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Fiona Coe

Melissa Wheeler meets Fiona Coe, manager of the womenswear department at Coe’s of Ipswich, to learn how community involvement and adapting to change are critical for today’s indies.

With a recently refurbished shop floor and the advent of a new EPoS system, the womenswear department at Coe’s of Ipswich has seen lots of changes in the past six months. And for manager Fiona Coe, the journey has been one focused on “evolution rather than revolution.”

Established in 1928, the long-established independent department store first introduced womenswear in September 2002 – a decision made largely in response to customer demand but also facilitated by an opportunity to expand the building.

With the store’s identity being primarily founded on menswear, introducing womenswear was not only uncharted territory. It was also an audacious undertaking due to the scale of the adjacent menswear department. “Because our menswear offering is so vast, we had to decide on a customer market and go with that, which was tough,” says Coe. “We opted to go with the safe and classic. Although the floor space is comparatively small, womenswear is interspersed with menswear throughout with lifestyle collections such as Barbour, Joules, North Face and the ski wear.”


The next generation

In embarking upon a refurbishment and partial repositioning of the womenswear floor, Coe’s have been careful to take its customer on its journey. So rather than performing a 180-degree turn from safe and classic to contemporary and edgy, the department now appeals to “the next generation” customer aged 35 years and above alongside the “original customer” who’s over 65 years old. “When we began, we started off along the lines of the large German groups such as Gerry Weber and Basler and we had the luxury of choice,” says Coe. “At the time, womenswear was an underserved market in Ipswich and there was no significant competition in this sector.”

Many retailers will empathise with the womenswear manager when she explains the fashion cycle and mix of brands in the department: “The 40-plus woman is dressing so much younger today and our mix of labels has had to change to reflect that. Equally, some of our brands didn’t evolve or keep a pace of these changes and so unfortunately we had to abandon them. One of my biggest concerns is that, while we have a solid core of loyal customers, we must pay attention to bringing the new generation up through the system because people’s lifestyles change and our original customer won’t be with us forever.”

After three or four years of introducing womenswear, the team began to see a need to update the brand mix and the direction of the floor to meet changes in the local demographic. For instance, the customer who used to require a suit for work was now retired and more likely to be looking for a Gant jumper, a Ralph Lauren shirt and a pair of NYDJ jeans.

Moreover, with 10,000 school children and their mothers visiting the store each year, there was also the ‘back to school’ segment to consider: “We also realised that, with young mothers visiting the school wear department here, we’d be foolish not to tempt them,” says Coe. “These mothers may not have the time to go shopping for themselves, so if we can tempt them with something so that they return, then we have made the right move. That’s really where we bring on the next generation of loyal customers.” Recent successes in this demographic have been Villagallo and Hunky Dory, which its buyers both discovered at Scoop.


Another shift in customer behaviour has been noted in occasionwear. Coe made a decision early on not to focus on the mother of the bride market but to embrace weddings and events more generally. “We have a huge demand for wedding outfits here; in the summer it represents about 30-40 per cent of our business,” she says. “We made an executive decision to focus on wedding guests and those attending events such as races.” However, due to the changing nature of this sector, Coe’s has found that its collections do appeal to the modern mother of the bride and groom: “We sell a lot Ted Baker for occasions and it shows me how much fashion has changed,” she says. “I used to think of Ted Baker as one of our younger brands, but today we find that it appeals to the older woman too. Mothers of the bride don’t seem to want to look like the traditional mother of the bride any longer.”


Lasting relationships

Supplier-retailer relationships are hugely important to Coe’s team and the womenswear manager suggests that agents visiting the store can be very helpful: “The more people that visit us the easier it is to judge the possibility of working with them,” she explains. “Working with suppliers who are flexible and are happy to do swaps, if styles are not working, is a massive help. No retailer wants to work with an agent who insists ‘this is our bestseller’ before professing that the same style which hasn’t sold all season cannot be exchanged.”

Reciprocal flexibility is key and the fashion retail industry will always be more about people and business than about clothes. “We always give a brand at least three seasons minimum because we cannot judge before,” she says. Equally, a brand will sometimes have its moment and, if a certain look is on trend, then a particular brand may do very well and you have to be smart enough to pick up that look as early as you can.”

Knowing your customer is partly about knowing their budget and their price ceilings. According to Coe, Suffolk is a price conscious market: “It’s an affluent, rural community.” There is also a large set of money-led consumers who have moved out of London and think very differently to the rest of the region; Coe’s is mindful to keep them on its radar.

Retailers familiar with the changing market and the occupational hazard of ageing customers will be keen to learn how Coe’s has embraced the future without neglecting the past: “Vilagallo, James Jeans and DL1961 have all served our ‘next generation’ customer well,” she says. “Directional jeans with four-way stretch and a sensible waist are what this customer wants. At the more formal end, we have seen a strong performance from Ted Baker, which continues to appeal to more and more customers. Predominantly it appeals to the 35-plus years woman who is prepared to spend £150 on a pretty dress.”


