I think most people can appreciate that running any sort of business in the UK right now isn’t exactly easy, and as most UK store owners would attest, running a niche clothing store is even harder. Many stores have opened and closed again in the last decade, and it’s a testament to Urban Industry that they’ve outlasted many of their peers.
Urban Industry is now a British streetwear staple, and as they turn a glorious 10 years old this year, we wanted to find out exactly how they’ve managed to do it, what their secret is, and how a small store in a sleepy South coast town grew to what it is now.
Step forward Daniel King, founder and owner, it’s time to explain yourself.
So, how did it all begin? What brands did you stock in the beginning and why?
It all started back in July 2002. I was working full time at a small web/print design agency in Eastbourne and I had been running a small clothing brand since about 1994. My Girlfriend, now wife, had just left a job she hated so we decided to open a small clothing store that she would run and to give us a base for the brand to grow. I promptly got made redundant from my full time job so it was definitely one of those life moments where it was a case of just going for it. I borrowed £5k off the bank, and £5k off my dad (which I still owe him back) and we opened the first store in November 2002.
We knew nothing about brand exclusivity in towns and thought we’d get all the brands we wanted. Because of another store in town we couldn’t get any of the decent skate brands of the time. So we started with a mix of different brands like Addict, Mooks, Westbeach, Dickies, Fly53, Putsch, Alphanumeric and a few more, we were 50/50 mens and women’s at the time. It gave us more of a ‘street wear’ start with a mix of skate, snowboard, workwear inspired brands which in turn helped shape the direction we’ve kept going to the present day.
How do you think the store has grown over the years into what it is today?
The store has just grown organically over the last 10 years. I’ve built brand on brand over the time, always looking for good, exclusive brands and product that I personally like. Quite often one brand will open the doors to certain other brands that you like and respect and it takes the store to the next level. Brands want to be seen in a good light next to other brands they aspire to be or think they are most like so it’s a case of building a mix that best achieves this.
Obviously we’re still an independently owned store, I run it with my wife and I still do all the buying across 90+ brands. As with anything, if you do a good job, work hard and hopefully make the right moves your business will grow, the trick is now to maintain our edge as a core store. The problem is if you do grow, provide a good service and work hard to promote your store some customers may not like the fact that their friends get to hear of you and also buy products from you. Street wear is very much like that, I never wanted to wear any of the clothing some of my friends were wearing, so always sought out small, independent stores that sold what I liked.
Why do you think other stores haven’t been as successful as you? What is the secret formula?
I can only speak for our selves but there is no absolute, secret formula, there are so many different variables. Our store was very much shaped by the town of Eastbourne. Because it’s a small seaside town we never had enough people interested or even aware of premium streetwear for many years.
Instead of sitting around moaning about the lack of footfall or days where we literally took no money (and there were plenty of them) I always set my Mac up next to the till. While I was waiting for people to come in and shop I got busy adding product to the website, thinking of ways of developing it further, replying to customers etc. If Eastbourne was a city or bigger town with a decent student population, chances are our web business wouldn’t be as strong as it is today because I would have been much busier serving customers in the physical store. I think it’s definitely channeled us to become a strong Internet store.
I think a lot of people think that running a store is a good laugh, really simple and a great lifestyle career. In many ways it is but in a whole load of other ways its still a business with lots of dry, boring business things to do. I’m very lucky that my wife seems to have a logical, analytical type brain that enables her to work on stuff like office networking and integrating courier shipping systems into our web back end, stuff that means the business operates efficiently and customers get their orders on time. I go to Nike and choose nice colour Air Max 1’s.
How important do you think it is to have a good relationship with the brands that you stock?
It’s vital. Especially today when things can be tough, we have to be able to work with our suppliers and I definitely think the relationship is a two way street. Ill always call a brand up if we’re experiencing slow sell through to see if we can come to an arrangement that’s best for all concerned rather than doing something knee jerk and detrimental to the brand itself. We’re still working with some of the same brands from 10 years ago and agents and reps have become close friends.
Also because the UK clothing marketing is a small close knit industry, many of the reps move round from brand to brand so you really don’t want to leave a trail of pissed off reps especially when they might move to that one brand you’ve been try to get for years!
What are the difficulties of running a store like yours?
Many these days! The bigger you get the more admin there seems to be, more of the boring stuff, small details to iron out, its not all ordering great product and parties. Making sure we keep our customer service levels up can be tough but we have a good team now so that helps a lot.
Also keeping our offering of products on point is a constant issue, I’m constantly scouring blogs, forums the web in general for new and interesting brands that are emerging. Trying to find something that’s exclusive is also very difficult these days and keeping it that way is impossible. But then again if a brand is going to grow and at the very least keep going, it has to be stocked in stores to get the message out there.
What has been the most testing time in the history of the store?
The most testing time was the first 2-3 years after opening. We put ourselves on to a street in Eastbourne with very little footfall mainly because we didn’t know any better and the rent was cheap. It meant though that we had days where we took literally nothing and many days where we took £25 on 1 t-shirt or whatever, pretty depressing stuff. We had a mortgage on a flat and a kid on the way at the same time (obviously because I thought I had a stable full time job before the redundancy!). I remember not sleeping properly for almost 2 years, waking up at 3am worrying about how I was going to pay a brand’s invoice that was due, pay the rent or keep our selves fed! We pretty much lived on credit cards for that period, it was all pretty stressful.
Do you think the UK can produce the same quality brands as the US? How many brands do you have to turn down?
I think it’s in us to be able to produce quality brands like the US but I just haven’t seen it too often. There seems to be a lot more access to cheaper printables like tees and sweats in the US, plus decent manufacturers of caps, bags etc that they can tap into.
Many UK brands still tend to tread the well-worn path of copying their American contemporaries but at the end of the day what should a UK ‘street wear’ brand actually look like? What’s the heritage of ‘UK Street’? Its pretty much all based on US imports like skateboarding, Hip Hop, Graffiti. I guess we’ve seen UK brands come through with the recent Heritage trend of producing expensive retro versions of mid century Hiking clothing or English gent clothing where its all based on waxed cotton out of one factory still left producing in the North some where. In our market the history is one of American Street and Work wear so I guess its difficult to produce something unique that people still want to buy that doesn’t hark back to the US in one for or another.
What do you feel the importance is of having an actual physical shop? Especially with a large percentage of your business coming from the online market?
Its still very important to have and offline’ store to me for a few reasons. Many brands still require that you have a store as well as a website to be able to stock their products. Although this can be frustrating when a few brands you’d like to stock only see us as an internet store because we do such a good job promoting that element of the business.
Saying that we are now predominately Internet focused in our turnover but our actual offline store often takes more money than our old store based in the middle of Eastbourne used to. We’ve become a destination store and we see customers coming over from Hastings, Brighton and other parts of Sussex. So the offline element contributes a very vital part of the business profit these days.
It’s also good to meet face to face with our actual customers and hear what they’re saying about items or brands they’re interested in so I can’t see us shutting the store any time soon.