Death of physical stores 'a fallacy' says Skopes MD Simon Cope as expansion plan launches

Suiting brand Skopes, established in 1948, does not mix its words when it comes to trends in the retail sector and, in particular, on often-voiced fears for the future of physical stores.

“It’s a load of rubbish, a fallacy, to think that bricks and mortar retail is going to die,” says Skopes managing director and chairman Simon Cope. Instead, the group sees opportunity in the shake-up currently affecting UK high streets and shopping centres. It has just opened a new concept store at Westfield London, and is planning a further 15 of the stores in key UK retail locations.

Skopes has substantial heritage in the clothing sector. As well as a familiar wholesale brand with department store concessions, and with a B2B business supplying corporate uniforms, it has a number of outlet stores which have seen increasing sales in recent years.

But the company’s new direction is part of a fundamental rethink designed to help it take greater control of its own retail future, sparked in part by the problems faced by other retailers.

“We have lots of concessions with House of Fraser… when they went into administration and we knew they were in trouble, we started to go down a different route. And looking at the high street we felt now is a good time for us to move forward,” says Cope.

“We started on this route of taking more control of our own destiny, and not going through third parties… because with a third party it’s like being on a very nice cruise ship, but you’re not steering the boat. They’ve got to steer the boat to nice ports to get people on. So the more of our own shops we have the more we control our own destiny… We’ve evolved our mindset, we’ve evolved every aspect of the business,” says Cope.

Skopes has in fact grown its presence in House of Fraser stores since it was taken over by Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, as it was one of the better-performing brands sold by the department store chain. But the demise of a number of heritage fashion retailers has given Skopes confidence that there is a significant gap in the market for more standalone stores.

“What you’ve got to do is have what’s relevant for that high street of today. Some people don’t have what’s relevant to what the consumers want. If doesn’t matter how old the brand is, how big your brand is, if you haven’t got what is relevant to what the consumer - or the customers in B2b - want, then you’ve got a massive problem on your hands,” says Cope.

Skopes appointed Dalziel & Pow to design its new store concept, in a project that grew to encompass a new identity to better reflect the retailer’s ambitions. The experience-led store has been conceived as a fun and hospitable place to explore and try on suits, with an interior broken down into six zones that correlate with particular shopping missions, such as ‘Commuting in Style’ or ‘Dressed Down Friday’.

Skopes sees significant success from marketing around key events, such as the wedding season or ‘A Day at the Races’, says Cope. The new store layout and merchandising strategy developed during discussions with Dalziel & Pow.

Digital screens play campaign content, coloured mannequins show off outfits and motion-activated screens activate key-looks on perimeter screens. Digital screens at the entrance tempt shoppers inside, passing over a manhole cover on the way in, embossed with the message ‘Leeds EST 1948’.

A service desk, inspired by a cutting table, at the centre of the store replaces the traditional cash desk, to aid barrier-free service – though a mobile app is available for customers who prefer to explore alone. A lounge area at the back of the store, with a fully-stocked fridge, encourages social activity for groups of shoppers.

Changing rooms are arranged around a central mirrored area. Each cubicle is wallpapered with a signature Skopes pattern, and fitted with a light system that can create six scenarios to replicate different lighting conditions.

“The consumer deserves a high level of service that is truly ‘experiential’, evoking all the senses,” says Cope. The store includes a scent system to convey appealing smells through its air conditioning, with Cope joking that the sense of taste is only left out because it is difficult to create edible suits.

Skopes began meeting all of the major retail landlords last year, with a view to planning its expansion. It has scheduled its next new store to open in Spring 2019, with three year and five year plans in place for rapid growth. “The main thing is to keep versatile,” says Cope. “The marketplace is like shifting sands, so we have to be able to move.” Existing outlet stores will get new fascia branding, and interior tweaks to reflect the new brand, but will not be refitted with the new concept as they have an appropriate shopfit for their purpose, says Cope.

Despite the retailer’s commitment to physical stores, it is still embracing digital sales, making a fifth of its sales online. “20 per cent of our business is done through the internet, whether it is through mail order catalogues, which are on the internet, whether it’s through House of Fraser, whether it’s through our own internet. But bricks and mortar is still crucially important,” says Cope. “We are going to give them [customers] a multichannel approach, for however they want to buy from us.”

But this not does not detract from the brand’s fundamental commitment to physical stores: “The high street has got to reshape itself to become relevant for the current way of trading,” says Cope. “If you give [customers] the right service, the right experience, and the right environment, they are not going to stop buying from retail. It’s the biggest rubbish I’ve ever heard to say the high street is dead. It’s just challenging.”

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