Stringers department store in Lytham goes from strength to strength

The department store with its new office extension

The department store with its new office extension - Credit: Pics; John Cocks

Independent department stores are becoming an endangered species but a couple from Lytham has managed to buck the trend.

Damian and Jenny Clarke on the shopfloor at Stringers

Damian and Jenny Clarke on the shopfloor at Stringers - Credit: Pics; John Cocks

The High Street of the 21st century doesn’t always feel like a happy place. Barely a day goes by without a tale of woe – Debenhams or the House of Fraser closing stores, John Lewis reporting profits down 99 per cent and, in recent times, the much-loved Tyrers in St Helens and J.R. Taylor, of St Annes, shutting up shop after more than a century.

Wherever you look, footfall appears in decline as the internet gleefully grabs business from traditional retailers. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the department store sector, which some believe has had its day.

So just why are Jenny and Damian Clarke, owners of Stringers department store in Lytham, so unrelentingly upbeat – especially when they have just spent five months working from what was basically a cupboard?

Well, they might not have the buying power of the big chains, but they have the advantage of local knowledge – they live in Lytham – and a close understanding of what their customers want. Without a head office to obey and bean counters to satisfy, they are able to be flexible and responsive to changing markets. It’s the nippy yacht versus the super-tanker.

Lytham town centre in the late 1800s with Stringers in the background

Lytham town centre in the late 1800s with Stringers in the background - Credit: Archant

But is that enough to keep the internet at bay? They believe so and you can tell they are up for challenge.

They have just spent a substantial amount re-developing their top floor into a state-of-the-art office complex for their backroom team – forcing them to work from the sort of space that would test any relationship.

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It’s interesting that they should be investing behind the scenes instead of adding even more polish to their already up-market aisles. Damian, who took over the business from his father, said: ‘Previously, all the investment was on the shop floor. Behind the scenes, we were 20 years behind the times.’ Jenny added: ‘This new space means we communicate better and react more quickly. That allows us to find better solutions.’ They own the building, a prominent landmark in the town centre, and said Damian: ‘These are investments for the future. We are not here for the short term. These are long term investments to ensure our business is strong, safe and secure.’

Jenny, a former marketing specialist from a food business with international clients, plays a major role in keeping the store focused on customer needs and Damian credits her with bringing greater confidence to the retailer.

An early picture of the shop

An early picture of the shop - Credit: Archant

‘There was a time when the buyers were based in different sections of the shop floor,’ said Jenny. ‘The danger was that the business was being taken in several different directions in terms of what it was selling.

‘The buyers are now an office based team and they have a joint focus so the customer gets a consistent, positive experience. But it’s important they continue to have strong links to the sales teams.’

Damian, 54, said: ‘Clarity of vision is important. We spend a lot of time trying to think about what our customers think about.’

Understanding the market is another imperative. ‘There was a time when assumptions were made about the age profile of customers in Lytham and that resulted in salespeople turning up with suitcases full of flowery tea towels,’ said Jenny.

‘Today, Lytham is much more a town of younger families and they want a contemporary, inspiring place to shop and that’s right down to having hard wood floors rather than carpets,’ said Damian. ‘We want to promote an emotional, fun experience – something that is a break from the gloom that might be surrounding us.’

Inspiring, emotional and fun aren’t words that spring to mind when you are trying to navigate labyrinthine websites.

‘We don’t have a vision of the typical customer – we are a family store where a 16-year-old might find a pair of earrings, a young mum might find a hoodie from Superdry, a 40-something might buy Mint Velvet and an older lady might go for Phase Eight,’ said Jenny. ‘But we must avoid making assumptions - the idea that people say because they’ve suddenly reached a certain age they can only look at classic brands is no longer correct. People have changed.’

Stringers operate over two sites in Lytham – there’s a homeware store in nearby Booths – and they employ well cover 100.

‘People are still surprised to discover we are independent,’ said Damian. ‘But the fact we are means we can ensure the culture of the business is finely tuned to the area we serve and we have employees who share our vision. Customers have responded and there is a strong sense of support from the community.

The Clarkes are hands-on bosses with Jenny spending more time with the backroom team while Damian is on the shopfloor. ‘But we are not dictatorial,’ said Jenny. ‘We trust our team to set the right culture and develop high standards. We are not all over people like a rash. Trusting the team means you get the best from them.’

They have three children aged between 24 and nine. ‘You try to have family time but this is a business that permeates everything,’ said Jenny. ‘The children accept it and they share in our excitement when positive things happen.’

Damian grew up in Lytham and with the business. ‘My mum took me to trade shows from an early age and I went to work in Torquay and Yeovil. It was there I learned that just because you are independent doesn’t mean you have to be second best. I’ve never forgotten that. You can be the best on the high street.’

They both believe there is still potential for growth and development in Stringers. ‘We don’t have definite next steps but we are always open to opportunities and sometimes three things come along at once,’ laughed Jenny, who is 48.

Damian added: ‘We just have to guard against complacency. The challenges that surround us keep us on our toes and that’s fantastic.’

Stringers started out as a drapery store back in 1852 and changed hands several times before Damian’s grandfather took it over 100 years later. While men have tended to be the figureheads there have been strong women who have played a leading role in guiding the store and Jenny follows that tradition.

She keeps a postcard in her desk containing a bit of homespun philosophy. ‘I look at it now and then. It says: “Success is not the key to happiness – happiness is the key to success.”

If you have to have a mission statement, it’s not a bad one.