Fashion retail in Tiers: independents under Tiers 1, 2 and 3 tell us how they are trading

Empty High Street consumer spending

With different parts of the UK facing varying degrees of the government’s new three-tiered “lockdowns”, we hear from retailers in Tier 1, Tier 2 and, from today, Tier 3 about how trade is on the frontline.

Tier 1: Victoria Suffield, owner and director, The Hambledon, Winchester

The Hambledon
The Hambledon

We’re currently in Tier 1, though that may change as Winchester was third in the Hampshire Covid chart toppers. I think Tier 2 would be manageable, but being in Tier 3 would be very difficult. We’re not exactly an essential shop and, at this time of year, we would really struggle to move enough turnover online.

Currently we’re broadly positive overall. The shop is quieter and the website busier and trade is roughly equal to slightly better overall than this time last year. Positively, customers who are coming in store are purposeful and our conversion rate is pretty high. I also think lockdown has meant some people have reassessed what we mean to them and that has been really lovely

I also have to say that the cancelling of the Christmas Market in Winchester is a bit of a win for us. It means that our regular and local customers, who usually stay home, will feel able to come in to the city and shop. It also means that we can make the turnover from fewer units and fewer customers, which is obviously easier. The average spend during traditional Christmas Market visitor times is pretty low, but we are ridiculously busy. I’m happier doing less crowd control for the same return.

Broadly, I feel pretty positive about the season, assuming there is no further lockdown. Many of my customers are now working from home and I think this has really benefitted local businesses like ours. I think people are being more thoughtful about the businesses they choose to support.

“Broadly, I feel pretty positive about the season, assuming there is no further lockdown. Many of my customers are now working from home and I think this has really benefitted local businesses like ours.”

We’ve also had to absolutely put more of a focus on our online business. I think the lockdown in March really accelerated a lot of change. We had to move everything online and really improve our reach and messaging. Our online business has grown enormously over this period. Our mission now is to manage its growth while continuing to develop our bricks and mortar offer.

We’re definitely bearing up. The three months of lockdown were pretty hard financially and we’ve had to use some cash reserves, but rates holidays and the furlough system definitely helped. We’re now trying to claw back the deficit.

In store, there was a little moaning about wearing face masks early on, but I think people have settled into it now. However, there is, unfortunately, a degree of complacency setting in about safety measures and we will have to be quite strict in the run up to Christmas to keep everyone safe.

Lastly, if the government can’t plan Brexit then I’m not sure what purpose there is to me speculating about our plan. We do a lot of business with Europe. Once I know what we’re dealing with, we’ll start to focus on the supply chain.

Tier 2: Ravi Grewal, CEO and creative director, Stuarts London, Shepherd’s Bush

Stuarts London

As we’re in London and currently in Tier 2 it wouldn’t surprise me if we suddenly get thrown in to the harsher Tier 3 level of lockdown. It pays to expect everything in such unexpected times.

Footfall in terms of tourists is obviously very down. However, business luckily has been okay, with locals staying local to Shepherd’s Bush and not shopping in central London. Westfield is near us, but I’m sure that footfall there has been affected as people are put off by all the restrictions in place.

All in all, there’s no real consistency, so every day and every week is impossible to predict. In terms of trading up to Christmas, we can just do the best we can – and hope that we don’t go back in to a full lockdown situation. We are lucky we are still open, as so many businesses have suffered, closed or are on the verge of closing.  As long as we are functional and turning over, I am happy with that for 2020.

“All in all, there’s no real consistency, so every day and every week is impossible to predict. In terms of trading up to Christmas, we can just do the best we can – and hope that we don’t go back in to a full lockdown situation.”

We’ve put increased focus on our online business, which is the biggest part of our business now by far anyway, so that tends to offset the spend we’ve been losing in store. In terms of how we’ve traded year-on-year so far, it’s been a challenge but we are actually up. It’s unimaginable to think about the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, as we have such a strong online business that also operates well throughout Europe.

