Young Ideas: a Derby winner

Womenswear Independent of the Year

Needless to say, we were delighted and incredibly proud to pick up the most prestigious award of the event at the Drapers Independent Awards last year. Following our award we were featured in the coveted Drapers Magazine and you can read the article here…

Anne Wright, owner of Derbyshire independent Young Ideas, explains how she modernised the 53-year-old business more than a decade after taking the helm.

BY CAROLINE WADHAM

Anne Wright at Young Ideas in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.
Photo by Fabio De Paola for Drapers Magazine

Wright, fresh from hosting the business’s fashion show, which took place in an event space she owns a few minutes’ walk from the Ashbourne store the weekend before – Young Ideas’ first event since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic – effuses warmth and confidence as she describes how it attracted 100 attendees, and featured customers as models.

More than 12 years since Wright took the helm at Young Ideas, she has grown it from one store to four, adding shops in Lichfield and Intu’s Derbion shopping centre, plus an outlet in Ashbourne, alongside a transactional website, sister men’s and women’s wear store Henmores – also in Ashbourne – and several other online businesses (box, below).

The Wright retail empire

Young Ideas
  • Ashbourne (pictured above): opened 1968, 3,500 sq ft
  • Lichfield: opened 2016, 1,250 sq ft
  • Derbion Centre: opened 2020, 1,900 sq ft
  • Ashbourne Designer Sale Room outlet store: opened 2021, 2,000 sq ft

Bestselling brands

  • Womenswear: Max Mara Weekend, Riani and Paul Smith.
  • Menswear: Belstaff, Paul Smith and Hugo Boss
Henmores
  • Ashbourne store opened 2018, 2,000 sq ft

Bestselling brands

  • Barbour, Fairfax & Favor and Holland Cooper
Ecommerce businesses
  • Boobydoo Sports bra website bought in 2014
  • Little Trekkers Children’s outerwear website bought in 2017
  • Spotty Otter Children’s outdoorwear brand bought in 2017
  • Everydae Bra and shapewear etailer launched in 2021

In between store stops, Wright talks through how her business – which she co-owns with her husband Colin – has weathered recessions and the pandemic. Wright would not reveal exact figures, but details her aspirations for the independent, which is on track to bring in revenue of £2.2m for the 2021/22 financial year.

From food to fashion

In 2008, Wright swapped a 25-year career in food retail for fashion: “I worked in the food industry for more than two decades, but I always had a hankering to work in fashion,” she explains over coffee in the offices above the Ashbourne flagship. Wright began her career in the early 1980s on a graduate scheme at convenience food company Hazelwood Foods. In 2001, it was taken over by rival Greencore Chilled Foods, where Wright in time became chief executive.

Before taking on the business, Wright frequently shopped at Young Ideas. However, it was an advert in local magazine Derbyshire Life that spurred her on to write to founder Dorothy Thomas and float the possibility of a sale.

“The article mentioned that Dorothy was in her early seventies and it sparked something in me. I thought she probably has a succession plan for the business, but what if she didn’t? So I wrote to her, introduced myself and said, if she had any interest in selling, it would be great to talk to her.”

In May 2008, Wright, who hails from South Yorkshire, and studied French and politics at Bradford University, bought Young Ideas for an undisclosed amount. Despite fulfilling a long-held dream, Wright confesses it was not easy. In her first season, she was met with several disgruntled customers declaring the shop and its items “weren’t the same” under her ownership.

Young Ideas won the award for Womenswear Independent of the Year in September

“At the time you can’t say anything – that was their perception, even though we were selling products bought by the previous owner before she left. Those sorts of moments were daunting and I was quite apprehensive initially because you think: are people going to accept me? Is this going to work? But you have to do what you think is the right thing and stay true to that, and it has worked out.”

When she took on the store, it stocked around 40 brands. Wright has lowered price points and the demographic remains broad: the core customer is aged between 40 and 70, but shoppers range from 17- to 85-year-olds. Wright says in some families, three generations shop at Young Ideas. In 2013, she added menswear.

