National award for WJ French and Son, Southampton’s oldest shop

WJ. French and Son based in Bedford Place, Southampton has been trading for more than 200 years during which time it has been managed by members of eight different generations of the same family.

Now Caroline French, the current managing director, is celebrating with her staff after the store was named Independent Family Footwear Retailer of the Year in the Footwear Industry Awards in Birmingham.

Caroline said: “It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to take over a family business that has been in Southampton since 1803.

“It is a real honour to have received this award and to gain recognition for our work. This is down to the hard work of all our staff and the support of the loyal families who shop with us.”

“But the staff are incredibly hard-working and loyal and that has been a tremendous help. Our manager has been with the business for 51 years and the average length of service is 20 years, so that’s a lot of shoe-fitting knowledge and expertise.

“I’m the first woman to be running the family business but my grandmother, great- grandmother and great-great-grandmother all worked alongside their husbands, either in the office or on the shop floor. I have known many of the staff members since I was young so it is like working with a big extended family.”

Caroline, a former city chartered surveyor took over as MD from her father Richard two years ago when he retired.

The company sells and repairs shoes for all ages and also specialised shoe fitting for those with narrow or wide feet or people with health issues such as diabetes.

The business can trace its its roots back to 1794, when Francis French began his apprenticeship as a shoemaker.

By 1803 he had become a master shoemaker and started his own business in Kingsland Place, Southampton.

His son William purchased the current shop in Bedford Place in 1890, which was thus extended in 1964.

Caroline says she aims to maintain the high standards set by her father and grandfather.

Since taking over, she has an improved website and new stock control and cash desk systems, however she reiterated that the key to her success was “exceptional customer service”.

“We have loyal customers who have been coming to us for generations, who understand how important it is to have shoes that are not only fashionable but also well fitting. We strive for excellent customer service at all times so it is a real honour to have received this award and to gain recognition for our work,” said Caroline.

Source: Southern Daily Echo