Since we relaunched the C17 jeans brand it’s been a beast and an amazing ‘cash cow’ for us. We are dealing directly with the consumer and they love the denim jeans and the fit. Loads more developments are also in the pipeline. We are working on the next phase of our upper tier selvedge denim collection, with Japanese denim made by Kuroki. The current ‘never out of stock’ product is Cone Mills denim, so a very high standard as it is.

We are happy to offer C17 to good retailers, but right now it’s just sold through Stuarts, our C17 website and, more recently, we just on-boarded the premium online retailer, Brother2Brother.

We don’t want to over distribute it, and will stop at 10-15 doors in the UK. France has also begun to develop for us and it’s being handled well by our partners over there. However, Covid has been no great time to launch a new brand, or I should say relaunch an old brand, and if we manage to succeed that will be a story in itself to tell one day.

Tier 2: David Johnson, owner, John Douglas, Macclesfield

John Douglas
John Douglas

We’re in East Cheshire – sandwiched between Manchester and Liverpool – so we’re still in Tier 2, for now, though that might change. I think going in to Tier 3 would kill trade totally. Unless it’s a full lockdown again, they will keep retail open but it’s bars, restaurants and gyms that they’ll close. When that happens, non-essential retail might as well be shut as well. But, if they keep it open, they don’t have to pay any money out in compensation.

As it stands, the footfall on the high street is so dire now we might as well be shut half the time. There’s nobody about. It’s almost like March again – spot the person. I may as well lock up and go out on my bike!

“As it stands, the footfall on the high street is so dire now we might as well be shut half the time. There’s nobody about. It’s almost like March again – spot the person.”

When I initially re-opened mid-June, I stayed closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, did half a day Wednesday, then opened Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 10pm – 4pm, on my own, with no more than two customers, or two couples in the shop at any one time for safety reasons. Then I brought my manager back in for Saturdays in July, operating the same system.

Momentum was gathering, but since the 10pm curfew trade has really dropped as there’s no buying of smart clothes – which we specialise in – for going out, events, occasions and stag do’s. The sales of smart jackets, shirts and suits have just died. So, I’ve had to re-shuffle what I’ve got in the pipeline in terms of stock coming in. For instance, I don’t need any more formal shirts that are on back-order, so I’ve cancelled some orders, but I do need more casual shirts, overshirts, coats and knitwear.

Some of my orders aren’t coming in anyway, as there are brands that haven’t delivered, and that might actually have done me a favour because, if I’m only going to be trading at 50%, I’m not going to need the amount of stock that I would normally have.

Tier 3: Oliver Grant, owner, Intro, Manchester

We’ve moved in to Tier 3 from today, but that’s actually irrelevant now the way things are because, if you look at it in terms of footfall, the city of Manchester is a ghost town. It has been really since the announcement a few weeks back about toughening up restrictions. It scared people even more. There’s obviously the furlough scheme coming to an end soon as well, and that could be another reason why footfall is so down. People just won’t have as much money to play with.

From our point of view, we’ve been here on Deansgate in Manchester for 20 years, and it’s the quietest I’ve ever seen the city. Luckily, we’re very established and we’ve got very loyal customers. All we’re getting in is regulars really, as with a lack of people coming in to the city it means a lack of people coming in to the shop, it’s as simple as that.

They are now not going to be doing the Christmas Market in Manchester, which is a big let-down. That usually brings thousands of people in to the city, not only locals but people from outside of town as well, and it’s been one of the biggest events for the last 20 years. That would have started up probably next week and gone on right up until Christmas. It just won’t be a normal Christmas. It’s going to be tamed and low key. It won’t have that buzz, especially with the bars being closed, apart from pubs that serve food. Half the city is closed.

Our online business has been up and down. Again, people are being very careful as there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty over the next 12 months, especially with all the redundancies.

“One of the biggest differences we’ve noticed is the lack of our older customers coming in. We’ve been selling a lot more to younger customers – more than ever before.”

