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Play to your strengths
Schoolwear independent Brenda’s on restructuring the business to pave the way for future growth.

By Laura Turner

19 March 2014

When it comes to business strategies, there is a belief that you should give precedence to working on weaknesses. Many, however, make playing to their strengths the priority, such as schoolwear independent Brenda’s, which recently restructured to pave the way for future growth, but not quite in the way the company originally intended.

Established in 1949, Brenda’s Schoolwear is a well-rooted independent retailer in Surrey, servicing the North-East Hampshire, Surrey, and Berkshire borders. Over the last 10 years, it has cultivated its stock to give parents the complete school offering of uniform, footwear, coats, bags, stationery, sports accessories and items for other extra-curricular activities, which it provided until January 2014, via two shops based in Farnborough and Camberley.

Like any savvy independent retailer, the management behind Brenda’s Schoolwear is constantly working on moving the business forward. Over recent years, the main focus for development has been centred on its retail outlets, namely attempts to relocate the Farnborough store to larger premises. Despite years of hunting, however, the search for a suitable property proved fruitless so, in January 2013, the business went back to the drawing board. Possibilities for the future of the retailer were dissected, a number of potential properties located between Farnborough and Camberley were assessed, as was the possibility of moving both shops into one, larger store. Nevertheless, after much deliberation and years of research, Brenda’s Schoolwear management came to the conclusion that they already had what they were looking for.

“What made most sense to us was just to merge the Farnborough shop into our much larger, already existing Camberley store,” says Steve Optix, a partner at Brenda’s Schoolwear. “The plan was always to open further stores in surrounding areas, but it became obvious that this could easily be the undoing of the business.”

By reinventing its existing business and merging the two stores, Brenda’s Schoolwear has achieved the development it has sought for years, without the risk of raised overheads and massive investment. Housing one united team of staff, the newly improved Camberley shop has been refreshed with extra tills and counters to enable pay points on both of its floors as well as additional changing room facilities and seating to accommodate the extra business during peak selling periods.

As well as the recent change to its retail structure, at Optix’s own admittance, the whole business dynamic of Brenda’s Schoolwear has altered massively over the years. A business model that worked in 1949, for instance, is going to be very different to the one required to run a successful independent schoolwear business today.

“Epos systems have economised the stock holding side of things, creating less unnecessary overspend and having more consistent stock levels,” he says. “Barcodes have made the service flow of customers more efficient, increased till points and have reduced bottle necks during peak seasons. And, as uniforms have become more elaborate over the years, it has certainly been to our benefit that many schools feel they can no longer cope with holding their own stock, projecting ordering and dealing with sales and cash handling, and so are passing the business on to experienced companies such as ours to deal with.”

Online is another factor that Optix highlights as contributing to changes in the business model of selling schoolwear today. For Brenda’s Schoolwear, its online presence is key, to the extent that the retailer now considers the store as much a shop front for the online operation. Optix’s view is balanced when it comes to the selling of schoolwear online and, while he admits the e-commerce side of the business does take some footfall away from the bricks-and-mortar store, it also enables him to suggest products and add-ons to customers purchasing online, much in the same way as staff would in his physical store.

With its proactive approach to commerce, Brenda’s Schoolwear employs every available opportunity to develop its business. It is a strong supporter and participator of community events and heavily utilises social media. The latter being something Optix notes as a “huge aspect” of the business, with customers and schools able to find the business on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr and Wordpress, where Optix has his own blog, The Life and Times of an Independent Schoolwear Retailer.

“We try to operate with maximum transparency to our schools and customers and, as well as obvious messages, we can communicate via these [social media] mediums,” he says. “It helps customers to understand our business and some of the issues we face.”

As well as the underlying aim of continuing to solidify its market position and grow at a manageable rate, Brenda’s Schoolwear’s pursuit to remain ahead of current in-store and online retail trends continues. Optix, for instance, is looking into the possibilities of introducing in-store iPad ordering and stock-checking points, as well as further developing the online service to create a more intuitive shopping experience for customers.

While Brenda’s Schoolwear may have changed and evolved in many ways over the years, one element that remains steadfast is the retailer’s mission statement – “To deliver quality schoolwear and associated product at a reasonable price in a friendly and well-stocked store.” Its three main facets – quality, service and price – remain the number-one focus.

“Our short-term aims are to continue to constantly tweak and fine-tune our operations to become as dynamic and efficient as possible,” says Optix. “This is something that has been an ongoing undertaking for the last 10 years so, ultimately, short-term aims are a big part of our long-term aims.


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