Jeremy and Joanna Clayton celebrated 30 years trading in their fashion and lifestyle store, Javelin, in 2019. A £200,000 investment shows they have plenty of confidence in their future. By Eric Musgrave

Having steered Javelin through 60 seasons, Jeremy and Joanna Clayton have seen fashions come and fashions go. Although the labels and the categories may have changed, the principles of the business has remained remarkably consistent since October 1989.

Suffolk-born and bred, the husband and wife team knew from the start that their local customers would be interested in quality products, but with an eye for value, and would expect a high level of personal service.

Jeremy’s family ran sports shops and that was the original concept of Javelin – hence the name – but within a few years it was clear that fashion offered a better and more exciting future.

 “In the mid-1990s we introduced a fashion element alongside the sports gear and within two years our transition to a fashion shop was complete, although we retained surfwear and some ski elements,” Jeremy recalls. “Many of the sports customers stayed with us and from the start, Javelin positioned itself as both a menswear and womenswear retailer. In the early days, we were working with denim-focused ranges like Firetrap, Diesel and Urban Stone.”

The relatively prosperous years of the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a period of rapid growth for Javelin. In 1998 a second, smaller, shop was opened in Sudbury, about 30 minutes’ drive away. The Claytons’ also ran a shoe shop in Bury St Edmunds, which later became a ski shop. In 1999, a third branch was added in Green Street, Cambridge, which traded until 2008 when a demand for a 50% increase in rent made it untenable.

On the plus side in 2008, however, the freehold to the large unit alongside the original shop in Abbeygate was acquired, expanding a 16ft frontage to the impressive edifice which dominates the street today. Inside the store is 3,500sq ft of trading space, which has been cleverly arranged over several different floor levels in a building that in parts date back to the 14th century.

In a very confident move, Jeremy and Joanna last year invested £200,000 in a programme of works that has seen a large L-shaped basement storeroom converted into a 1,100sq ft department for a men’s premium fashion area and denim studio, while a mezzanine has been added at the nearby warehouse to house the displaced stock.

“The Abbeygate building has lots of charm and period details, but it’s not the easiest to retail from,” Jeremy explains. “Logistics have been a bit of a struggle for a while. As we have been selling online since 2012 and have two branches, we needed a centralised stockroom for greater efficiency. Additionally, menswear in Bury has been a bit tight for space, sitting between the ground-floor and first-floor womenswear departments.

“Opening up the basement has allowed us to make a more efficient and logical layout. Our next project has been to bring the womenswear lifestyle products, gifting and shoes together at the front of the store. But doing any work in a listed building is slow and not cheap.”

The Claytons’ commitment to investment in the business is commendable, but then they are obsessed with enhancing and improving their customers’ experience, no matter how tough trading may be.

“We started out just before the recession of the early 1990’s hit, but after those few years of difficult trading, we enjoyed a steep line of recovery, which is when we grew the business. But this time round, after the financial collapse of 2008-2009, almost overnight trading got tougher and it’s remained tough ever since,” Jeremy admits. “But our response has not been to go downmarket or to discount. It’s been about investing in the store, having good playlists on the sound system, burning scented candles with the coffee machine on for those customers who want to linger.

“In its early years Javelin was definitely a progressive business, adding market share and introducing new fashion brands to our customers. We have done a good job in maintaining our position as a taste-maker and style-setter in Bury St Edmunds and we have maintained our healthy turnover for the past few years, but we constantly have to run just to stand still.”

Another important area of investment for Javelin is its staff of about 40 people, including 14 full-timers, across its two shops and central office. General manager Andrew Ashman, warehouse manager Andrea George and warehouse staff member Lynn Burrows have been with company since Day One.

Claire Southgate and Kate Hartwell, who work with Joanna on womenswear buying and Daniel George, who backs up Jeremy and Andy on menswear buying, have all been with the company for more than 10 years as have Bury Store Manager Hannah Hansford and Jane Lord, General Manager.

 “We pride ourselves in our level of service and how much we invest in HR generally in terms of staff training, appraisals and so on,” says Jeremy. “When we recruit, we are looking for individuals who want to advance with us. Our policy has always been to value our staff as our best asset and add more value themselves.”

With a fashion concept based on selling well-known brands, the Javelin owners are sensitive to how the relationship between supplier and independent retailer has changed in the age of ecommerce.

Across the business, clothing accounts for 80% of sales and footwear plus accessories the remainder. The men:women split is almost exactly 50:50, which Jeremy sees as a strength.

“I don’t know many independent retailers that have such an even division. And we are careful to run them as two separate concerns and we buy differently for them. Everything is much faster on womenswear – we are buying almost daily, while on menswear it’s more of a traditional ordering cycle and stockturn, although this is slowly changing as men become increasingly fashion aware.”

Another important factor today is the power of the online influencer: “We have been buying womenswear brands like Fabienne Chapot because it is backed by the social media influencers our customers follow. Air & Grace trainers is another one. I was doubtful that we’d sell many at £185, but I have been proved wrong because of its online following.”

With typical attention to detail, Jeremy and Joanna have taken their own social media very seriously and now have a former student employee as full-time social media manager. The most important channel is Instagram, where a new photo is posted every day. Rather than just using free publicity shots from brands, Javelin does its own shoots, putting together outfits and usually using its staff as models and the lovely town of Bury St Edmunds as the backdrop. It’s a highly professional-looking exercise.

“It’s been quite a big investment over the past two years but we are seeing an immediate uplift in sales on the featured garments. Using the staff as models also helps in building up their personal relationships with customers,” says Jeremy.

Next on the To Do list is to review Javelin’s ecommerce activity. The business has had an EPOS system since 1997 and added a transactional website in 2012. For Autumn 2020 there will be a brand new website on the Shopify platform linked to a new inventory system and a loyalty app called Smile.

Despite the reluctance of some independents to open more than one shop, Jeremy is happy to have the second branch in Sudbury, ably managed by Nadine Poole, which, although smaller, has a strong local following.

Having welcomed 300 people to the shop’s 30th anniversary fashion show and party on 10 October 2019, Jeremy and Joanna now must prioritise their future plans. In many areas, they will be sticking to what they know and believe in.

“Despite having the Epos system, we still do a lot of our buying on gut feeling. And in addition to our social media activity, we still believe in having great window displays, so we spend between £3,000 and £4,000 on new themes six times a year,” Jeremy says.

“Both Bury and Sudbury are good centres for independent retailers and we have built up 15,000 members on our loyalty card since 2013. Javelin’s desire always has been to be aspirational and attainable. You can buy a £12 top or a £250 designer silk shirt from us. Some of our customers have been with us from the start and now we attract anyone from 15-year-olds to 65-year-olds plus. All ages are equally welcome.

“In the near future, we will be expecting an uplift from the investment we’ve made in the new departments. We are working hard to hone our digital offer and we will continue to focus on providing the best experience we can in-store, as well as online. It’s served us well so far.”