After 23 years at Leeds indie Accent Clothing, Martin Schneider’s latest challenge has been to launch Manchester’s first G-Star franchise.
The air conditioning may not have been working, but that didn’t dampen the September opening of the first G-Star store in Manchester. After a four-year search, franchisee Martin Schneider finally found the perfect location – a two-floor unit in the city’s Arndale shopping centre with 7,000sq ft of trading space. And if the size of the shop is not enough to impress customers, there is also a floor-to-ceiling window at the back of the store offering an unobstructed view of the Manchester Wheel.
“We were going to open in Leeds and we had a location in mind, but we lost it to a bookmakers,” says Schneider, who is also founder and managing director of Accent Clothing, an established independent in Leeds known primarily for its denim. So it should come as no surprise that Schneider, with more than 20 years of experience selling jeans, should be the one to bring G-Star to Manchester.
Schneider opened Accent Menswear with a business partner in Queens Arcade in Leeds city centre in 1984, stocking Diesel, Replay, Liberto and Classic Nouveaux. Back then, he was one of the early adopters of these brands in the UK, filling a gap in the market.
Today, the shop offers more than 130 styles of jeans, as well as a mix of young fashion brands, and also supports local designers such as Love Handles, Mae Dae, Rebekah Murphy and Beautiful Girl. Throughout the years, it has managed to maintain its reputation as one of the country’s leading denim retailers.
“He epitomises the perfect jeans business in the UK,” says G-Star UK sales manager Casper White. “Seven years ago, no one was selling jeans well in the UK. But Accent knows how to sell denim, knows how to serve its customers and how to reorder. It could make up to 200 repeat orders on denim in one week.”
But Schneider confesses that he never expected the business to become so successful. “When we started, we didn’t take it too seriously,” he says. “We thought ‘let’s see if we can make a couple of quid’.”
And make a couple of quid they did. Although Schneider is reluctant to reveal exactly how much the business is worth, it’s fair to say it makes a healthy profit. The company, which has grown steadily and organically over the past 23 years, now comprises Accent Menswear, Accent Junior and Accent Ladies. It also employs 22 staff.
After the departure of Schneider’s original business partner in 1985, he ran things by himself, adding kidswear in 1986. A year later he met his wife Louise, who got involved in the business in 1987. Although she is no longer responsible for the day-to-day running of Accent, she oversees all IT, including the website, EPoS, computer networking and telephone systems.
In the year Louise joined, womenswear was introduced with an Accent Ladies shop in Leeds’ Victoria Quarter. Meanwhile the original Queens Arcade shop had outgrown its home, and in 1989 the shop expanded into the unit next door, effectively doubling in size. There it remained until 1996, when the business expanded again and womenswear was brought to Queens Arcade and the Victoria Quarter shop was closed.
Today, the main Accent store measures 3,859sq ft and incorporates a 250sq ft kidswear department. Accent Ladies sits opposite in a 2,670sq ft unit.
But despite the popularity of kidswear and womenswear, Louise says it is the men’s offer that has been integral to the retailer’s success.“At that time, there weren’t a lot of shops for men,” says Louise. “When we doubled in size, we started taking a lot of money. It has always been menswear that has driven the business.”
Although non-denim brands such as Without Prejudice, Gibson, Nicole Farhi and Casch Copenhagen have been introduced – the men’s store now offers tailoring on the first floor – denim continues to be the key product, accounting for 35% of sales. “We’ve always focused on denim,” says Martin. “We’ve never lost sight of that and it’s because denim is so easy to wear. I can’t see that ever changing.”
“We’ve always been product- and label-led,” adds Louise. “Accent is now a brand itself and when people see a brand in the store, they believe in it.”
White agrees that one of the reasons Accent does so well is because of its dedication to the product. He says: “The first thing Martin does is have a denim wall, and he has staff that are dedicated to stocking and selling from that wall. They service the customer and they’re motivated. Martin still has a very good relationship with his customers.”
