Bonmarche revival: 'It just needed to be loved'

Beth Butterwick
Image caption Beth Butterwick was brought in to spearhead the turnaround of the over-50s chain

On a wintry weekday lunchtime, all four cash tills at this newly revamped store in west London are open and ringing non-stop.

Among the glamorous chandeliers and big mirrors dozens of women are browsing rails of patterned skirts, trying on brightly coloured coats and buying items from the designer collection.

Women's fashion chain Bonmarche's flagship store in Uxbridge has had a complete makeover.

The aim: to make it as easy as possible for the more mature lady to shop. From easier-to-read price tags and bigger changing rooms to comfy seats for husbands to rest on, this store now feels like Top Shop for the over-50s.

Trading conditions may be tough on the High Street, but this fashion chain is making quite a comeback. In fact, it is hard to think of another retail business that's turned itself around, from administration, as quickly or as successfully as Bonmarche.

The company, and its owner, the fashion chain Peacocks, went under in January 2012 in one of the biggest retail collapses since Woolworths. It buckled under massive debts.

When Bonmarche fell into administration, it had nearly 400 shops. Private investors snapped it up for around £10m.

It now has 265 stores across the UK, and is worth more than £100m, having recently floated 40% of its shares on the stock market.

'Low-hanging fruit'

Beth Butterwick was put in charge of the turnaround as chief executive. In her first interview, she told me she had no doubts about the chain's potential.

"I could see the opportunity to really cater for this growing demographic. I could absolutely see that Bonmarche was a gem amongst the High Street, it just needed to be loved," Mrs Butterwick says.

Women's fashion is hugely competitive, with many chains chasing the younger shopper. Mrs Butterwick decided that the key to Bonmarche's success was to focus solely on older women.

"The business before had drifted into catering products for a much younger customer and putting prices up. In other words they had moved away from the core values of our business.

"So the low-hanging fruit was to reposition the clothing back to the core customer," reflects Mrs Butterwick.

Image caption David Emanuel's range is a big seller at Bonmarche

The strategy appears to be working. Since this store in Uxbridge re-opened, sales are up a whopping 40%.

"We have an amazingly loyal customer base, some 6.5 million customers. And we've made it our mission to cater for the way they want to shop.

"We have three different sets of customers spanning three different generations, the late-40s up to the late-80s," says Mrs Butterwick.

'The dark days have gone'

Another ingredient in Bonmarche's success has been celebrity designer David Emanuel, the man who designed Princess Diana's wedding dress (and recent contestant on ITV show I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!).

His collections for the chain have proved hugely popular. He told me the larger, more mature lady has been neglected by the fashion industry.

"Just because women get to a certain age doesn't mean women lose sight of fashion. They want to look fashionable and want to be flattered. Women are now virtually ageless, if they dress well," he says.

"My challenge as a designer is to provide stylish clothing at affordable prices, season after season. Once the lady grows older, we have to look after her and our customers keep coming back."

Did he worry that Bonmarche might not survive? "The dark days, I'm delighted to say, have gone. I'm very excited."

He also believes having a woman at the helm is key.

"Now there's a woman in charge who believes in the label, believes in David Emanuel, believes in Bonmarche, believes in her customers and she's done an enormous amount of work," he says.

"It's a completely different business... it's like chalk and cheese. And that's all down to her. Of course, she's got professional teams around her, she's handpicked key people who love the business with a passion.

Image caption Bonmarche's clothes have become more stylish since it was bought and relaunched

"She thinks fashion, she feels fashion, she deals with fashion and we're on the same wavelength."

'Enormous' prospects

The turnaround plan involved closing dozens of unprofitable stores. The new management team negotiated new rent deals on many existing stores.

Unlike most national chains, they're now looking to expand once more, opening new High Street stores. They've opened several shops in garden centres, and they're looking at selling clothes on cruise ships and in care homes. The aim is to go where the customers are.

And it is certainly where the growth is in retail.

"The prospects for serving the older consumer in retail are enormous, because if you look over to the next 10 years the vast majority of the growth, well over two-thirds, comes from the plus-55 consumer," according to Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at Conlumino.

"So any retailer who serves that segment of the market hasn't got success guaranteed but it has got a much greater chance of seeing sales traction than someone serving other demographic groups."

Bonmarche doesn't have much in the way of competition on the High Street for now. The question is, for how long?

In his studio, Mr Emanuel has finished the Bonmarche spring collection, sprinkled with prints and pinks, and he's already starting to think about next winter's ranges. He knows what the future challenge will be.

"Everybody now realises what we're doing, and people are trying to emulate us, which is always very flattering," he says. "We're getting it right, and investors are excited but we need to stay one step ahead."

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