Seasalt and the importance of picking your battles

The high street retailer owes its rapid growth to narrowing its customer base and choosing less obvious store locations.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 26 Nov 2018

The challenges facing high street retail have been well documented, but it would be wrong to assume that everyone is struggling. The largely family owned, Cornish-inspired women’s fashion brand Seasalt for example is set to open another 40 stores over the next five years, to add to its current nationwide portfolio of 50. Last year, it made £1.2m of pre-tax profit from £51 million of revenues.

Seasalt in Brief

Founded: 1981

HQ: Falmouth, Cornwall

Employees: 869

Turnover: £51 million (year ending Jan 2018)

Seasalt’s come along way since the late Don Chadwick bought a single Penzance shop in 1981 selling work-wear and army surplus to local fisherman and sailors.

In 1996 under the stewardship of Chadwick’s three sons Leigh, David and Neil, the business opened a second store in Falmouth called Wildlife and began to move into high-end leisurewear and footwear.

The Seasalt brand emerged in 2004 selling Cornish inspired clothes aimed at men, women and children. Wildlife was gradually phased out. 

Don Chadwick purchased General Clothing Stores in 1981

By the time Paul Hayes joined as CEO in 2013 the business was turning over around £21million. The former Timberland GM for Northern Europe was tasked with instilling ‘a more professional management approach’ as the company underwent two significant changes.

The first was an expansion outside of the Southwest. Up to that point the chain’s most northerly outpost was the boreal reaches of Chichester. The second and more profound change was a consolidation of the chain’s product range to focus almost solely on women over the age of 35.

‘We only had one resource (in terms of design team) so we wanted to make sure that it was focused on the right place,’ explains Hayes, adding that the women's selection was by far the businesses best selling range.

The store still has a very limited children's range consisting solely of the brand's Cornish Stripes range and men’s 'gifting selection'.

It’s been effective. In the five years since, the company’s compound annual growth rate has been 25%.

So why has it done so well?

While it’s worth pointing out that Seasalt is not the only high street chain running counter to the trend – it is often benchmarked against luxury lifestyle brands like Joules, Toast and White Stuff, among many others that have prospered over recent years – the firm is clearly doing something right.

Hayes talks through the usual suspects of good management – listening to the customer, ensuring consistent quality – as well as Seasalt’s more targeted focus on the mature female consumer at a mid-range price point.

What’s more unusual is the way the company has approached its store locations. Hayes 'doesn’t always look for the usual suspects' when choosing sites. So while its anchor logo appears on the high streets of Leeds, Oxford and Cardiff, it also appears in smaller market towns like Morpeth in Northumberland, Saffron Walden in Essex and Mumbles in the Swansea Bay  – locations where the stores can form a central part of a consumer's day out.

The brand also sticks close to its Cornish roots. Its design team is based at the company’s headquarters in Falmouth (although it manufactures abroad) - and the business invests a significant amount of time, money and technology into getting the shop fit right.

‘[It’s] going back to that Cornish heritage and that relationship that we have built with the consumer who has holidayed here over the years. They have taken that experience back with them wherever they live and it's something that resonates really strongly with them,’ says Hayes.  

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The future

Brick and mortar stores still account for 50% of Seasalt's total sales, but its online operation has grown to 36% in recent years, encompassing 138 countries. A wholesale operation supplying the likes of John Lewis accounts for the rest.

Despite the trend towards digital, Hayes says the company’s future is very much on the UK high street, with the near doubling of store numbers planned over the next five years to be funded by a £16m funding investment deal closed in September 2018 with British VC fund BGF and Santander's commercial investment arm.

Hayes is sanguine about the wider troubles facing high street retailers, saying those that keep their eye on the customer have nothing to fear. ‘We still see quite a lot of opportunity on high streets but if you go there, you've got to be part of those communities.’

Image credits

Header: BrianAJackson/GettyImages

Body image: Courtesy of Seasalt Limited


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