“When I took over, Young Ideas catered for quite an elite group of people that felt confident enough to shop there,”  she says. “Dorothy had done great things with Young Ideas: she founded a business that was internationally recognised. She was one of those founding designer fashion boutiques in the 1960s. It was a lovely business, and I wanted to be able to take it on and develop it further. It had so much potential.

“I wanted to make it more accessible. We have now got clothing and items at all sorts of prices, [from £6 for a L’Occitane soap bar to around £2,500 for shearling pieces] but they are always good quality. People come to appreciate what you’re offering and then feel more comfortable to buy things at full price.”

I’d like us to primarily be in market towns where we’re unique in the brands and the offer we have. You can’t just set up anywhere because those brands are already available to people [through other retailers]

It currently stocks 70 womenswear brands, including Max Mara Weekend, Essentiel Antwerp, Max & Moi and Koral, and 12 menswear brands, including Paul Smith and Belstaff.

Wright’s steadfast, forward-looking attitude has steered the business, which is split 75%-80% womenswear and 20%-25% menswear, and stocks beauty brands including Neom and Elizabeth Arden, through challenges ranging from the 2008 recession to, more recently, the pandemic. Wright confesses it has been a difficult time, but the business weathered it and retained all of its 30 or so staff, after furloughing around 20. In a “normal year” Young Ideas would bring in revenues of £2.5m, but expectations for 2021/22 have been downgraded to £2.2m. She does not reveal profit or loss figures.

Bringing an indie icon online

One of Wright’s priorities was to establish Young Ideas’ online presence – it had a website, but it was not transactional: “Back in 2008 bringing in a website was one of the first things I wanted to do, but we had very little knowledge, awareness and understanding of online. It soon became a very expensive task -– we just missed that wave when pay-per-click was pennies.” The forced closure of stores during lockdown presented an opportunity to invest.

Wright and her husband, with whom she lives in Fenny Bentley, a few miles north of Ashbourne, and their two ginger kittens, own several ecommerce businesses (box, opposite).

The IT expertise brought in to run these businesses was used to help set up Young Ideas’ transactional website, which was launched in July 2020.

More than a year later, the website accounts for 15% of sales, and, although Wright would like that to grow, there are no plans for it to overtake Young Ideas’ physical offering: 

Sales from the website probably break even for us. I’d like it to make more of a contribution, and it will as it grows. If [online sales accounted for] 20%-25% of the business or the equivalent of another store, that would be great. But we don’t want to build a huge website. It is another shop window for the business and necessary in a modern world. We can see a future of more bricks-and-mortar stores in the right locations and with the right demographics around them – that is still more profitable for us than a website. Our strategy is not to mark down – it is to go hell for leather with our marketing to raise awareness and drive footfall.

Young Ideas also sells on online fashion marketplace Atterley, where 33% of its sales are international.

Wright explains that Young Ideas’ “ideal location is affluent market towns. We would extend beyond Derbyshire for the right property, in the right location.”

On the acquisition trail

Nevertheless, in a departure last year, Young Ideas opened a store at the Derbion shopping centre near Derby station in November. The shopping centre has fallen victim to several high-profile closures in the last year. Opposite the Young Ideas store is a boarded-up Topshop, and a few doors down, the centre’s anchor, Debenhams, sits empty.

Although Young Ideas’ market town locations have bounced back faster from Covid, Wright believes shopping centre recovery will follow, albeit at a slightly slower pace. In the coming months the Topshop and Debenhams will be replaced by Flannels and Frasers.

“The openings of Flannels and Frasers will re-energise the shopping centre,” she says. “It has only been in the last few weeks that people’s confidence has fully come back to a more normal life.” Wright says she agreed a favourable lease with the landlord, which includes a shorter term and break clauses.

