Fashion independents on the first week’s trading after lockdown

Retail re-opens
South Molton Street on 15 June

Non-essential stores in England were permitted to re-open on 15 June, 2020. Prior to lockdown being lifted, TheIndustry.fashion, in partnership with Scoop, carried out a survey of 500 fashion independents revealing that 80% were planning to open all or some of their stores as soon as possible.

One week after re-opening we speak to six independents from across the country to gauge their mood and discover how their customers have responded to the new safety measures in place, and, crucially, whether they have been spending.

Victoria Suffield, owner and director, The Hambledon, Winchester

Victoria Suffield

We reopened last Monday 15 June, but with appointments only last week. We wanted to see whether we were going to be able to manage it, and we also wanted to gauge what customers were going to be like and whether they were going to be anxious or more relaxed. We had a couple of nervous customers on the Monday, but after that it was sort of back to normal. In fact, the week was incredibly encouraging, but then I think if you have an appointment system, customers come with the intention of buying.

People wanted to try things on and I felt like I was having to tell people they needn’t put things back because we would be quarantining tried on clothes. We also had to enforce social distancing. But, by the end of the week, it really felt quite normal, even though it was appointment only. We were really busy with appointments, especially with our hardcore regulars buying menswear in the basement. With womenswear, I think people just want to see clothes again and not just look at photos online.

I was gradually bringing staff back off furlough and I brought someone back really to just work the door, because we started to take walk-ins by the end of the week. We felt pretty confident that we could manage. I’ve decided to close on Mondays for now, as it gives us time to catch up with online sales which have been very strong. We’re then opening Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 4pm, and Sunday 11am – 4pm. In terms of online sales, we’re something like 300% up year-year-year during this period. So, now we have to completely look at online as another solid revenue stream for the business. Before it was something that we felt we had to do, but it wasn’t necessarily really making us money. Now we’ve got to look at how we keep building that, but absolutely not at the expense of our bricks and mortar business, because that’s what we’re particularly good at.

Prior to lockdown we were having a great year and were maybe nearly 20% up year-on-year. Lockdown saw us trading at about 50% of last year, which was all online – so I was actually quite encouraged by that.

When we went in to lockdown, I was utterly panicked by the volume of stock we had because we were probably at peak volume. So, we discounted at 25% in order to kick-start online sales, and that was incredibly effective. However, once you’ve discounted it’s very difficult to change that. Reopening the store, we upped that to 30% off, with certain things discounted by 50%, but then we’ve also got new things coming in all the time. So, I don’t think we’re going to be on Sale in a traditional ‘Hambledon’ way, because this year just isn’t normal.

Kashif Qazi, owner, Utter Nutter, Romford

Kashif Qazi

We decided to reopen with a 30% store-wide reduction just to clear stock, as we have high summer stock waiting for us in warehouses all over the world which they are not going to cut back on. We will continue with 30% off until the beginning of September, before gradually going in to our normal full 50% off Sale.

Since we reopened on Monday, 15 June, it’s been very busy. People automatically stop and ask to come in, but we don’t have too many people in-store that we can’t handle. We therefore haven’t set a limit as to how many people can come in at any one time. We look at the shop and we judge our comfort level, then we let them in. There are no rules, there are only recommendations. It seems anyway that no-one is doing any social distancing anywhere apart from the managed queues outside places. Once they get inside somewhere they couldn’t care less! I can’t stop them.

We’re allowing customers to try things on if they want, though there hasn’t been many who have. We’ve not had a single customer asking us what our policy is, or if someone has tried something on before or if our changing rooms have been sanitised. At the beginning, we were putting tried on clothes in quarantine, but the majority of people buy what they try – or they are buying it fresh from a packet.

We’re not wearing masks in the shop. We have one screen up at the till which doesn’t really make sense because we’re standing serving customers all day! We do have three hand sanitising units set up in the shop, and people are using those more than anything else. That’s what they seem most concerned about.

When we look at this season and the dust has settled, I think we will see that we have sold everything we needed to but our margins are just going to be slightly depleted. I don’t think it’s going to be anything more crazy about it than that. We don’t have a website, so we’ve lost 10 weeks of turnover, but I’d say we made four weeks of those back last week – that’s how busy it was, on most days from morning until close. Our best sellers have been Boss polo shirts and T-shirts by far. Denim sales always slow-down in the summer. There’s been no requests for chinos, but we’ve been selling plenty of Boss and Farah shorts.

We’re going to have to get our high summer stock, that’s sitting in warehouses everywhere, delivered to us. But I’m probably not going to put a lot of that out on the shop-floor, because we just need to be on Sale to clear what we had in from January, February and March. A lot of the high summer deliveries will now therefore carry over to next summer because our budget is going to be reduced easily by 50% for SS21.