He also has a great relationship with his staff, many of whom have been with Accent for years thanks to the family atmosphere and informal management style. Steven Hakin, an assistant manager in the men’s shop and one of Martin’s oldest friends, has worked at Accent since it began trading in 1984, and Sohail Aslam, one of the managers, has clocked up nearly 18 years with the business. Other employees have totted up 12, 14 and 15 years each. When Harvey Nichols opened in Leeds in 1996, Aslam was offered a job there at twice his Accent salary, but he remained loyal to the family-run business and stayed put.
Apart from attempting to poach certain key members of his staff, Martin says Harvey Nichols’ launch did not have a negative impact on his business, thanks to their very different target customers and USPs. “We’re not competing with Harvey Nichols because it is high fashion. Also, our target customer is between 18 and 40 years old. We opened the expanded store six weeks before Harvey Nichols,” he says. “When Harvey Nichols did open, people were queuing everywhere because it was Christmas time. It’s funny, Harvey Nichols actually helped the business because it drew people to Leeds.”
In 1993, Schneider decided to open a standalone Replay shop in Newcastle – a first for the city – partnering with friends who were already distributors for the denim brand. But Schneider was only involved for a couple of years before turning his focus back on Accent. His next standalone venture was an Old Glory menswear shop in Leeds in 2005, which he was forced to close just last month because of rocketing rent reviews.
So Schneider is no stranger to the mono-brand operation, but the G-Star store in Manchester, offering both men’s and women’s ranges, is his first foray into franchising. Schneider says the reasons behind it are mostly pragmatic.
“It’s a case of diversifying,” he says. “You don’t want all your eggs in one basket. It’s very hard for independents these days – they’re all getting squeezed out. Our rent in the Queens Arcade has gone up by 40% in the past year. Accent is very important to us, but at the same time we have to look to the future.”
The G-Star shop in Manchester has been a long time coming, but Martin says he took his time to ensure everything was right – from the location to his business partner. And who better to work alongside him than long-time friend and ex-Leeds, Liverpool and Scotland footballer Gary McAllister?
McAllister, a loyal Accent customer, says the shop has always been popular with the sporting crowd. “The service you get in Accent is very bespoke,” he says. “Leeds lads have been going there for years and I think it’s because it always had the right labels at the right time.”
Although he has harboured an interest in men’s fashion for years, McAllister says he had to wait until his football career tapered off before he could get involved in the industry. And he couldn’t have chosen a better time. Martin won’t give any figures, but he says the shop has been doing very well since it opened in September. He still maintains a hands-on role at both Accent and G-Star, doing most of the buying himself.
Paul Mullen, a buyer for Glasgow-based independent Xile, who operates two G-Star franchise stores in Scotland, says that running a mono-brand franchise is less complicated than owning a multi-brand shop. “It’s not as time-consuming as buying for a multi-brand store – you don’t have all these other commitments. It’s also easier because you have a design concept that has the backing of the brand.”
Terry Bates, commercial director of Fashion Box UK, which operates the Replay denim brand in the UK, says the current market is in favour of mono-brand franchises. “There’s a shift towards consumers wanting a whole lifestyle rather than just one item, and they are ready to buy into that,” he explains.
But relying too much on one look or product can get you into trouble, argues Sarah Coggles managing director Mark Bage, who also runs a number of franchise stores, including Paul Smith and Jack & Jones. “Where you have a large basket of small brands within a main brand and smaller departments within that franchise, that’s where you’ll have more strength. You’re better off being known for fashion, denim and kidswear, for example, than just outerwear. It’s always good to offer men’s and women’s wear because men shop sporadically while women shop constantly, so it makes for a busy store.”
As for the future, the Schneiders are keen to continue down the franchise route for G-Star and would consider sites of more than 2,000sq ft of retail space in Leeds, Liverpool or Glasgow.
“A good location is a must,” says Martin. “But we won’t rush anything. We’re definitely up for more but it’s got to be right.”