Interview With Tom Bottomley Of


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Having become much more of a shirts and shoes business than the original accessories brand, which once focused on cufflinks and watches, Simon Carter is now in the process of refurbishing its four London stores, which are currently bucking the generic retail trend and finding success, despite the overhanging gloom and uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Talking straight from the hip as usual, Carter tells it how he thinks it is.

How are you finding retail right now?

We’re bucking the retail trend as we’re trading 5% up like-for-like on last year across our four stores and the website, and it’s absolutely not coming from discounting. Our stores are in Shepherd Market in Mayfair, Blackheath Village, on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury and in Crystal Palace – just up the road from where I live. Crystal Palace is actually thriving. It’s what I call “now retail” because it’s very village-like, and it absolutely knows its own community. People are staying closer to home and shopping local, so if you get that right there’s good business to be had. In fact, if you measure our sales like-for-like across the stores, then Crystal Palace is trading the best at 10% up, where as the Mayfair store is averaging more like 2% up.

What is your opinion on discounting?

We don’t do it, aside from perhaps on six or seven selected products around Black Friday. Apart from that, we have a conventional three-week Sale after Christmas and a conventional three-week Sale in July – that is it. My view, a bit like Lord Wolfson over at Next, is if you’ve got confidence in your product then you shouldn’t need to constantly discount. The problem is, the consumer is so now weaned on to thinking that discounting is normal, that when you don’t have a discount on they think, “well that’s interesting, these guys might be doing something right”. It comes back to knowing your market and knowing your customer. I’d say we do.

Have you updated the stores at all?

Yes, actually Crystal Palace was the first store to get a refurbishment in the summer, which we completed in July, and the next store to be revamped will be the Mayfair store in spring 2020, with the others following in Q2 and Q3 next year. It’s a bit more of a structured and designed re-fit from what I’ve had before. Instead of the shop being full of random things that I’ve cobbled together from country auctions and hope they work, this new look is designed to use the space better, with a clear shirt section within the shop and a clear shoe area, as shoes have become more important for me, alongside clear tailoring – mainly jackets – and accessories sections. That’s been achieved with colour changes and bespoke fixtures instead of antique fixtures, which aren’t always the most efficient. In the shirt section in the Crystal Palace shop we have now embedded white mother of pearl buttons into a black painted shop floor, so immediately when you step into that area it’s got a different feel to the rest of the shop. The buttons really catch the light. A fresh makeover doesn’t have to be complicated, it can just be little tricks that help the customer differentiate between the different aspects of the store – making it easier to shop.

Are shirts big business for you now?

I’d say Simon Carter is definitely now a shirt-led brand. They’re mainly conversation shirts, bright, colourful, patterned – sometimes prints that make you smile, and they now average about 65% of all our revenue. Back in the day, it was really only an accessories business, but that’s completely changed. We now even sell an average of twice as many pocket squares as we do cufflinks in the shops. So, you have to move with the times and the assortment has to reflect that. One of the successes of the brand is the way that it has morphed from being an accessories-only business into a very successful full offer really. Most brands don’t do it that way round, they usually start with tailoring or something and then add on accessories.

How is the cufflinks side of the business these days?

I’d describe them as steady at best. Cufflinks have been in decline as a category for probably about the last five years. They’ve now stabilised, and what you’re left with is a customer who is probably an older guy, who really likes wearing his cufflinks, and that isn’t going to change. What he wants is something very beautiful perhaps each year, as a Christmas or birthday present. So, the middle and bottom end of the market is tough, because everyone’s got a drawer full of plain metal cufflinks that they never really wear any more. But, if you come up with something really beautiful, like some of our hand-painted enamel cufflinks, or some of our semi-precious stone cufflinks, then there is a market for them. They retail more between £75-£100, and that’s a good sweet spot for us now.

Is the Christmas trading period key for accessories sales?

Yes, I suppose it’s what is called the peak gifting time. We get some beautiful wool scarves made in Donegal and it’s a very strong offer which sells well. We also have some lovely bright coloured Italian socks, which are always really popular coming up to Christmas. We carry stock all the time too, which helps.

How is your wholesale business?

The wholesale side is steady, but I would say for us it is really more about just working with a few really key clients. Liberty is really good for us, as is Harvey Nichols and John Lewis. We’ve also started working with Thread, and that’s proving to be very successful, particularly so far with our shoes. It gets the brand into the new curated marketplace, which I think is important. But, a lot of the smaller customers, the more provincial menswear shops, have just gone – and have probably been replaced by Flannels by the look of it! So, that market has dried up a little bit, which is one of the reasons why we’re focusing on our own stores.

How long have you been doing shoes now?

The shoes are a collaboration with Sole Trader, made in Portugal, and we’re just coming to the end of the third year of that. It’s an agreement with them, which I help them design to sell in their own stores, all just branded as Simon Carter, but we also carry some in our own stores. We purchase the shoes from Sole Trader, as a wholesale customer would. It’s just as much a sale for them if it happens in their shops, our shops or now through Thread as well. It’s about broadening out the demographic of the Simon Carter customer really.

How has your business partnership in India performed so far?

India has really been one of my great success stories of the last couple of years, and 2019 has been a particularly good year. The first store opened in 2017, though the deal was several years in the planning, and I’m now up to 11 shops across India. The partnership is with an Indian multinational conglomerate called Aditya Birla Group, which operates some 1,200 stores across India. They’ve just won a national award for the best retail design across the whole of India for the Simon Carter stores, which just look amazing.

What are your views on the ongoing Brexit saga?

I’ve gone on record as being profoundly in favour of remaining, as I just think it’s the most extraordinary thing for a country to deliberately saw off its own leg. Any outcome from this will involve more costs, burden, paperwork, admin, tariffs and more expense, but less profit. But then there is also a part of me that now thinks that because the uncertainty has gone on for so long, then maybe we do just need to chop our leg off and then start learning to walk with one leg. It’s just so disruptive to have uncertainty, and there is an argument going that uncertainty is almost worse than Brexit itself. That’s the point I’m at. I also think that an election two weeks before Christmas is pretty grim for retail. I don’t think people are really going to have their hands in their pockets between now and the election, because people don’t like even more uncertainty. By nature I’m a cheerful person, but there’s not much in this to make me cheerful!

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