Geoff Brownless, director, Union Clothing, Newcastle upon Tyne

Geoff Brownless

We reopened last Monday, but business has been slow. We’re on High Bridge in the city centre and there’s six or seven pubs on the same street which are obviously all still closed, so there’s not many people about. In fact, our street is dead at the minute. I don’t think people have got the confidence to really go out, or the money at the moment. But I think people will get their confidence to go back out again. We’ll see what happens when the pubs re-open. A lot of people don’t realise that we’re open again, but we’re opening everyday from 11am to 4pm.

It was steady in-store during last week, but nothing spectacular, with a bit of a lift on Saturday as we’d expect. It’s difficult to predict how it’s going to go. We’ve done what everyone else has, with social distancing markers on the floor, notices and hand cleaning stations. We’re not really allowing people to try things on, unless it’s a situation where they have to. If they don’t end up buying the item then we take it downstairs and leave it for a couple of days. Generally, people are just holding up garments and guessing if they will fit.

We’ve not really gone on Sale, though we do have certain discounted items. We’ve been operating the whole time online, which has kept us ticking over. If a retailer doesn’t have an online presence then they must have been really suffering badly. Our trading online has been up on last year, obviously because people haven’t had the opportunity to come in store. We have offered odd incentives on different lines, but nothing that’s been across the board like some retailers. We’ve never been heavy discounters anyway.

Carhartt always sells well for us, and we’ve been doing well with Parra. Sales of jeans have slowed off a bit because you’ve got to try jeans on really. Our speciality has always been denim, with people coming in and getting exactly the right fit for them instead of buying jeans online and then sending them back!

I think SS20 will be well down on last year, by at least a third I would imagine. It depends how it pans out over the rest of the summer. At the moment people aren’t going out for a night, or going on holiday, so they are asking themselves if they need to buy new clothes as they are not going anywhere. Hopefully things will pick up moving forward.

We have seen a big increase in people using Instagram and we’ve just gone past 10,000 followers. There’s almost been a move away from Facebook. We’re on all the social platforms, but we mainly get people coming to our site from Instagram. We focus on posting a specific product every day, including any special offers such as 15% off denim.

Looking ahead to SS21, a lot of buying is going to have to be done online and from line sheets, images and downloads. Some brands I like to go and see, but going to showrooms in London doesn’t feel that appealing right now.

Rachel Brickley Williams, owner, American Classics, London, and the Red Wing London store

We did open last Monday, but we didn’t open to very much fanfare I’m afraid. It was very quiet. The centre of London is very quiet full stop. I’m mostly in the Red Wing store on Newburgh Street, but it’s the same in American Classics on Endell Street. There’s no office people around at all, and tourist-wise there’s nothing. The shop doors are open, but nothing’s happening. In the summer, we normally rely on tourists coming in to the Red Wing shop to come in and buy their boots for the winter, so that’s been lost for now. Getting back to any kind of normal is going to be a very slow process.

On Newburgh Street, the only other two shops that are open are the The Great Frog and a little trainer shop. The Levi’s and RRL stores aren’t open for the moment, Filson and Shinola have now actually gone for good and all the other shops just haven’t reopened yet. There’s two of us in the Redwing men’s store and we’ve got a sign on the door of the women’s store – also on Newburgh Street – saying to just come up and get us if anyone wants to get in. We only need two members of staff between the two Red Wing shops right now. Looking at Carnaby Street, I’d say there’s probably two thirds of the stores now open again.

We’re normally open seven days a week 11am to 6.30pm, but for now we’ve decided to just open Thursday to Monday from 12-5pm and close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays which are quieter days.

We’ve just had hardly a soul walking in, no-one seems to be out shopping. We’ve even said, if someone wants it, we’ll do appointment only, but no-one has called. Safety-wise, we’ve got hand sanitiser and gloves if anyone wants them, and we’re wearing masks in-store. We’re only letting two people at a time in the Red Wing store, but right now we’d just love to have two people in the store!

It was actually quite busy until about a week before the lockdown inevitably came. Thankfully we’ve had a good online presence for some time now, and we’ve been using Instagram and Facebook to drive people to the websites to generate sales. American Classics has certainly been busier online, but Red Wing hasn’t really, as most of our customers want to come in to try on, which is like that more with footwear as opposed to buying online.

People are phoning us up to see if we are open, asking us what it’s like on the tube and so on. It seems everyone is frightened to death of travelling.

Mark Taylor, co-owner and director, Pockets, Shrewsbury, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hanley, Nantwich and Worcester

Mark Taylor

We opened on 15 June and had a very good start and a very positive first week, but it’s only week one and I think there’s a bit of euphoria around getting out and shopping again. We’ve been opening from 10am – 4pm, but as of next week we will be going back to normal hours.

