Cheryl Taylor talks to Chris Hart, Managing Director of Charles Ager Ltd. With stores in Coventry, Kenilworth and Swadlincote, celebrating 175 years in the footwear trade.
Name: Chris Hart, Managing Director of Charles Ager Ltd.
Shops: 4 stores. Our main Charles Ager shop is in central Coventry with a smaller Charles Ager shop in Kenilworth. We also have 2 Clarks Franchise shops in Kenilworth and Swadlincote
Brands: Clarks, Startrite, Gabor, Rieker, Loakes, Ecco, Merrell, Hotter, Dr Marten, Lelli Kelly, Timberland, Waldlaufer, Heavenly feet, Ruby Shoo, Lunar, Anatomic Gel, Fitflop, Marco Tozzi, Lotus, Jenny /Ara, Earth Spirit, Moshulu, Birkenstock.
Home Town: Kenilworth, Warwickshire
Family: Married Michelle with 3 kids, Nicole Emma and Sam.
How did you get into footwear? Tell us about your background and your current business?
I first started working for my father David Hart in 1991 after several years working in the green grocery trade. At this time Charles Ager was trading out of 2 shops, Charles Ager in Coventry and a Clarks franchise in Kenilworth. Soon after starting we took over an existing Clarks franchise shop in Swadlincote. Then a several years later we took over another shop in Kenilworth, this Charles Ager shop sells many brands but not Clarks as we already had the franchise shop in the same precinct.
In 2000 we installed Retail Technology’s, EPOS system to monitor style and brand performance, today we could not be without such a system
In more recent years opened an online store www.charlesager.co.uk
We are members and I’m on the council of IFRA. (The Independent Footwear Retailers Association)
I am also a lifetime member of The Society Of Shoe Fitters.
My Mum still does the Company’s accounts and My Dad still comes in about once a week to keep an eye on me. Except for when the weather’s good, then he just phones from the golf course.
Where are your premises located and how many people do you employ? Do you have a high turnover of staff?
Our main shop is in the centre of Coventry although it is not in the main shopping area but on the periphery, it has been in its current location on Corporation St since the previous store was completely flattened in the Blitz of 1940.
As well as this store we have another smaller shop in Kenilworth and two Clarks Franchise stores, in Kenilworth and Swadlincote. We employ around 30 staff, a few full timers, but mainly part time to give more flexibility.
Having a healthy children’s business we usually take on students for the busy ‘Back to School’, we warn any new staff about this selling time, but when it arrives they all say ‘I didn’t think it would be THAT busy!!
And often they return for a 2nd or sometimes even a 3rd year making the training less arduous.
Tell us about your shops, the local area, your customers and their requirements?
We do offer a Children’s Shoe Club, this is a loyalty card where shoe purchases are entered on the card, one per child, when 11 pairs are purchased we say ‘Thank you’ to the customer and the 12th pair is FREE. This means we have regulars and grandparents bring in grandchildren and they had their first shoes fitted with us many years before. We are fairly traditional in our Adult offering and the business leans towards casual rather than too much fashion, but this is being addressed with the introduction of new brands to us like Ruby Shoo. As we all know our more mature traditional clients now want to wear more fashionable styling.
Do you have an online shop/website and do you use social networking for business?
We have a fully transactional website www.charlesager.co.uk working out of the offices at our Coventry store, this is constantly being developed and is changing at present, we do not sell fitted children’s shoes on the site but offer children’s fashion brands and all ladies and gents. We have Facebook and a Twitter page and write blogs and link in interesting footwear features.
How are you finding the footwear market currently?
Just recently, early March, with the new seasonal product now entering the store daily by the van load, this is sparking interest with customers, prior to this the season had not really been encouraging. We are up against very poor figures from last year with the snow that took it’s time to disappear. Easter is late so we need brighter weather to lift spirits and entice customers to need new shoes.
In Coventry our customers are looking for a bargain we are finding the premium brands are suffering for us and we are needing to bring in other product at a lower price point, it is very hard as we are still thought of as ‘the best shoe shop in Coventry’ and don’t want to devalue our image and reputation of all the 175yrs gone by.
What’s selling well? Any particular trends? Which are your best selling footwear brands and why?
If you include the on-line business it seems that comfort casual functional footwear is the main area where we are taking money, with the seasonal shift out of boots into an everyday shoe, waiting for the weather to break for the more seasonal lighter product to kick in. Clarks are performing the best overall but mainly the more value end followed by Rieker.
How important is shoe fitting to your business? Are you or any of your staff members of the Society of Shoe Fitters?
We have a good reputation in Coventry for Children’s shoe fitting and we get customers sent to us from the podiatry department of the hospital knowing we will be able to help and advice with shoe choices for adults. The brands we stock offer a choice of fittings for adults it is not our job to preach but purely advise when asked. I am a lifetime member of The Society of Shoe fitters. We shall have some activities going on for National Shoe fitting week starting 12th April, being the school Easter holidays we will link it in with a Prize Draw competition aimed at the children to win an ipod mini, which child doesn’t want to win one of these? We are also planning a fun feature ‘Animals in shoes’ to pick your favourite and ‘like’ it either in store or on line on our Facebook page. As yet I haven’t contacted the local radio, we did get a good feature last year along with a chiropodist on a live chat show.
Does your shop sell other items besides footwear, bags, gloves, tights, socks, below the ankle products?
We sell ladies handbags, a selection of traditional quality leather bags and more fashionable options, being in a city centre there is tough competition in this area in a city when the largest store is Primark.
We also stock a large range of Sundries, mostly from Punch
Any tips on stock offers, novel ideas for clearing lines or advice for independent shoe retailers who might be feeling the pinch?
We run Special offers all year round and have 2 seasonal Sales.
We do try to keep our stock clean, by this I mean we try to clear out well each season, as if a line didn’t sell one year it is unlikely to the next, so it will only be dead money preventing the purchase of new stock and new life into the store.
What is your favourite men’s footwear brand/manufacturer- ditto ladies/children’s brand and why?
Our best performing brand is Clarks, this is the best volume performing brand. As we use their Auto Fill stock control system where we have easy control of our patterns as the season develops and hopefully react to trends easier than with other brands. We may have over 5000 pairs of Clarks children’s on the shelf prior to Back To School.
How do you select your products- which criteria do you use/what are customers looking for?
We have detailed stock/sales records these help with forward buying and quantities needed. It is important to keep up with trends to a degree but being more traditional and our location in Coventry we are not the first area to notice big trend changes.
Which footwear/fashion shows do you attend, how do you rate them?
MODA is the only show we go to even though it’s at silly times of year, February half term and at the start of BTS in August. For this reason and as now many of our suppliers no longer attend, MODA is becoming less importance to us. I feel a show is to view what is available for the coming season so that more informed decisions are made in range building but this can’t be done at MODA anymore.
And next step? Any plans for the future, new lines, retail systems/ new technology, etc?
Our Website is currently being looked at in depth for change to expand this side of the business in doing so we have bought from companies that are not in our ‘comfort zone’ as the Internet is a completely different selling platform.
Online we face much bigger competition as almost all our suppliers now sell online, they seem to have forgotten about the small independent retailer who helped build there Brands.