Repairing the High Street
In the middle on May, Altrincham in Cheshire became the first town centre to pilot ‘National High Street Perfect Day’, the latest government-backed initiative designed to bring retailers, communities and local leaders together to improve the UK’s town centres in the face of widespread shop closures.
The scheme was recommended in late 2018 by Sir John Timpson, who previously ran a similar initiative across his network of shoe repair stores. Sir John is owner and chairman of the Timpson Group, a chain of more than 2000 outlets which, in Royston High Street, includes Timpson and Johnson Cleaners.
John Timpson is a remarkable man, not least because he and his late wife Alex have fostered 90 children – an experience that, he says, has taught him much about how to run a business in terms of putting people first, giving them support, and making everyone feel secure.
A focus on person-centred support for their staff is at the heart of the way the Timpson family (John’s son James is the current Chief Executive) run the business. The company motto is ‘If we take care of our people, they will take care of our business’ and this approach is confirmed by Stuart Moule, manager of the Timpson shoe repair and key-cutting service in Royston. “Timpson have a very good support network. Through difficult times I’ve had in the past they’ve always been there to help and support, which is nice.”
Royston is Stuart’s fifth store – he’s been there for over a year, transferring from a shoe repair outlet in Ipswich following a recommendation from a colleague. The main business in Royston is shoe repair – something Stuart has been doing for 21 years since starting in Eaden Lilley’s department store in Cambridge, followed by a move to Saffron Walden. While shoe repair is his first love, he also enjoys key cutting, engraving and, following training, phone repairs.
Importantly Stuart is an employee – outlets are not run as franchises – so there’s added value in being part of the ‘extended Timpson family’. The business model is summed up as ‘upside-down management’ – senior management will not stand in the way of anyone who wants to improve the business. Staff have the authority to do what they think will provide an amazing service. Any local sales success – exceeding pre-set targets – is rewarded in a personal bonus in the monthly pay packet.
Staff also enjoy a remarkable range of other employee benefits including the day off on their birthdays and time off to take a son or daughter to school on their first day. I’d heard that if Timpson staff members marry, they can use the company limousine at the ceremony, get a week off and £100 in their pay packet. Stuart is hoping to find out this time next year whether that’s as good as it sounds!
The success of this people-centred approach to running a business is reflected in year-on-year sales increases for the Timpson Group at a time when headlines portray a gloomy future for high street retailing. Looking at Stuart’s situation locally, it would seem that he too is bucking the trend – a happy shop manager and happy customers; leaving smiles on faces that would no doubt delight Sir John Timpson.
Stuart confirms that he has many returning customers and, when I recall waiting in the shop one time while a woman handed over ten pairs of shoes, his response astonishes me. “She had another five or six pairs to come in and they were all brand new! I’m putting stick-on soles on to protect them and keep then going for longer.”
Our shared interest in repair leads to a discussion about trends in the world of shoe repair – with the availability of cheaper shoes making repair work relatively more expensive. This means that regular customers tend to be older wearers who want to keep ‘old favourites’ in use for as long as possible. “Some customers get their shoes repaired over and over again” says Stuart. “We had to tell one customers that their shoes couldn’t be repaired anymore!”
Success from a can-do, customer-service-first approach seems to be keeping Stuart busy. On what was expected to be a quiet Monday afternoon in Royston, our interview was extended to accommodate a steady stream of customers. Most seemed to be regulars he already knew, but this may say something about Stuart’s skill in providing a friendly, but efficient, service to everyone. A sign on the wall says that small repair jobs are free and this included re-working a couple of keys (recently cut by another supplier) and fixing a soft shoe that was causing its owner some discomfort. Other customers were having new watch batteries fitted, picking up their shoe repairs, and getting a new set of keys (to replace the ones they’d recently had cut and had promptly lost). Details around engraving a commemorative plaque were talked through with sensitivity.
I ask Stuart what’s he thinks is the secret for success in shoe repair. “Honesty – give people a straight answer to their question. That’s why they come back. And a smiling face – be cheerful – get the simple things right. Returning customers are important. But for Timpson there’s also loyalty to the brand – people know they’ll get friendly service whichever shop they use.”