gifts.

The Hambledon is riding high. Praised by judges as an “innovative store built on passion”, it was the big winner at last month’s Drapers Independent Awards, taking home the best lifestyle independent of the year and independent retailer of the year.

I had to convince them I wasn’t trying to catch them out – I was just trying to sell nice things

Owner Victoria Suffield grew up around retail and The Hambledon started life as a branch of her mum’s Dorset-based independent, The Hambledon Gallery. After a stint working for an art dealer and a short-lived dabble in film production, Suffield went back to work with her mum in 1995.

 

“I didn’t want to work for anyone else any more, so I thought I’ll go and work with my mum. Around the same time, I set up a mail order homeware business and we had a weird concentration of customers around Winchester, so I thought, well, we should open a shop in Winchester. I’d done no research, apart from knowing the mail order business had customers there and I thought it’s a busier place, so we’ll be more successful- what can go wrong?

”The idea of attempting a kind of mini-department store was from my mum, but when we found this site we had to really look at ramping up each department because we had so much space.”

Sizeable challenge

The shop’s early days when it first opened in 1999 were not easy. The idyllic location came with high rents and Suffield was faced with the considerable challenges of winning around locals and finding enough stock to fill the 3,500 sq ft space.

“The biggest thing was being unknown. People don’t like to feel wrong-footed and at the start, some people were quite combative because they didn’t know what the shop was meant to be,” she says. “I had to convince them I wasn’t trying to catch them out – I was just trying to sell nice things. A lot of people also thought we were closing down, which I can understand, because it was too empty at the beginning. We hadn’t quite figured out how big it was.”

Recognising that The Hambledon would need to be more directional than its Dorset counterpart to meet the demands of its customers, Suffield then split from her mum’s business.

Buyers think we’re funny – when we’re choosing clothes, we often to refer to customers by name

“The issues we had in Winchester were very different to the ones in Dorset,” she continues. “We had this socking great rent but we also had a very different customer. Winchester was just beginning to be a city of London ’refugees’, with all these young families who had moved to nearby villages but [still had London shopping expectations], thinking, “Where’s the Paul & Joe Sister? Where’s Equipment?’”

Despite a difficult start, it was an early chance to walk away from the business that convinced Suffield she wanted to make The Hambledon work.

“In the first couple of years, I was approached by someone who wanted to take over the site and run it as something entirely different. The night before the meeting I suddenly thought: ’No. I’m not ready to give this up.’ I was living with my family in Dorset and commuting to Winchester and I thought the only way I could see it working is if we lived in Winchester. That was the turning point – when we’d bought a house here and became part of the place. We had a life here then, so we had to make it work.”

Thehambledon 25

Thehambledon 25

 

Premium problem

Sixteen years on and The Hambledon is going strong. Turnover in 2015 was £1,700,000 – up from £1,550,000 the year before. Suffield says the shop is slightly down for 2016 – which she describes as “irritating but not worrying” – as a result of struggling to find premium brands that she likes. However, the shop had a good summer where many other retailers struggled and autumn has got off to a strong start.

Suffield has a definite sense of what will work for The Hambledon’s customers – and what will not. Ruling out anything with diamanté or flashy logos, the focus is on aspirational and directional brands at a variety of price points. American Vintage and French label Sessun both performed well in womenswear over the summer.

“When I’m looking at a brand, I think: ‘Do I love it and do I aspire to wear it some way?’” says Suffield. “It’s not necessarily something I will wear, but if I were 25, or if I were a foot taller, I would. And obviously we make pragmatic choices – we have to think about price points. And do we have a nice entry level price? Because I don’t like people to come in and say, ‘I can’t afford anything’. That’s not true and I want it to be clearly not true.”

It’s a particularly good feeling when a customer comes in and gets something you thought they would buy

Suffield knows what she likes. However, buying is a joint effort with her close-knit team. Right-hand woman Lucy Coles helps Suffield with the womenswear buy, while Rob Adams heads the equally important menswear department. Down in the building’s impressive Norman basement, menswear offers well-chosen brands such as Patagonia, Oliver Spencer and Japanese denim label Edwin.

“You could put Lucy and me in separate rooms when we’re buying, and we’d come back with the same rail of clothes – with a few exceptions,” Suffield adds.

Suffield, Coles and Adams all still work on the shop floor, which hones their buy: “We understand our customers. When we go buying, people find us funny because, when we’re choosing clothes, we often to refer to customers by name. Obviously, we don’t mean we’ll sell only one unit to that one person, but those customers become a kind of archetype for us.”

It is all part of Suffield’s passion for what she calls “proper shopkeeping”: “I do love the immediacy of it. I’m in the shop, a person comes in and there’s a proper relationship with proper conversation there, they’re touching real things, which you’ve put out to make look nice. It’s so direct. It’s a particularly good feeling when a customer comes in and gets something you thought they would buy.”

 

The Hambledon awards

The Hambledon awards

The Hambledon won two Drapers Independents Awards this year

Debra McCann, owner of London womenswear independent The Mercantile, was one of the judges for this year’s Drapers Independents Awards.

She praises the store for its focused approach: “The Hambledon connects well to its customers. It’s very well thought out, they know what they love and they know their customer base. It’s been an inspiring store for a period of time, which can be difficult to sustain. It’s an anchor store that’s really a part of the local community. That’s inspiring.”

Once you start trying to replicate it on a bigger scale, does it all start becoming about the numbers?

The team behind the Hambledon have slowly started to explore expanding the business, opening a second, smaller site in nearby Cowley.

Although some of the problems Suffield expected to surface when opening another site have not materialised, expansion remains a thorny issue: “The things we thought would be really difficult haven’t been as difficult as we expected. I had two main concerns: I was worried we wouldn’t be able to staff it, and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to stock it and keep track of what stock was where.

”I’m at that period now when, if I ever were to retire, I’ve got to think: am I selling one lifestyle business or is it a bigger thing? And do we need to be looking at whether we roll this out and have branches?”

She explains: “All of the team have a really nice life here and doing something across multiple sites becomes a lot more difficult. Once you start trying to replicate it on a bigger scale, does it all start becoming about the numbers?

”I’m motivated by the money in the sense that we’re quite target driven. We always want to do better than we did yesterday and I’m very conscious about what’s in the bank, but big money isn’t my motivation. I’ve got such a lovely life and I wonder if it would be less lovely if I’m looking at numbers, rather than at people and things.”

Online growth

It is easy to see why Suffield might be reluctant to tweak what has proved to be a magic formula. A much clearer area earmarked for growth is the online side of the business. The Hambledon has a healthy social media following (close to 10,000 on Instagram) and operates a transactional website for homeware that could soon be expanded to include fashion.

“The immediate thing is online. We’ve got a presence online – it’s transactional anyway and there’s lots of rejigging to be done but we have the people to do it. Growing the existing sites as much as we can and developing online is the real focus before we think about moving on.”

The keen eye, hard work and determination of Suffield and her dedicated team has built a shop that captures everything that makes independent retailers special. Whatever they choose to do with the Hambledon next, it will be well worth watching. 

 

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