Going off the beaten track to find new brands is a tactic that helps independent retailers to thrive.
Independent retailers live or die by their brand mix. Independents need a fresh, unique and differentiated product range to draw in consumers and, with a considered approach, they can ensure their brands shine.
In a challenging environment, it can seem like a risk to take on new names, but if they rely solely on established brands, independents lose their unique appeal and can find themselves competing with department stores, chains and online retailers.
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Joanna Davies, owner and founder of women’s and men’s independent Black White Denim in Wilmslow, Cheshire, believes pursuit of freshness should be core for independents: “We should offer something different, not replicate the same brands: that smacks of a lack of imagination. If we don’t have the strength of character and belief in our brands to do this, then we are in the wrong business.”
Alex Lyles is co-founder of Claret Showroom, which represents brands including cashmere label Madeline Thompson and activewear brand Varley. She notes that independents are ideally positioned to test new brands with relatively low risk, thanks to their close relationships with their customers.
“Independents have the huge advantage of knowing exactly what their customers think and feel,” she explains. “A good salesperson can extract feedback on the brand, and often that is the buyer or owner themselves.
“They can try new things and, if it doesn’t work, speak to the customer personally and find out what the resistance is. They can really find out why something has or has not worked.
“There will always be bread-and-butter brands, but a rotation of other labels lets indies test what works and keep customers interested. They are more flexible than larger retailers, and can try a wider variety of brands, buying less heavily into them.”
Michael Stars autumn 18
This is a strategy that has proved successful for Michele Poynter, owner of lingerie retailer Mish in Wadebridge, Cornwall.
“Half of the store is dedicated to brands that the customer would know, and they are a draw,” she explains. “The other half is brands that are a little bit unusual. If we have just what’s available in John Lewis or House of Fraser, it’s much harder to make the argument of why you should come to us.”
Indies can try new things and if it doesn’t work they can speak to the customer personally and find out what the resistance is
Alex Lyles, Claret Showroom
Joanna Nicola, managing director of west London luxury womenswear independent Oxygen Boutique, agrees, and notes that customer trust and brand experimentation go hand in hand: “It was quite difficult at the beginning, before we built up the trust from our customers, to stock lesser-known brands. Now we have the credibility to be able to offer exciting, new and up-and-coming brands.”
Cory Burke, founder of The Last Agencies, which represents brands including Danish womenswear label Sofie Schnoor and trainer company Woden, says that retailers can experiment with brands by adding new categories to their offer: “The independents that seem to be succeeding are those that have a clutch of core brands with strong distribution, but also add newness to their offer each season by including products outside of clothing and footwear.”
Nonetheless, some stores play it safe with brands they know will perform – a sense of security in troubled times for the high street.
Lucy Wernick is founder of Lucy Wernick Fashion Agency, whose brands include footwear label Ivylee Copenhagen. She stresses that independents should continue to introduce freshness to sustain their stores.
“Some retailers are already saying that they’re not taking on anything new next season [spring 19],” she says. “They’re not looking at anything new for the whole season – but I feel like looking for newness is what their job is. That’s what makes their shops better and brings their customers in.
“A lot of independents are comfortable buying brands they’re familiar with, but often these are the same brands that can be seen again five miles down the road. I don’t feel that there is enough looking around, exploring and discovering what’s new.”
Wernick notes that “daring” product is not vital. She says US womenswear brand Michael Stars is new to the UK for autumn 18, but has been established in its home market for 30 years: “Daring can be risky – business is not easy and people don’t want to take on something too wacky. But there are many new brands in the market that are also commercial.”
Bigger brands impose larger minimum order quantities, so exclusives are not always an option for independents when working with them. However, some labels and retailers do work together to create unique products to draw interest.
Madeline Thompson, for example, has created unique styles for The Dresser in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, while east London independent Modern Society, in Shoreditch, has worked on exclusives with cult young fashion brand Être Cécile.
Debra McCann, owner of east London independent The Mercantile, flags up the importance of exclusivity and the difficulty of achieving it with some brands: “We try to stock lesser-known brands or brands that we can get exclusively for our area. Failing that, we will work with the brand or agent to ensure that we have a different selection from other stores. If we can’t, we don’t work with that brand.
“Saturation is no good for anyone, but the bigger stores sometimes flex their muscles and we either choose to fight or move on.”
The Last Agencies’ brand Woden
Menswear brand Lyle & Scott aimed to address this problem with the launch of a capsule spring 18 collection that is sold exclusively to independents, to help them to differentiate their brand offer. The range was a hit with buyers at Florence menswear trade show Pitti Uomo last June.
Other brands are finding ways to help their products stand out for independents. Lingerie brand Empreinte lets retailers test three new styles for three months, and then return the lowest-selling style.
Poynter says this “sale or return” model poses less of a financial risk for independent retailers. She also cites Panache’s “Click, Fit and Collect” service. This tool lets online customers order up to nine styles from the lingerie brand’s website into the Mish store to try on, and pay only for the items they want.
While it may be tough to maintain a sense of newness and exclusivity in store, finding a way to ensure an appealing and well-differentiated offer will always be core to an independent’s success, whether this is through trialling new brands, introducing different product categories or securing exclusives.
“This industry changes quickly and freshness is key,” says The Last Agencies’ Burke. “There will always be a need for new brands.”