Wright has also expanded Young Ideas’ physical presence to sell excess stock through its outlet store, a stone’s throw from its flagship store in Ashbourne. The former Edinburgh Woollen Mill unit opened in May: “During Covid, we had almost a year of being closed down, and we had a lot of excess stock. Also [regardless of the pandemic], with three stores, you can never clear everything. You will always have residual.”

Wright envisions the outlet becoming the “Bicester Village of Ashbourne”. Despite initial concerns that it could pull people away from its main offering, it has instead provided customers with a point of entry to the wider business.

It has worked really well. It hasn’t cannibalised the main store. With three stores and [sister store] Henmores, we will always have enough stock to feed the outlet store and I want to make it a destination. It complements our existing offering.

Despite the shift to online, Wright is determined that the future of Young Ideas, and the wider business, lies in bricks and mortar. To achieve this, she is proactive when launching new initiatives. The team has extended its Lichfield Young Ideas store to house a shop-in-shop at Henmores.

I can see the trial working,” Wright says. “It would allow us to take on larger properties – the ones that are available at good rent after some of the larger companies are no longer there. But I’d like us to primarily be in market towns where we’re unique in the brands and the offer we have. You can’t just set up anywhere because those brands are already available to people [through other retailers].

Like many of her peers, Wright is also having to grapple with ongoing supply chain delays, including the HGV driver shortage: “It’s been the latest year that I have ever known for deliveries of our autumn/winter collections – we went to the wire. I’m really hoping it will catch up. Most of it arrived after being between one month to six weeks late. Our strategy is not to mark down – it is to go hell for leather with our marketing to raise awareness and drive footfall.”

A community expansion

Maintaining a community feel is a factor that sets Young Ideas apart from competitors, Wright maintains. Young Ideas’ Ashbourne flagship is in a former 17th-century coach house, owned by the Wrights. The remainder of the site is leased out to The Greenman gastropub and Jack Rabbits cafe.

Henmores Store

Wright says they are in the process of redeveloping the hotel rooms above the gastropub, to open a boutique hotel and function room: “We’ve actively tried to build things around [the Ashbourne flagship]. I’m part of a trader town team [a trade body run by Ashbourne-based businesses], so we work together. We’re working with the council and looking for ‘Levelling Up’ funding [from government].

It’s about building an experience – not just one of coming into our store but a wider experience. That’s part of a vision and strategy that will hopefully help these town centres to fully recover [from Covid] and have long-term appeal. During Covid, people rediscovered shopping locally and appreciated the services that were available to them in their local community – we need to build and grow on that.

She has no plans to diversify into other categories, maintaining Young Ideas’ focus on men’s and women’s wear, and beauty.

The community feel that Wright has cultivated extends to Young Ideas’ brand relationships.

Liliane Harris, owner of M&L Agencies, which has worked with the retailer for 30 years, supplying brands such as Max & Moi and Koral, says: “Young Ideas is a delight to work with and is very professional. When Anne took over the business, she took to it like a fish to water. Anne knows exactly what the client wants.”

In agreement, James Pound, sales director at Salt & Bracken Agencies, which has partnered with Young Ideas representing Fairfax & Favor, says:

“The business is fantastic to work with. Anne and her team don’t sit still. In the six years I have worked with them, they have grown their stores and can merchandise products beautifully. Their attention to detail is really good.”

Anaïs Pentelow-Smith, sales and operations manager for UK and IE at Essentiel Antwerp, adds:

Anne has always been a pleasure to work with: she has a really good eye and knows what products will work for her customer. My appointments with Young Ideas are always easy and enjoyable.

Wright believes Young Ideas’ future lies in bricks and mortar, boosted by its online offering – and this is why she places so much stock in her staff. Midway through Drapers’ interview with Wright, she politely dips out to join her team in wishing a member of staff a happy birthday for the following day, and quickly celebrates with a chocolate cake and present: a pair of shoes she had collected from one of her stores earlier in the day. This personal, caring approach won over customers when she took over from Thomas in 2008 and looks set to be the foundation for Young Ideas’ growth for years to come.

So now, with our heads full of exciting plans, we look forward to 2022!

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