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Trying to halve the problem

In November, Wendy Leat, owner of Kent womenswear indie The Find, won a year’s free advice from Mary Portas at the Drapers Fashion Summit. This month, she tries to offload her Sevenoaks store

When I first won the prize of an overhaul by Mary Portas, my initial feeling was of huge relief - suddenly I could hand over responsibility for the business, which had started successfully but become a drain on our resources. But over Christmas it became apparent there was no quick fix.

Like-for-like sales in December were up 9.1% at Cranbrook and 24.3% at Sevenoaks, but then January has been dire. Cranbrook’s sales fell 5.1% and Sevenoaks’ fell 12.4%. One week we took only £800 at the Sevenoaks store.

Mary advised me at the Drapers Fashion Summit last November that I should close the Sevenoaks store and focus on our successful shop in Cranbrook, and on developing our fledgling website. In my heart of hearts, I know she’s right.

My husband and I have looked at buying The Find out of the Sevenoaks lease, but with eight years left to run at a rental of £21,000 a year, it is unfeasible. We a0re now investigating other ways of getting out early. Our contract prevents us from subletting and the number of vacant properties in Sevenoaks (19 on our stretch alone) suggests it will be difficult to sell the lease, but we’ve had some preliminary discussions with a neighbouring homeware retailer in Cranbrook about taking the Sevenoaks store off our hands.

Mary [who this week used her Channel 4 TV series Mary Portas: Secret Shopper to expose poor service from estate agents] also called our lettings agent on Monday to negotiate an early exit or flexibility on terms. We are still waiting to see what the outcome is.

Meanwhile, we are rethinking our brand mix for autumn 11. We are axing brands like Betty Jackson 2, which has not performed well for us, and upping our spend with others, such as Sandwich, which seem to fly out of the door. We’ve taken the decision to ditch forward-order brands for Sevenoaks and I’m now looking for great short-order brands that can attract customers, but also provide the flexibility we need. We plan to spend two days instead of one at [womenswear trade show] Pure London and Pure Spirit scouting for exciting new labels that will help us stand out.

Learning lessons

I’ve also taken valuable lessons from some Skillsmart workshops I have attended, which I plan to implement in store. One of the sessions focused on visual merchandising and window displays. This is something I already believe I’m good at, partly thanks to a previous career in interiors, so I knew all about sightlines and the need to use windows to create a bit of retail theatre. However, I’ll be looking to create more clearly defined product zones - for example grouping all the accessories together - and plan to lower the store counters to prevent staff from hiding behind them. I’ve also started monitoring the routes shoppers take in store, where they browse and where they buy from, to make sure we place product in the right places to maximise sales.

Finally, I’ll be ensuring all of my staff are trained to recognise how to serve different types of shopper and are fully briefed about the product.

I’ll also be setting them goals each day, such as cross-selling incentives. That will be a challenge given one of the four members of staff is my husband and another is my daughter, but the business needs it.

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