Pick-up prices

In a bid to capture extra sales from mothers visiting the store to buy clothes for their children, the Coe’s team also decided to add lower priced womenswear to its product line-up. In this bracket Coe brought in Selected Femme, Marie Sixtine and Hunky Dory alongside a scattering of covetable accessories. “We felt a need to introduce some pick-up items priced around the £35 mark, which would not be such a considered purchase,” she explains. “Our customers have an expectation from Coe’s and we could not risk lower price points backfiring on us with complaints of items shrinking or losing shape after a first wash.”

Coe has also worked hard to ensure that the anchor brands are still prominent alongside the newcomers. As buyers feel pressure to observe their customer’s price concerns when buying, it’s reassuring to learn that suppliers too have begun to bring their prices in line: “I’ve found that some of our suppliers have clearly been working hard to lower their prices and bring them more in line with the ceilings that currently exist,” says the manager. “Due to price resistance in recent years, we have had to reconsider how we buy some of our traditional collections so to see them coming on board is reassuring.”

Indeed there’s been a shift in attitude when it comes to consumer spending and Coe’s is no exception: “Every customer has a ceiling and each region is different. In Ipswich we will have difficulty selling a pair of trousers that exceeds £120. One brand of jean we carry will have cost £80 a few years ago and the customer would have bought a pair in blue and a pair in black with little consideration. Things have changed.”


The five-week makeover

It was with these consumers in mind, as well as the general need for an interiors update, that Coe’s set about the refurbishment of the womenswear floor last summer. Over the course of five weeks, the department used the sale period as an opportune time to close off half the floor while the other half was updated.

“Although the department had performed well for 12 years, we felt that we weren’t making the best of our stock,” explains Coe. “We thought that it was time for an update, that the space needed to be modernised without alienating or scaring our core customer.” By installing a new, wooden laminate floor and white Formica wall panelling, the team created a fresh backdrop to the merchandise while also allowing flexibility for moving stock around the floor. New fitting rooms were also installed at one end of the floor, while the glass wall (which had proved unhelpful in allowing sunlight to bleach merchandise) was blacked out by creating a stock room at the far end. “Overall, we were careful to strike a balance between fresh ands sterile,” Coe explains.

Following a soft launch and an exclusive event for their customers, Coe’s let the space do the talking and continued with business as usual. “It actually created a lot of curiosity and excitement,” says Coe. Although she does admit that some customers seemed concerned at first, imaging that the transformation meant that the essence of the department would be lost. “We wanted to get the message across that we are the same people and we carry the same brands,” she adds. “We didn’t want to alienate our loyal customers by suggesting we had changed dramatically. They could still find the brands they loved and we were still the same sales team, so they should still feel at home.”

With the recent introduction of an EPoS stock control system, Coe was also keen that this advance in data and stock control would not take detract from the store’s warm and personal shopping experience. “No doubt some of our customers will be nostalgic for the hand-written receipts, which have been used since 1928, but ultimately we hope they will appreciate the benefits,” says Coe. “We’ve introduced a loyalty scheme and have more time to spend on customer service. The customer information dimension will be brilliant – after all it’s far better to receive an offer for a brand that you often buy into, rather than receive a generic offer that is of no interest.”


The high street

As an independent family-run, third generation retailer, it’s fitting to hear the manager of the womenswear floor, and a member of the Coe family, express such passion for the high street today. Coe’s is regularly involved in a range of community events and charity fashion shows and it’s clear that the manager feels that it’s as much of a duty as it is an effective marketing exercise. “As an integral part of the town, we take part in lots of community events and fashion shows and try to support local groups and charities,” she says. “Last week I donated over 100 goody bags to an event and, while we received lots of gratitude, it’s also a great form of marketing.”

Indeed while it can seem impractical for struggling indies to partake in extra-curricular events, Coe’s is a prime example of how it provide an edge over homogenous department stores. “I think it’s really important to remind people why we are special, why we are here and why they should continue to use us,” she says. “Yes there is a problem with our high streets; there are shops closing across the country. I think it’s important to remind people that if you don’t use your high street you will lose it. It’s essential for us to get involved in the community for that reason.”

Coe also believes that indies have a responsibility to save the high street: “I don’t think you can rely on your local councils to support and help you as a community. It’s critical that retailers co-ordinate events and campaigns themselves and that they work together. As a business, we work hard to avoid isolating ourselves by working with other local businesses and social groups.”

So with vacancy rates for retail buildings now stubbornly hovering around 13 per cent compared to approximately 5 per cent pre-2007, what would one of the country’s most successful independents advise fellow indies contemplating the future? “One of the most important messages I would say is get out there and get involved. Equally, I think that the public suffers from a complacency that these stores will always be there. The truth is that they won’t, unless the community uses them.”

If the country’s independent retailers were in need of a call to action, there it is: get out there, get involved in your local community and remind them why you are special.

Fiona Coe is the manager of the womenswear department at Coe’s of Ipswich. Coe’s is a member of the Fashion Association of Britain (FAB) Fashionassociationofbritain.co.uk