Valet Enim in Artis*
Despite 2018 bringing a tsunami of bad news for retail, the innate quality and unique ethos behind British craftsmanship sees British craft brands start 2019 in good shape
Article by Rupert Watkins
Retail was big news in 2018. Leaping out of the dry business section onto the front pages, it appeared, at times, the very foundations of consumerism were changing in front of our eyes. In some ways, this is still the case; the internet and the ever increasing seamlessness of our physical and digital procurement ability continue unabated. However, much of the media focus remained on large high street brands – not surprising as they are the ones that physically, economically and visually make up the very streets we all walk around.
That spotlight though does a disservice to high quality small and medium sized craft and heritage businesses; reports make too much of a sweeping generalisation that shop closures equals struggling brands. That a brand’s success is measured in shop numbers and straightforward footfall which in a digital age is anachronistic. More importantly, it can lead to false correlations being drawn between economic cycles and consumer confidence; that more uncertainty automatically translates into less discretionary spending.
British craft and heritage brands appear to have done rather well in 2018 despite the wider retail environment. By their very nature, British craft and heritage brands are smaller, are not as physically prevalent on our streets (if at all) and most importantly look to appeal to a differently motivated customer. That is not to say it is for the UHNW class, too many reports on British luxury merely point to London’s continuing status as a nexus for the rich as an easy reason for the arena to thrive, regardless of wider economic and socio-economic currents. Craftsmanship is for all who seek it out regardless of their wealth.
All the brands we chatted to report sales were up compared to 2017. Whilst a small minority indicated their shop sales over 2018 were flat compared to the year before this was offset by a rise in online business. All brands reported a healthy and sustained rise in their e-commerce side. For those brands who have London retail space, the continuing weakness of the pound and sustained tourist footfall were seen as prime movers behind solid shop sales. Brands away from London though also saw a small but appreciable rise in walk in shop trade; away from tourist hot spots this is perhaps a better indicator of both the ability of social media to drive initial awareness and the continued need and desire from more considered buyers to physically touch, view and contrast and thus make the effort to get to a store.
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Digital sales have gone up, the international reach of the internet has allowed British firms to tap into the continuing and growing international demand for British goods, many brands we interviewed over 2018 stated their export markets to be far larger than their domestic custom. Social media has allowed wider global brand awareness and the increasing maturity and certainty with which British firms use social media appears to have consolidated over the past 12 to 14 months. In general, we have seen the digital sphere to be very product heavy, the visual nature lends itself to showing final complete items and British craft and heritage brands still seem to be rather less sure of how to communicate their ethos, why they are what they are and how they produce products and services of the highest quality. There is still too much of an assumption of knowledge in the minds of the wavering consumer.
Away from the digital realm, a very high number of brands still remarked that word of mouth and personal recommendation remained an important, if not the critical, part in driving new sales and in consolidating loyal customers. Talking to brands, the interaction that comes with word of mouth referees appears in many cases to be superior to those who have come across the firm via social media; many firms talk abut the need to educate clients in how they create their goods, what goes into crafting the quality. It is about creating awareness not just of a brand’s product but ensuring there is understanding of the passion and processes behind it. Many new customers are drawn to the history, prestige and standards that British firms hold themselves to, they are motivated by a different aspect of the purchase than those buying into more global luxury brands. They are more likely to be purchasing for their own satisfaction rather than the peer group validity hit of buying with a high-profile label. Consolidating that awareness to understanding cycle is and will be key to British brands continued success; over the past four years of Riddle’s existence a constant refrain from brands is once a customer has bought and understood, we do see them returning.
A good 2018 is shown by the fact, most brands indicated they had, or are at the start of 2019, investing. The areas are widespread ranging from new shops, to website upgrades and production line capacity. Given online sales trends, it was unsurprising to hear half the firms talked to were specifically investing into social media with roughly a third looking to upgrade websites. The continuing importance placed on bricks and mortar is clear with around a fifth of firms expanding into extra premises or looking to upgrade existing retail space.
There remain clear concerns for the future health of British craft. Rent and rates remain a constant and potentially lethal thorn in the side of all these small and medium size brands. Whilst often seen as a London problem where several companies have indicated they endured business rate rises of well over 50 per cent in 2018, a small number of brands reported that rent, rates and utilities rises on their non-London workshops had begun to be of concern. Raw materials remain a constant overhead for most brands, the highest for those who do not maintain retail space, the potential political and economic backdrop to 2019 throws a level of uncertainty of the supply lines, logistical tail and costs on the vast majority of companies who are not completely UK self-sufficient. A concern is that unavoidable rises may be passed onto consumers. Openness and education will again of prime importance to ensure new custom respects any changes and continues to understand that British craftsmanship continues to be worth the investment; that they are buying into an ethos, artisan and manufacturing rigour and innovation that is not available anywhere else.
Much of the media debate has revolved around the prevalence of offers, the rise of constant cut prices and the spread of “Black Friday” from over the Atlantic to the UK. With higher overheads that race to the cheapest is unlikely to be won by physical stores, retail chain or any small quality focused company. Over production does not aid the larger pictures, pop your head into any TK Maxx and you can see the extremely cheap – and therefore great value to the mass uneducated consumer – result of needing to dump product. The majority of British craft brands questioned had winter 2018/19 sales and reported strong custom though it is heartening to see a small but increasing number report they don’t see a requirement to hold one due to consistently steady custom. In itself that in not hugely unusual, a few very high end French luxury brands have always refused to hold sales believing it compromises the status of the marque but it would certainly be heartening to see this small trend deepen in 2019 as it would further demonstrate the interest and desire of a savvy, clued up global consumer to have the best when they require it.
Customer evolution over the past year gives further cause for careful celebration. Wider societal and environmental awareness has rocketed over 2018 across all social demographics; the quality, the ideas that in buying British craftsmanship you are investing in something that will last, is not subject to the whims of fashion but is timelessly classy are now really starting to mesh with wider understanding as to the damaging effects of transient fashion. Three quarters of the brands we talked to indicated customers are now after something individual, if not completely unique to them, something that is different and unusual. These discerning customers are prepared to pay the this and the service that attends it.
Despite the wider retail gloom, 2018 has seen British craftsmanship continue to stealthily consolidate itself in the minds of discerning consumers. There is little doubt 2019 will bring unexpected challenges, the majority of brands are confidently looking to hugely increase export sales over this year and are focusing on online and social media growth to enable international sales and consolidate their connection with customers.
With a higher profile and vocal debate as to the impact of our materialistic obsession, British craft and heritage brands are in an increasingly strong position to steer and control an argument that has until now seemed the preserve of dedicated but ignored environmentalists. Moving forwards over 2019 they can thus win and retain custom, engendering loyalty; buy to last – the best you can afford – buy intelligently, buy British.
- There is worth in craft