Blog : Step Change for Shoe Retailer

by Donald Begg, Managing Director, Begg Shoes

As a retailer with a history spanning 155 years, it’s inevitable for us to reflect on the economic and political events the business has lived through over the last three centuries. Starting life as a one-man shoe making business in a small village in Aberdeenshire, we’ve grown to become one of the UK’s largest independent shoe retailers with nine standalone stores across Scotland.  

Although previous generations have navigated different waters, securing our longevity as a business and a brand, the outlook for retailers over the last decade has been particularly challenging. The undulating rise in online shopping, higher operational costs and a new culture of customers reticent to go instore has spelled clear obstacles for the sector.  

Our response to a more inhospitable retail environment has been to keep up the battle for our place on the high street while also extending e-commerce opportunities for our customers. This hybrid approach has included the acquisition of five DE stores in 2013, when we were able to maintain 40 instore jobs, as well as the adoption of new database technology in 2021 to futureproof our business, bolster our online offering, and in the process, employ new personnel with diverse skillsets. Our stores now double up as ‘mini-warehouses’ where customers are served and where our staff also control stock and shipping for online orders. 

The experience economy 

To execute our strategy, a workforce with versatile knowledge and skills has been imperative. Not only is our business evolving to meet discerning consumer demands but our product range of more than 80 brands and over 7,000 products is as diverse as our customer base. The geographical location of each of our stores reflects a wildly different demographic. For example, the typical needs customers have in our Lerwick or Kirkwall stores varies greatly from requirements in our Perth or Aberdeenshire stores.  

And it isn’t just knowledge. Customers remember a friendly face, an above and beyond gesture and a swift response to an enquiry. Experience is a commodity in the 21st century, and we take full cognisance of that by delivering customer-focussed training to our staff members. The customer experience we deliver affords us a uniqueness among other retailers and is key to our brand values.  

Defining times, defining decisions 

Our commitment to offering a comprehensive shopping experience for all customers, online and in person, emphasised the importance of the human element within our business. Prior to the pandemic, and despite the characteristically tight profit margins, and significant labour costs synonymous in retail, we took the decision to offer our staff the real Living Wage.  

We had already bucked the trend when it came to a lack of training and low wages often associated with retail organisations, committing an extra £20,000 to our training budget in 2021. When the impact of COVID-19 arrived, we worked hard lobbying for our stores to stay open and, by definition, helping to maintain the jobs within those stores. We realised the next step was to become part of the team leading the way in the retail sector, rightfully recognising our staff, and in November 2021, we officially became a real Living Wage employer.  

Our footwear expertise, customer delivery and versatility have helped us keep the proximity with evolving customer needs, particularly during the testing times of recent years. Their input has fed into some of the key strategic decisions we have made for the business and our adoption of a higher rate of pay is a testament to the valuable role they play at Begg Shoes. 

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