We had our busiest spell online during lockdown, but when we reopened the store, on 15 June, we noticed it slowed down – transferring back in store as people started coming back in to the city. Customer confidence in to the store has been fine. It’s just the lack of general people coming in as we usually get a lot of international trade as well. We normally get a lot of people who come in to the city for the football, like United fans from Scandinavia and Malta. We also often get quite a few customers from the Middle East, people from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but that’s been impacted too.

One of the biggest differences we’ve noticed is the lack of our older customers coming in. We’ve been selling a lot more to younger customers – more than ever before. In our shop we’ve got two sides to the business, with streetwear on the main floor, and premium, cleaner and more classic clothing downstairs. It’s that customer we’re not getting in as much as we normally do. Our over 40’s and 50’s are usually among our biggest customers in terms of spend, and we are missing a big chunk of that. We’ve had to cancel some suit orders and we’ve reduced our formal offer in general. Overall, this year, I’d say we’re about 30% down, which is not too drastic but still significant.

We’ve definitely had to put more of a focus on our online business, and we’ve now got an in-house photographer on board. We’re doing everything more in-house on a tighter schedule, trying to find more cost-effective ways of doing things.

Tier 3: Rowan Hines, owner, Room 14, Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester

Room 14

We’re now in Tier 3, but I don’t feel too concerned for myself. My store is about seven miles outside of Manchester city centre. I actually feel more sorry for city centre businesses, whether that be retail or hospitality. I went to Manchester a couple of weeks ago and, seeing it so quiet, businesses just aren’t going to survive.

On the flipside of that, people are still working from home and shopping more locally, which has been good for me. I’ve had the store for 15 years now and, although we’ve had that thread of support all the way through, certainly since March and the initial lockdown period, people have been really taking the view that it’s really important to support the local side of things.

If we went back in to a full lockdown again, then I would be concerned – even if it was a so-called ‘circuit breaker’. I want to have the doors open and continue life as normal, as much as I can. Although I’ve had an online presence for the past 10 years or so, the majority of my turnover still comes from bricks and mortar.

“If we did have to have a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown and there was a similar financial package available to access, then I wouldn’t be having sleepless nights, but I wouldn’t be happy about being shut either.”

When we were in lockdown before, I was able to apply for the grant and access a bounce-back loan, as well as the self-employed income support scheme so, for me, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has done really well in propping up self-employed people. If we did have to have a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown and there was a similar financial package available to access, then I wouldn’t be having sleepless nights, but I wouldn’t be happy about being shut either.

In terms of doing more business online, like many other businesses there’s certain things that have been on the ‘to do’ list, and the last lockdown provided time to look at that. But, I work on my own, and most of my spare budget goes in to stock, and making sure the bricks and mortar business is as good as it can be. Then, if there’s anything spare after that, I try to channel it into the website, though the investment hasn’t been consistent.

It was during the last lockdown that I thought I’m going to have to find that money and really make it a more consistent thing and, since then, I’ve had a little bit of an upturn online. I’m also now about to get on board with Trouva, the online platform for  boutiques. I know other retailers who use it that say it provides good traffic. So, fingers crossed, if it went in to another lockdown then I’d hope the website would support and give an income to the business while the shop is shut.

Even before lockdown, I’d say generally the retail sector was really struggling for about 18 months – probably the hardest I’ve found it as a business. Coming out of lockdown, I’ve ironically done a bit better than I was doing. That must have something to do with more people working from home and wanting to support local businesses, and maybe I’m just making better decisions.

In the last 12 months, I’ve made a conscious effort to make some changes to the brand mix, moving away from the fast fashion kind of brands and buying more deeply in to what I’d call proper brands, such as Dickies, Fred Perry, Farah and Saucony. So far in, I’m slightly up on last year – by about 5%. But I’m looking ahead to the run up to Christmas with caution. It’s going to be a tough one.