We’ve had regulars coming back to spend money with us across all of our stores. I don’t think people are going to the bigger cities or travelling very far, so hopefully people will continue to shop more locally for a while. We’re in small towns, and every Pockets shop had a terrific week. We were generally about 20% up on the same week last year.

Stone Island has been phenomenal across the board in every category, and Ralph Lauren has seen a spike in sales this past week as everyone now after a new pair of shorts and T-shirts. Moncler has been another great performing brand.

Since the lockdown we’d been selling well online. In fact, online has probably been about 60% up on what it was during the same period last year. We’ve not got a massive online business, but obviously it helps when people are locked down and bored at home.

In-store we’ve now got hand sanitisers on every floor and in every changing room, as well as gloves and masks if people want to wear them. I’ll wear a mask if a customer requests me to. There’s isn’t really any social distancing to talk about, as people aren’t interested. It’s like at the supermarket where people queue very nicely outside, but once they’re inside it’s a different story. People are picking up items and opening them up as normal. Our businesses are pretty much set up for minimal customers coming through the door anyway, so we haven’t had to stop anybody from entering. It’s just about being aware.

With tried on clothing that isn’t purchased afterwards we steam the items and quarantine them for 72 hours according the government guidance. But a lot of guys aren’t trying things on in-store, they are happy to buy them and take them home to try. Any returns will again be quarantined, that goes for in-store and online sales.

We’ve not got a Sale on in store, we’ve just been running little promotions online, such as 15% off here and there during the lockdown. But we have now started to price match a few things, as the brands themselves have gone in to Sale.

I was hoping that retailers would have a little bit of common sense and push back Sales so we could actually still have a proper season. We’re only really coming in to summer now, so it would have been good to have the rest of June, July and some of August as a proper summer season, push deliveries back and try to get things back in line. But, that’s not the case, as everybody seems to have gone on Sale already. A lot of our bricks and mortar customers haven’t even seen this season’s stock, yet people are now giving it away! We’re aiming to carry over with the stock we’ve got as well as our core lines, and try to start the season from now.

I think AW20 is going to be a challenging season, and I think there’s going to be a lot of job losses come September and October when the furlough schemes disappear.

In terms of buying for SS21, we’re doing a mix of virtual and physical buying appointments. We’re not going abroad to Italy or Paris right now, so we’re buying through online showrooms. However, where we’re allowed to go in and select product, we will, because that’s the best way to do it. We’ll be going to see the likes of Four Marketing, Hugo Boss and Paul Smith in London.”

Lee Whittle, customer experience director, Browns, London 

Browns

The first week back saw steady footfall in both our stores and we have seen a positive reaction from our customers. It’s been fantastic to see them at our stores again. Over the last three months we have been communicating regularly with our customers and they have continued to shop on brownsfashion.com during this time. We have been sending personalised edits from their dedicated style advisor and many have even taken advantage of our virtual personal shopping appointments.

So far in store, we have seen demand for weather appropriate product and shoes have been a strong category. Customers are also cherry picking the must have pieces, new season drops and accessories.

Our first priority has always been the health and wellbeing of our employees, our customers and our partners. We are continuing to follow the advice from the WHO, the NHS and the British government and we are taking all the necessary steps to keep our teams and our customers safe. We have found everyone that has visited our stores incredibly respectful of the measures in place.

Currently we are following social distancing rules and are operating at a reduced occupancy both at Browns, South Molton Street, and Browns East. Alongside this, a number of additional safety measures are in place, including the provision of face masks and gloves for our retail teams, as well as sanitiser stations which are positioned at the entrance and exit of each store as well as internally.

Our fitting rooms have remained closed based on the guidelines issued by the government. The teams are confident with the product, and their knowledge guides the customers to select the most appropriate sizes. We have sanitising processes in place for when a customer has contact with our products, and we are quarantining products where required before returning them to stock.

We are currently controlling traffic in-store via a single entry and exit system, and our private shopping suites – as well as a dedicated space in our South Molton Street flagship – are available for bookings. Additionally, our in-store app, which we have been testing, is now available for all retail associates, empowering our retail teams to prepare a customer’s appointment including the ability to discuss products via the app and pre-select pieces, meaning customers can work with the associate to create a ‘Store for One’ experience in a physical sense.

Bridging the gap between the online and offline worlds is something Browns has been doing for a while, but this has now become even more important as we look at new ways to interact with our customers. Our customers have come to expect this multi-channel approach and we will continue to enhance this seamless journey.

We are not currently on Sale. As a leading luxury fashion retailer we are looking at the evolution of the business within the retail landscape, both online and offline. Two years ago, we took the decision to remove Sale from our stores.

Going forward, I do think that customers will expect more from retailers. Store visits will be much more considered and meaningful. The customer journey is paramount and they want the best product and an exceptional experience however they chose to shop.