Martin Schneider, founder of Drapers Menswear Independent of the Year, Accent Clothing, reveals the family formula that keeps a 34-year-old store ahead of the pack.
It is no exaggeration to say that family-run clothing store Accent is a Leeds icon. For more than 30 years the independent retailer has nestled in the vaulting corridor of the city’s famed historic Queen’s Arcade, building a loyal customer following and stellar reputation with its curated, premium offer.
Founded as a menswear store by Martin Schneider in 1984, in its 34-year reign Accent’s offer has expanded to include women’s and children’s wear (today 20-30% and roughly 10% of sales respectively), although 65% of sales still come from menswear. The entire offer is now housed in the cavernous, wood-panelled, two-storey, 5,000 sq ft store at number 13 Queen’s Arcade, a prime location in the centre of Leeds.
I want anyone of any age group to be able to come into our store and buy something
“I want anyone of any age group to be able to come into our store and buy something,” says Schneider. “We do a good job of that. We’ve never pigeonholed ourselves. We know our customer and I think that’s why we’re still here.”
As the business evolved, it slowly became a family operation, led by Schneider and his wife, Louise. The two first met in the mid-1980s, when Louise modelled the store’s menswear in a nightclub fashion show. Their children, Becky, 26, and Jack, 27, have also taken up the family’s retail mantle, working across areas such as buying, ecommerce and finance, although Louise stresses that joining the business was never a prerequisite for their children.
“If they were ever going to work here, it would be because they had the right skillset and the right attitude – if it was their own free will,” she says.
In the blood
A fierce passion and pride in the business runs deep in the family.
“Accent has always been part of our blood really,” says Becky proudly. Nowadays, the family work as a unit to run the store, each covering several areas of the business.
People know what they’re going to get when they come here. We’ve always been really loyal to our brands
It was this passion that helped Accent to secure the award for Menswear Independent of the Year at the Drapers Independents Awards 2017, when judges praised its “great history” and success in the face of tough neighbouring competition.
“Accent is an iconic store that is very influential with other indies around the country,” explains Michael Heffernan, owner of TCA Showroom, which sells Silvian Heach to the store, and a judge at the Drapers Independents Awards 2017. “They continue to ensure they stock the must-have labels and mix in smaller brands that provide a good mark-up. Martin is very hands on and has a very commercial eye.”
Aged 24, Schneider and his then business partner Andrew Rockcliffe, who left the business to go travelling after 18 mornths, opened Accent in 1984 with just £8,000 between. The original store opened in a small space at number 18 in the arcade, opposite the current location.
The pair knew nothing about retail to begin with.
“I knew I liked clothes and I knew what sort of stuff I liked but I didn’t know anything when it came to buying,” says Schneider.
In 1994 Accent relocated to its current space, a move which Schneider says was a “big risk”, as the larger space had lain empty for almost 10 years.
All of a sudden we had a big shop and people started taking us more seriously
“We’d been used to paying a small rent, having a few staff in a small shop. But when we decided to go for it, it worked out the best it could have done,” he says. “If we’d stayed in the old store we would have been swallowed up. All of a sudden we had a big shop and people started taking us more seriously.”
Over the years Accent has occupied various stores in the arcade, and standing in front of Accent’s charcoal facade, Schneider points out various units in the space that have been rented at one time or another as standalone children’s and women’s stores.
Since 2012, the entire offer has been under one roof, as business rates and rent rises made multiple stores untenable. To accommodate this, the family invested £500,000 into converting the empty space above the store, thereby creating a labyrinthine warren of stockrooms and offices that are home to the Accent team. Their investment paid off and resulted in a 10% sales lift, although the family will not reveal figures.
Schneider attributes Accent’s longevity down to the strength and consistency of its offer. It sells around 165 brands across men’s, women’s and children’s wear.
I’ve never put us in the position where, if we didn’t sell the gear, we’d go bust
“People know what they’re going to get when they come here,” he says. “We’ve always been really loyal to our brands and we still have a couple of brands we’ve done from day one. We’ve never just gone chasing the next big thing.”
He highlights Belstaff, Canada Goose and Replay – the store’s “bread and butter” brand – as core, best-selling names.
Accent’s true speciality is denim. The downstairs is dominated by a wall of precisely folded jeans by Replay, True Religion, Nudie and Diesel, among others, stacked from floor to ceiling.
The store’s reputation is such that it frequently secures exclusives from brands, including a nylon jacket from Belstaff and a hand-waxed jacket from Matchless, dubbed “the Yorkshire Blouson”.
“They are one of the last proper independent retailers, and they have an eclectic collection of products, not just selling brands, but supplying an outfit,” says Aron Sharpe, manging director of fashion distributer Options, which has worked with Accent since 1988, and has supplied Accent with brands, including Replay and Denham.
“Accent represents what the industry should be about: an independent retailer which isn’t necessarily the cheapest but provides a excellent level of service and knowledge to help customers create an outfit and a wardrobe. Martin is one of the nicest guys in the business, and they [the family and staff] are the same. They are all great characters.”
