Charles Clinkard Q&A: “Maintaining good relationships with suppliers is key”

Charles Clinkard store in Byres Road, Glasgow (7 Dec 2012). Photograph by Graham Soult

Charles Clinkard store in Byres Road, Glasgow (7 Dec 2012)

Think of a great northern city, and the chances are that you’ll bring to mind one of the great northern retailers that’s based there.

Bradford has Morrisons and Leeds has Asda (and was the birthplace of M&S), while the North West is awash with big retail firms, from the Manchester-based Co-operative Group to Liverpool’s cluster of well-known chains that includes B&M, TJ Morris (owner of Home Bargains), TJ Hughes and Shop Direct (formerly Littlewoods).

The North East, in comparison, is relatively quiet at producing retail firms that make a splash on the national stage. There’s the ubiquitous Newcastle-based Greggs, of course, plus the institution that is Fenwick – now an 11-strong chain – but few others that readily spring to mind.

Charles Clinkard outlet store at Dalton Park in County Durham (16 Oct 2012). Photograph by Graham Soult

Charles Clinkard outlet store at Dalton Park in County Durham (16 Oct 2012)

However, one North East-based retailer that’s been steadily growing – albeit somewhat below the radar – is the footwear chain Charles Clinkard.

Founded in Middlesbrough in 1924, it now successfully operates 28 regular stores, four factory outlets and a transactional website from its headquarters in Stockton-On-Tees. It’s not just growth in the North East either, with all but five of the company’s store operating outside the region – stretching from Glasgow in the north to Guildford and Newbury in the south. Meanwhile, as revealed by my friend Sam Stockley in December, a new store is on the way in Shrewsbury.

At a time when many long-established shoe specialists are exiting the high street – demonstrated most recently by the disappearance of the Barratts brand following its third collapse in five years – Charles Clinkard’s ability to evolve and thrive within a changing and challenging marketplace is impressive. So, what are the secrets of the company’s success? I spoke to Charles Clinkard himself – grandson of the eponymous founder – to find out.

1. Tell me a little bit about your business – where is it based, what’s its history, and what does it do?

Charles Clinkard sells quality, branded footwear for all the family. It has been doing so since 1924 and is still family owned and managed. Our first store was set up in Middlesbrough and we have quite a strong regional presence now, with branches throughout the North East as well as our head office and 40,000 sq ft warehouse in Stockton.

Site of future Charles Clinkard store in Shrewsbury (21 Dec 2013). Photograph by Sam Stockley

Site of future Charles Clinkard store in Shrewsbury (21 Dec 2013). Photograph by Sam Stockley

We’ll soon be opening a new store in Shrewsbury, after the closure of Jane Dyas. Andrew Dyas, the owner of the store and a long-standing customer of our wholesale business selling Gabor, approached us with the opportunity to pick up the footwear market share he had established in Shrewsbury as he was retiring. The new store will enable us to hopefully retain some of the existing Gabor business and build on the opportunity in the town.

2. And what’s your own role in the business?

I’ve been the managing director of the business since 2001. As well as directing company strategy and being ultimately responsible for its performance, I’m fully involved with buying, merchandising and daily stock administration. I’m occasionally even seen selling on the shopfloor, where I started out!

3. What’s your business model, and why? Is it bricks, clicks or both?

Charles Clinkard website (14 Feb 2014). Photograph by Graham Soult

Charles Clinkard website (14 Feb 2014)

We’re rooted in bricks and mortar and have a network of 32 stores nationally. I’ve carried on my grandfather’s outlook of putting customer service first and selling middle-to-upper end market brands. This is supported by our website, which we established in 2005 and has proven itself to be an engine of growth for the company. Our challenge now, like all bricks-and-clicks businesses, is to ensure that our channels work seamlessly together and that our customers enjoy a cohesive, convenient and happy shopping experience, regardless of whether they’re shopping in a store, on their phones or on their tablets.

4. Looking forward, what do you see as the greatest opportunities for a business like yours at the moment?

Charles Clinkard store in Redcar, next to the famous clock (17 Sep 2009). Photograph by Graham Soult

Charles Clinkard store in Redcar, next to the famous clock (17 Sep 2009)

With the rate of change in the online space, that is a key focus for us. In particular, bringing the depth and breadth of the online range into our stores, and the personal touch from stores to the website buying experience. Multichannel will be a huge opportunity for many years to come. In terms of physical new sites, we’re still a relatively niche entity, despite having grown from 20 to 32 stores in the past five years alone. Consequently, we’ll look at any opportunity that we find or is offered to us based on its merits.

5. And what about the main challenges?

Maintaining good relationships with suppliers is key in this business, and there are still some arrogant ones living in a bygone era. Poor quality product can be particularly harmful to our reputation, since our focus is on quality items that last, rather than fast fashion. As a result, we have to be very vigilant all the time. We have to deal with an increasing burden of red tape and bureaucracy these days. And of course bank financing is not the easiest thing in the world to get now, although we’re fortunate enough to enjoy a very good working relationship with our bank.

6. Where do you hope your business will be in five years’ time?

Despite a very challenging retail climate, the outlook is good. We’ve got a lot of confidence in our product mix, the expertise of our sales staff and the progress of the website. We hope to keep growing at a similar pace to that which we have been recently.

7. And any final thoughts or comments that you’d like to add?

I think it’s important to uphold the traditions and values of my grandparents, the founders of the business – well-informed customer service, a focus on quality, and an unwavering commitment to your niche. They still have value today. We have some very good people on board, with lots of loyalty and commitment. As the company continues to grow, I would like to see some of our strong management play a more senior role in the business.

Retailer Q&A is a format where Soult’s Retail View talks to retailers – large or small, and whether bricks, clicks or multichannel – about their current innovations, aspirations and challenges. As always with Soult’s Retail View, the features are not paid for – it’s all about providing interesting stories and content for the blog’s readers. If you run a retail business and are interested in taking part in the feature, please drop me an email or a tweet.

Remember, my retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, also works with retailers nationwide to improve their stores, customer communications and market knowledge. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com.

3 Responses to “Charles Clinkard Q&A: “Maintaining good relationships with suppliers is key””

  1. Charles Clinkard: a modern store with traditional values - Fashion & Style Directory said:

    Feb 14, 14 at 21:36

    […] Charles put it in a recent interview with Soult’s Retail View: “I think it’s important to uphold the traditions and values of my grandparents, the […]

  2. Robin Carter said:

    Mar 01, 14 at 13:19

    Hi Graham,

    nice to see you giving the North West a big up – you have listed a number of discount retailers but have omitted one of the NW’s most successful retailers – E H Booth – a retail chain that gives Waitrose a run for its money. They even give free coffee out to its customers so well worth a visit next time you venture over the Pennines,

    All The Best,

    Robin

  3. Richard said:

    Apr 11, 14 at 15:42

    I always used to go wit my mother for school (and other) shoes from Clinkard.


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