Fashion independents on 2021, Christmas trading and the outlook for 2022
With the first quarter of 2021 in Lockdown 3, independents had to pivot quickly, stay on their toes and be ready to go flat out when they could reopen again in April. Four established UK menswear retailers give their views on the year, on Christmas and New Year trading, and their outlooks for 2022.
Ravi Grewal (main image), CEO and Creative Director, Stuarts London, Shepherd’s Bush
In general, 2021 was tough but we were up on the year before. Having said that, 2020 was a stinker! In 2021 we bought really well. We made sure we didn’t over buy anything. We only stocked up on all our core stuff that we knew our customers would still want to buy, even if there was another lockdown.
Our online business is a monster now, but our shopfloor business also picked up. I’d say the business is an 80/20 split these days between online and instore. For Christmas the store was up, it was busy. People were out and about again, happy that they could celebrate Christmas after it being cancelled last year. We saw all our regulars and most bought with us. Online, we did some collaborations for Christmas, including with Lyle & Scott and Pod shoes, and we made sure we did lots of marketing and PR. They were very well received.
Online has certainly been a saviour for us during the pandemic. We have had to get clever with our marketing and put greater emphasis on it. If anything, that’s put us in a stronger position.
We went on Sale on Boxing Day, as we have done for the past five years. Prior to that we didn’t go on Sale until January. Since we’re competing with the bigger players, we have to follow suit, though we didn’t go early like plenty did. However, we did put about 10 brands in a Black Friday Sale that were having a poorer sell-through, offering either 20% or 30% off, but that was it in terms of any pre-Christmas discounting.
I don’t want to specify which brands have been performing particularly well because every time I say that a load of other retailers go out and buy them! That doesn’t help me because then we don’t sell them so well anymore. Let’s just say there are a few brands that are real cash cows for us. Generally, we’ve fine-tuned our game. In 2019 we were doing that anyway, but 2020 gave us the perfect opportunity to really clear the decks and concentrate on what we sell best. That also meant we had more budget for new brands that we thought our customers would enjoy. We have a new head buyer and we’ve got five or six really cool new brands coming in soon. They’re harder to get, so not everyone will be supplied by them.
"I’m an optimist and I prefer to think onwards and upwards. It’s business as usual, and if it isn’t good then we’ve just got to work harder to make it better."
Right now, having staff off needing to isolate due to Covid is standard for everyone. But we’re fortunate in that this is a family business with three brothers who can fill in the gaps where needed. The key people we employ are still with us, and we now have opportunity to employ new staff as we’ve got busier.
Returns have been pretty much the same as usual, but the Sale on Boxing Day was busier than we’ve ever been online, and the busier you get inevitably the more returns you get. Our normal returns rate is 17%, but at this time of year that can fluctuate between 17% - 25%.
I do still get involved with the buying, and we had planned to go to Paris – we had it all booked. Unfortunately, Eurostar cancelled on us, and the Welcome Edition Paris show pulled out anyway. Add to that the restrictions currently in place in France, it just wasn’t happening. We’re not going to Pitti in Florence either, because that’s going to be less than half the show we’re used to. But we are going to be buying in showrooms in Milan and in London, and the Welcome Edition show in London is still going ahead at the end of January. In fact, we’re showing there with our C17 brand. We’ve kept distribution really tight on that, and we’ve done really well with it ourselves. We’re designing it, manufacturing it and retailing it, which is working, and we’ve now taken on the Kippered agency to handle the wholesale side. Up until now, I’ve just been concentrating on getting the product right, and the collection for AW22 looks absolutely awesome. It’s taken me a good five years to find the right partners and factories and get everything done the way I want it, and this is probably the best collection we’ve done, with some very cool Navajo design overshirts and some great chore jackets – it’s really on point.
Looking ahead for 2022, I’m an optimist and I prefer to think onwards and upwards. It’s business as usual, and if it isn’t good then we’ve just got to work harder to make it better. There’s plenty of business to be done out there, and we’ve got some cracking new stuff coming in too.
Mark Taylor, Director, Pockets, Shrewsbury, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hanley, Nantwich
When we finally got trading again instore in April 2021, it was brilliant. We had a very good end to the spring/summer season and a strong autumn/winter. The shopfloor was very busy in general across all our stores, way above target. We found that lots of people were staying and shopping local, rather than going to the larger cities.
We’ve found that our online business in 2021 was flat on the year before, but then there’s more competition online than there is in the store. There were so many deals going on and Black Friday probably started two weeks earlier than normal, and then never really went away. We don’t really get involved with it, so obviously we’re going to lose revenue, but we’d rather stay clear of it.
We went into Sale online on Boxing Day, but instore we’re not on Sale – we’re trying to keep it clean. Our hand was forced to go on Sale earlier than anticipated online because, if we didn’t, we may as well just turn our internet off. We’re not only competing with all the other retailers, but all the brands that supply us as well, often now going on Sale even pre-Christmas. When it comes to customers, there’s no loyalty when there’s a Sale. If they get an email saying the Sale is starting from a brand, then obviously they will shop there and get 30% off, instead of shopping with us. They’d be daft not to. It’s just the way it is.
Strong performers for us have been Canada Goose, Moncler and Stone Island. We also had a nice semi-tailoring season as well, with a few weddings that did proceed in October and November. We jumped on the back of those, so that was a bonus. Tailoring from Canali and Brunello Cucinelli did particularly well.
"For 2022 I just hope we can remain open. I literally have no expectations at the moment because it’s still the unknown."