“Accent is one of those key independents that any brand looks to work with,” adds Cory Burke, founder of The Last Agencies, which represents Accent-stocked brands Woden and Sofie Schnoor. “It is a fantastic-looking store with a great history of building loyal relationships with brands.
“Situated in a key UK city, they have always had an eye to for finding a great mix of key big brands alongside cool new ones.”
“We’ve got our own look, but it’s grown and evolved as our customer evolves,” explains Jack, who manages the menswear buying alongside his father. In terms of the store’s style, Jack jokingly cites the “pub test” as an indicator of Accent’s style and appeal.
If they go down the pub and their mates absolutely slaughter them for what they’re wearing, then they won’t be back
“If they go down the pub and their mates absolutely slaughter them for what they’re wearing, then they won’t be back. But if they get a lot of positive comments they’ll be back for more,” he says.
Leeds’ retail landscape has been redrawn in recent years: Trinity Leeds shopping centre opened in 2013 and Victoria Gate followed in 2016, bringing a slew of big-name retailers. Meanwhile, the city’s heritage independents were bought up by larger owners: Flannels by Sports Direct, and Aspecto and the Hip Store by JD Sports.
Accent, however, maintains a staunchly independent stance.
“You have to have your big brands that pull people in, but we still buy little brands and build brands. We always have done,” says Schneider. “It is getting harder to do that, because business is harder but we still do it, otherwise we’d become the same as every other shop.” He cites Belstaff and Matchless as examples of brands that have built large followings in Leeds, after Accent stocked them in the store’s early years.
The loss of some of Leeds’ key independent retailers clearly pains the family. Schneider says that just 18 months ago the now-buzzing Queen’s Arcade was almost empty after independents struggled with rising rents and business rates.
Although some have since returned, Schneider notes their continuing struggle: “Honestly, it was in a dire state. These arcades are what makes Leeds special. They need quirky independents. They need something to match the spaces. If rents and rates were cheaper, indies could probably survive. But we’re getting squeezed and squeezed.”
“It’s all just fronts. The shops just look like they are independents,” adds Becky. “The stores lose their independent feel, and it’ll be sad to see that go. There should be some kind of protection for independent retailers.”
Accent has built a solid online offer, which won it praise from the Drapers Independents Awards judges, but they have handled it with caution. It was an early adopter of digital, spurred on by Louise, launching its first website in the early 2000s.
“If I hadn’t met Louise we probably wouldn’t have had a website,” says Schneider. “It’s all down to her.”
“Online is where the growth potential is,” adds Becky, who now manages the ecommerce site. “It opens up a bigger market compared with if you just have the store. In the store you’re limited by footfall. Online you’re open to the rest of the world.
“There are so many opportunities there, so there is a lot of potential. It also is a shop window and a magazine for the store.”
Despite recently investing in a new website platform earlier this year, and strong sales online – 12% of turnover – and a 5% growth online over the past year, Becky says Accent’s approach is cautious: “We’ve always been pretty careful with our spending online.”
“I’ve never put us in the position where, if we didn’t sell the gear, we’d go bust,” adds Schneider. “I’ve got friends that have done amazingly well [online]. But I’ve got more friends where it has made them go bust. A lot more.”
The online price battle is a large reason for this caution – and Schneider blames the resulting discounting spiral for the struggle faced by many independents: “I think it’s a big danger for our industry and it’s a big reason there are not a lot of independent stores left. It’s driving prices down.”
What does the customer feel like when they’ve just spent £1,000 and then next week there’s 30% off?
Schneider and son Jack cite, with palpable frustration, numerous instances where customers have been in store and come close to buying items before leaving and searching discounters to find the same items at a price that is unsustainable for smaller stores. Schneider highlights JD Sports and Sports Direct as placing particular pressure on independents, and stores such as Flannels, which undercut small retailers.
“I don’t want to Sale the brands,” Schneider says. “What does the customer feel like when they’ve just spent £1,000 and then next week there’s 30% off? I want the brands to be premium and they should be in Accent for 10 to 15 years. There are days when people have offers on, and I’ve added it up and it has cost us thousands in lost sales.”
“When people come into town, they do come to see us, because we’ve built up a great reputation. We have a great product and we’ve got great staff,” he adds. “That’s all we can do. We can’t compete with the discounters in terms of price. Wou can’t work with no profit.
“For me now, it’s not a fair playing field. It’s not about who has the best shop, the best stock, the best staff and the best service. It’s all about who is the cheapest. And that’s not a fair playing field. I can’t sell stock at half-price in the middle of a season. That’s what’s killing our industry.”
Despite these reservations, Accent is in rude health. The family’s passion fuelling a robust and confident business. It shines in all areas where independents’ should build their success - stellar service, a brand mix that balances big names and newness, unique merchandising and a fierce loyalty from brands, employees and customers alike. While the struggles facing all independents are acute, Accent’s approach leads the way in showing how independents can thrive.
- Drapers Independents Awards 2018 will be held on 12 September at The Brewery in London. Join us for an afternoon of inspiration and celebration of the best of British and Irish independent fashion retail. For more information, .