Retail and Consumer

Pandemic proves independent Cheltenham shoe shop is among the most fleet of foot

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 20 October 2020 12:05

Lockdown introduced retailers to a white fear they will be glad to leave behind, but as the pandemic marches on one much-loved Cheltenham shoe shop has become more and more sure-footed. 

Established pre-internet, with four decades-plus on the high street under its belt, might lead you to jump to the wrong conclusions about the business model at Keith Scarrott Shoes as old school. 

Which means you have probably never been in its Promenade shop, and seduced by its beautiful boots, shoes and handbags in that way certain boutiques can work their magic.

Its wares centre around its own, sought-after brand, as well as the likes of Amato, Galucci, Ghezzi and event Greta, Dandini, Enrici trainers.

Its beginnings make it part of the history of the spa town’s rich retail offering, but its business model is extraordinary. 

Which begins to explain how on earth a single shop in the niche world of up-market womenswear has navigated its way through the white-waters of 2020 and is thriving. 

Under the stewardship of Sophie Scarrott, whose father founded the shop in 1975, the business has kept loyal customers, cultivated new one of all ages, continues to design its own ranges and handpicks the factories to create its luxurious products. 

And, as we entered the final quarter of the year, it has released a glossy, seductive campaign to announce the arrival of its autumn-winter ranges of footwear - some of which is featured on the motage above and all created in-house. 

It makes it look easy. It has been and is anything but. 

It is the same for every business – you have to be able to diversify, swivel, 360, adapt, be fluid – whatever you want to call it,” said Sophie, who in no way looks to convince The Raikes Journal that she knew it all and told you so. This is hindsight talking.

Where she now knows she has been getting it right is by continually adapting, by creating a multi-skilled team, building strong relationships with suppliers and customers and her beloved town. It is all part of the Keith Scarrott DNA. 

Significantly, without going so far as predicting such a cataclysmic event as a pandemic forcing everyone to embrace digital or face the consequences, her business had already done just that. 

“Long gone are the days in retail where you turn up, put the kettle on, have a coffee and wait for the customers to come. Those days do not happen anymore. 

“Now retail is around the clock. People can go on line at any time of day and make a purchase. You have to be ready for that or they will go somewhere else.” 

It was a realisation that dawned at least three years ago and prompted Keith Scarrott Shoes to have its website rebuilt into an ecommerce friendly operation.

Pictured: Boots from the autumn/winter collection

It also coincided with the launch of a then Gloucestershire-based Maybe – a business founded by Polly Barnfield, now advising towns and city’s nationwide on the benefits of engaging online and being able to deliver digitally. 

Maybe wanted to work with just a handful of retailers to show them the benefits of social media at a time when many still saw digital as the enemy. 

“We were just beginning back then, and asking ‘what does the future high street busines look like?’,” said Ms Barnfield, OBE. 

“At the time 78 per cent of business did not have an online voice. We really wanted to work with Keith Scarrott Shoes. Sophie embraced everything we said and became a model for what we were trying to do and how effective it could be.” 

Even way back then, the Cheltenham boutique was learning that social media was a shop window, a way of engaging with people, forging relationships, creating customers, and winning business. 

Shoes, she still contests, are some of the hardest things to buy on-line because every foot is different and every shoe varies in size – but she went with it.

“We decided to buy into everything Polly said,” recalled Sophie, who took over the business from her father 15 years ago.

It did see benefits, but it was through lockdown those lessons began to really resonate. Rather than look to sell – especially on those early days before furlough and support grants made people feel more financially secure - it decided on a very different approach. 

It concentrated on engaging through its social media accounts. One idea proved a massive hit – when it set a competition for children to design their own trainers. 

“That is possibly the most reaction we have ever had to a social media post ever,” said Sophie, giving credit to her staff, in particular Abbie, for pursuing the idea.  

Some 10,000 viewed the template for the trainers on Facebook. This was all being done as other staff were either furloughed for worked from home. 

When the shop did re-open, suddenly there was a lot of interest from new faces whose children had got them thinking about the shops designer trainers – not something it is well known for, but at a different price point proved a hit for new customers looking to treat themselves, but still watching their bank balances. 

It also began sharing pictures from its back-catalogue on social media and asking people to share their own favourite shoes and boots, and in doing so became a catalyst for a number ofconversations. It created a dialogue, had fun, and it kept the brand top of mind.

She may have been steering the ship and making the decisions, but she credits her small but perfectly-formed staff team. Everyone, she says, was appointed because they could excel at more than one role. 

It makes the business incredibly adaptive and is an approach which has allowed the business to not only exist as a shoe shop, but also a mini-fashion house, handle its own marketing and design and create and deliver its own campaigns. And then some.

Her current team put together the most recent stunning campaign – products designed by Keith Scarrott Shoes, made for it exclusively, photographed in-house, with the shoot taking place at a property owned by Sophie, who also managed the styling while part time shop assistants Megg McEnvoy and Beau Worboys modelled the collection. 

Usually, her year is punctuated by trips to Italy and perhaps Spain, where she has relationships with factories which will eventually make her latest ranges – but this year none of that has taken place due to travel restrictions.

Those relationships, established over years, have sustained and been kept alive online and on the telephone. She has experimented with some minimal wholesaling to selected outlets with success. 

At heart she loves Cheltenham, she loves the buzz of the festivals, especially the racing, and it is a passion which saw her become and remain a member of the BID (Business Improvement District, which seeks to promote the town centre. 

But while the pandemic has tested her, she has already moved to face the next hurdle. Despite her seeming boundless energy and bubbly nature she also has a cool enough head that when thinking purely about the options for Keith Scarrott shoes now knows one thing that removes some of the fear from the ride many remain aboard. 

“If it came to it, I now know I could run the entire business on-line,” she said. 

It is an expression of how much pressure has been taken off her knowing it is a possibility - just don’t expect this gem of the Cheltenham shopping scene to do any such thing.

She loves it all too much.

Which could well be the key ingredient in her remarkable business model we have not yet mentioned.