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One name covers it all
Laura Turner catches up with Mark Stevenson, company managing director of Stevensons, a family owned supplier of schoolwear and sportswear. 

By Laura Turner

1 October 2013

The last 18 months have seen a host of exciting developments unfold for Stevensons, an independent, family owned supplier of school uniform and sportswear. Highlights from the St Albans company’s recent activities include additional shops and investment in a new warehouse and office facility, which will help centralise and co-ordinate the business going forward. Laura Turner spoke to company managing director Mark Stevenson, who joined the business in 2001, to learn more. 

Laura Turner: What are the origins of Stevensons and how has it evolved into the thriving, multichannel schoolwear and sportswear business it is today? 
Mark Stevenson: Stevensons was established by my grandfather in 1925 as a ladies’ and gentlemen’s fashion shop, later incorporating children’s fashions, shoes, baby goods and, of course, schoolwear. At one stage, we had eight shops on Victoria Street in St Albans but, over time, they were closed until the business contracted to two stores. By the late 80s, with the growth of the schoolwear business and decline of the fashions, we became a pure schoolwear retailer, adding sportswear and equipment as a significant part of our offering after the turn of the millennium. 
In 2006, we started to expand outside St Albans when we were approached by a group of schools to discuss operating school shops on their sites. We refitted and opened four shops – initially with them – and, over seven years, we have grown to incorporate 16 on-campus school shops. By 2008, we acquired our first high-street shop outside St Albans, which was Len Smiths of Twickenham. Len Smiths was family run but had suffered with lack of investment, and the latest generation of the family were not keen to carry the business forward. In 2009, we purchased our first warehouse with offices circa 6,000 sq ft but, by 2011, we had outgrown it. In late 2011, we found our next warehouse located nearby in St Albans, which we purchased freehold, offering warehouse storage of 11,000 sq ft, office space of 5,000 sq ft and the added advantage of an adjacent unit that could provide another 8,000 sq ft if required. 
In late 2012, we completed on the purchase of three other schoolwear businesses – Schoolwear Oxford, Barrett’s of Bournemouth and Rickards in Bournemouth. The Rickards business was small and, as planned, we closed the store and transferred the trade into the Barretts store. Currently, we are fitting out a new shop that we are opening in Reading, where we will be taking over supply of the schools presently supplied by independent retailerJacksons of Reading, which is closing at the end of the year.       
LT: How many stores does the business currently have?  
MS: Five, including the Reading store, which opens in November 2013. However, we are currently talking to a number of companies who are looking at their exit strategies, so we do plan to acquire more shops soon.
LT: What do the stores offer in terms of product scope? 
MS: Where we have space, we try to offer the complete one-stop-shop to kit out a child ready for school, incorporating stationery, bags, shoes, sports equipment, scouts and guides and, in some of our on-campus shops, we even offer ice creams! 
LT: You are a multichannel retailer – what routes do you sell through and how do sales compare between those channels?
MS: The retail shops account for 52 per cent of sales, and on-campus shops 15 per cent. The transactional website – which launched in spring 2010 – accounts for 17 per cent; pop-up shops 10 per cent, wholesale three per cent; and three per cent via our order hotline service. 
LT: Are pop-up shops an important part of the business? 
MS: Pop-up shops – or school selling events – are a big part of the business and something we do on a large scale with a dedicated team and manager overseeing it. We go to some schools we work with up and down the country, anything from one to five times in a year, and set up a shop there. A school selling event can last anywhere from two to eight hours depending on demand, and we probably carry out around 250 of these events a year – utilising around 30 members of staff on the busiest days. During peak times, we can do up to five events in one day. 
LT: As well as retailing, Stevensons also wholesales – how integral is this to the overall business?
MS: We don’t encourage or seek wholesale business, as schools are often disorganised and slow to place orders. Schools have a job to educate and shouldn’t be encoraged to become retailers. We do support schools we stock retail with sports tour kits, leavers’ hoodies and so on, but it is the pure wholesale business we are not keen to pursue. We deal with around 140 suppliers and supply uniform to 300 schools. These are where we are doing the full uniform and/or PE kit; schools where we just do an odd item for we do not count. 
LT: How will Stevensons’ new warehouse and head office will help the business going forward? 
MS: We believe there is no other schoolwear retailer in the trade that has a distribution centre and head office like ours. We plan to centralise all calls into the business through our customer service department next year so no calls will go direct to store. This, we believe, will mean we can monitor the service and waiting time people experience to make sure we are offering the best service we can.  
LT: What size workforce does Stevensons have behind it? 
MS: Currently, we employ around 110 people: 65 in retail; 10 in warehouse and logistics; five in accounts; seven buyers; 10 customer services staff; five in IT and marketing; and eight in sales and head office management. 
LT: Have you found any recent changes to customer buying habits? 
MS: Not really, apart from via online, which we anticipate will eventually flatline at around 20 per cent of our business. You must bear in mind we cater for schools all over the country, and they obviously have a much higher percentage of sales through the website. Where we cater for schools within a five-mile radius of a retail shop, and where we have on-campus school shops, the percentage of sales done online is less than five per cent.
LT: How do you view the current state of the schoolwear sector?

MS: I am very concerned about the fragility of our supply chain and the longevity of some of our suppliers. This coupled with the large number of retailers who are just not investing in their business does seem to indicate that the strong will go stronger and the weak will disappear. However, with our expansion plans and that of other well-financed companies, it does mean that the overall school uniform experience for schools and parents will continue to improve.
LT: What are the long-term plans for Stevensons? 
MS: We will continue to expand, concentrating on the south of the country, with 12 stores and revenues of £20m projected by 2020. At the end of this year, we will also be rebranding all of our shops to trade under the Stevensons banner. When we acquired Len Smiths in 2008, for instance, we kept its trading under Len Smiths. This causes confusion for schools and customers at times and rebranding everything to Stevensons will clarify things. Also, when you first take on a business, sometimes repair work is required in terms of relationships with schools. Rebranding allows us a clean slate and a fresh start trading under the Stevensons name.


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