British Shoe misses its step

Matthew Valentine charts the rise and fall of the British Shoe Corporation and the part design played in its downfall.

An era ended last week when retail conglomerate Sears sold Cable & Co, its last remaining shoe chain. British Shoe Corporation, the shoe division of Sears, used to be the UK’s biggest seller of shoes, with a market share of more than 20 per cent as recently as 1990.

To give a more tangible idea of scale, British Shoe used to own Freeman Hardy Willis, Saxone, Trueform, Bertie, Dolcis, Manfield, Curtess, Roland Cartier, Shoe Express, Shoe City, and Shoe Connection.

As soon as its head office in Leicester is wound down later this year, British Shoe will cease to exist, marking the end of an empire which consisted at one time of more than 2500 shops. The ruins of that empire contain a cautionary tale, illustrating clearly how not to use, or abuse, design.

Mainstream shoe-retailing missed out on much of the 1980s retail design boom, entering this decade with a slew of tired formats and unfashionable images. The result was clear – clothing retailers, notably Next and Marks and Spencer, took customers away from traditional shoe shops.

Having previously ignored design, British Shoe hotfooted to the opposite end of the creative spectrum. The list of consultancies to have worked for the business over the past ten years reads like a Who’s Who of retail designers.

If design was supposed to rescue British Shoe it proved a failure, and an expensive one. But for a company losing sales, money appeared to be no object to British Shoe.

When young fashion brand Dolcis dropped a short-lived 20/20 concept in 1996 because it appealed to too young an audience, British Shoe flew three large helicopters full of London journalists to Leicester to see its replacement. The hacks were showered with champagne, but left unimpressed by the shop.

In what looked like a marketing turnaround a Dolcis format inspired by Channel 4 show The Word was replaced by one based on a Disney-tinted view of Paris fashion boutiques, created by New York group Mansour Design. Nobody, it seemed, could quite agree on just who the target customer was.

“It was a bit ramshackle… Dolcis was virtually bringing in a new design every other week,” says Clive Vaughan of retail consultant, Verdict.

Dolcis makes an interesting case study of how not to choose design. The Parisian format never achieved a very wide presence, leaving most stores to soldier on with a format developed by John Herbert Partnership in 1985. The designers who came after JHP, working to a brief, can hardly be blamed. The problem came with the client, and its confused view of what it had to offer.

JHP director Patricia Herbert says the consultancy is proud of its 1985 Dolcis format “because it lasted so long”. It was commissioned by British Shoe’s then marketing director Martin Watts who had, says Herbert, a clear view of what each British Shoe brand stood for, and a plan to break up the “amorphous mass” the group had become.

“There was someone in charge who had a clear vision of where he wanted to go,” she says. Things changed later, when the chain seemed to wind up with “no one with a clear idea of what the stores had that was special”, she adds.

Vaughan agrees. “It [British Shoe] just wasn’t focused enough,” he says. By owning such a wide range of essentially similar chains, British Shoe duplicated product ranges and so effectively competed with itself, and failed to respond to customer needs.

Several years ago it was not uncommon to find half a dozen shoe shops in a high street, all owned by British Shoe and all selling the same ranges.

The theory that British Shoe was lacking in effective leadership gains more credence if placed in context. In terms of how much money it cost Sears, design was of little worry compared to some of the deals made when the board decided to quit before losses grew further, and to get rid of shoe stores.

When it disposed of shoe chains including Freeman Hardy Willis and Saxone to the fledgling Facia group, Sears started a catalogue of events which left it with egg on its face. Facia’s bankers eventually refused it credit, resulting in the company’s receivership.

Responsibility for the leases of the stores Facia had bought reverted to British Shoe, resulting in bills and red faces. Sears had to increase provisions for expected losses by 25m. Facia founder Stephen Hinchliffe was placed under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. The investigation continues. This caused shareholders to question the judgement of Sears’ management.

Sears eventually made provisions of 150m last September for the long expected disposals of the remaining parts of British Shoe. The final part, Cable & Co, was sold last week to US chain Nine West. Mark Spitz, chairman of the group’s UK arm Shoe Studio, says all the stores will be rebranded as Nine West units over the next 18 months.

“The old way of selling shoes doesn’t work anymore, you have to offer the public what it wants,” says Spitz. Increased competition from fashion chains means brands are more important to shoe buyers than ever before, he adds.

If only Sears had known that, perhaps things would have been rather different.

The Shoe Box

February 1988 Munro and Naismith design three stores for the Bertie chain

May 1988 Freeman Hardy Willis and Trueform given new identities by Cardona Platt Associates. The consultancy is also working on interiors for all 800 stores in the two chains

October 1988 Cable & Co launched – with a store format by David Davies Associates

November 1988 John Harris Design Partnership creates new corporate identity for BSC group

April 1989 Saxone appoints Fitch & Company to develop new image for its 180 stores

September 1989 Bertie launches another new format, this time by Ideas Design Consultancy

April 1990 Oakley Young is working on a new format for Dolcis

June 1990 the 90 Roland Cartier shops to get retail and corporate identity by John Michael Design

December 1990 Fitch involvement with Saxone in doubt as John Herbert Partnership appointed to the same job.

September 1993 BSC decides to roll out Shoe Express format by Sparkes Orr, with identity and graphics by Robson Design Associates

March 1994 Davies Baron is working for Hush Puppies, and a Design House format for Shoe City is implemented. A new store, the Orchard Shoe Company, is on trial, with another Davies Baron format

November 1994 Hush Puppies appoints Campbell Hellowell Duncan with the plan to review its point-of-sale image

February 1995 20/20 is working on new Dolcis format

March 1995 self-service chain Shoe Connection is launched with format by Design Ministry

May 1995 Verdict report on shoe retailing says of British Shoe: ‘there is now more design input… further improvements are expected

June 1995 Roland Cartier is to try a new identity by Parker Stratton Design and interiors by David Bentheim & Company

July 1995 Design Ministry’s Shoe Connection given the all clear to roll out.

October 1996 Dolcis unveils new format by Mansour Design, scrapping 20/20’s version. BSC opens a new design centre at its Leicester HQ, employing 20 staff

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