Last year was our 25th anniversary, but we didn’t really shout about it. It was April and we were just coming out of lockdown, and we weren’t sure how long we were going to be open for. We had enough on our plate, and we weren’t going to be inviting a load of people down and throwing a party. We just toasted ourselves with a glass of wine or two.
At the start of 2021 we also introduced "Re-Pockets", selling some of our old archive pieces that we’d accumulated ourselves over the years, as well as some pieces from friends and collectors. There’s a big scene for vintage Stone Island and C.P. Company pieces in particular. Some guys are really into it and ‘Re-Pockets’ is now an ongoing thing for us, online only. We promote it through Instagram and other social media channels, as well as on our website.
In terms of buying for AW22, we’ve kind of been forced to go back to doing it digitally. We were going to Florence for Pitti, but we’ve cancelled that now because of limited flights and everything else. It’s just not cost effective to go there, and a lot of brands weren’t committing that they would be there. It will be a much smaller show and probably more geared towards the Italian market. Hopefully by spring/summer we’ll be back to it.
We also obviously can’t go to Paris either at the moment, with everything going on, so we’re going to be buying digitally with the ones we can’t get to, though we will be getting back to London for some showroom appointments, and hopefully we will be able to get out to Milan at the end of the month. Where I can, I will be going, because it’s too important not to.
For 2022 I just hope we can remain open. I literally have no expectations at the moment because it’s still the unknown. Every time you put on the TV there seems to be a new variant and NHS hospital admissions going up. Will we be locked down again? I don’t think we will, as I don’t think we can afford to as a nation, and I don’t think the Government can afford to lock us down again and pay the furlough scheme and loans that they did last time. I think we’re going to trade through it. Taking some money is better than nothing at all.
Geoff Brownless, Co-owner and Director, Union Clothing, Newcastle
Last year was up and down, but overall we had a good year, so maybe we bucked the trend a bit. I think that was down to particular brands we have, as we’re doing really well with Carhartt, Edwin and Dickies – all the usual suspects. We seemed to have found our own little niche. The online business is doing okay, but we don’t throw a lot of cash at it. It just ticks over and grows gradually. We obviously had more orders coming in pre-Christmas for presents. Thankfully not many returns so far!
Christmas trading was a bit weird instore, as it was very busy early on in December when people were really getting out again, but once it came closer to Christmas it quietened down a fair bit. It was probably to do with all the scaremongering about the third Covid wave. We’re right in Newcastle city centre, and we have about six pubs on our street, so we could really tell when things quietened down. In the halcyon days we also had about 12 clothes shops on the street, but now I think we’re more of a destination store for the type of brands and products we offer.
"For 2022 I just hope we can remain open. I literally have no expectations at the moment because it’s still the unknown."
We never have a full-blown Sale across the board, though we do have some odd reductions. We’re just a small independent “be nice to people” type of business – customer service is more what we’re about, not discounting, especially on the denim side.
Other brands that have been doing well for us are Parra and a little brand from Manchester called Uskees – good product at a good price. We’ve also got some French workwear brands that have been going down well, such as Vetra and Le Laboureur, as well as Kleman footwear. We’ve not sold so many French brands since the days of Chevignon and Aviatic in the late 80’s!
Our buying for AW22 will be mainly online. I’m not really happy to do it that way, but it’s safer, though we will probably go to a couple of showrooms in Manchester. We’ll just get in and get out. I won’t be visiting any shows, but will anybody? I suppose a lot of people are desperate to get out, especially the younger buyers – on the company expenses!
At the moment we’ve got about four staff off with Covid, but everyone seems to be having the same problems. I actually had it myself back in August - it was more like a heavy cold.
For 2022 I just hope we can remain open. I literally have no expectations at the moment because it’s still the unknown.
Rowan Hines, Owner, Room 14, Upper Mill, Oldham
Last year was certainly unusual. I started like everyone else, shut for the first three months, so as bad as it could be! I’m a one man band, so I was relying on insufficient grant amounts, though at least I qualified for the grants which was better than some. The website ticked along in lockdown, then from reopening in April to early July business was okay. It wasn’t breaking any records, but I was able to pay bills and make a living.
I then completely relocated the store in July, moving from Ashton-under-Lyne to Upper Mill, and the change was night and day. I went from ticking along nicely to being nice and busy.
I had a really good Christmas and New Year. Being on my own, I do it all. I’m on the shop floor, I deal with the website and online sales and I do the social media. Revenue-wise I’ve always been predominantly driven by instore sales. In fact, 90% of my turnover still comes from instore, with 10% online. However, going in to this year, the spare cash I have will go in to a new website to really drive some more revenue online. I’m extremely positive about this year.
"Going in to this year, the spare cash I have will go in to a new website to really drive some more revenue online. I’m extremely positive about this year."
I went on Sale on 27 December. I always hold my nerve, despite others now going pre-Christmas. I normally go on Boxing Day, but I waited for other businesses in Upper Mill to get involved.
I’ve been in business for 16 years now, so I’ve got a definite idea of who my consumer is and what brands they’re after from me. Fred Perry, Dickies and Selected Homme all work really well for me, and I’ve done well with a new brand addition, Bike Shed, which is based in Shoreditch. We also do well with a brand called WAWWA out of Manchester, as well as Martial Artist and Saucony – always both strong performers.
Going in to 2022 is very much about elevating the business and adding new brands. I’ve got three new brands coming in this year which I’m really happy with, Berghaus, Rains and Deus Ex Machina. So far, so good, and I’m excited for what’s ahead.