And they're doing it in Street, mecca for a new breed of bargain hunter. By Katy Brown
W hen C & J Clark was solely in the business of making shoes which allowed our toes to spread nicely, visitors to its factory in Street in Somerset were welcomed by a Henry Moore sculpture outside the gates. The same work of art now heralds the Pepsi Cola headquarters in the States, following its sale around the time that Clarks diversified into the business of dispensing a special kind of retail therapy to millions of people every year. Clarks' new speciality in Street is the thriving business of bargains; let's hope Pepsi Cola got a good deal from its precious lump of English heritage.

Street is a small town in the ancient Vale of Avalon, on the edge of the Somerset Levels, where the vibrations of Camelot, the evidence of King Arthur's conquests and the establishment of the first Christian church in England by Joseph of Arimathea are still witnessed by tourists.

But the real pilgrimage destination in today's Avalon is Clarks Village in Street, where the electronic footfall counter shows that between 2.6-2.75 million people will visit the "village" this year bearing fat wallets and retreating heavy with booty, feeling much better for buying all that kit at a knockdown price. Clarks' high-street names - like Benetton, Laura Ashley, Thornton's, Black & Decker and Dartington Glass - have been the hottest attraction in the West Country for almost two years, edging close to Alton Towers in terms of feet on concrete.

"People come here with a different philosophy from the way they go shopping in the high street," explains Paul Knight, Clarks Retail and Factory Shopping Development Manager. "They have no specific purchase in mind. They might come out with an electric drill, a new frock or a bag of chocolate, but they'll have done what they set out to do - save money. To show they've saved money they need to spend money, and they do it seriously." Everything on sale in the village is what the retail trade calls "distressed" stock, which might mean lipstick on a collar, last year's goods, slow-selling lines or the results of a cancelled order.

The outlets, never to be confused with shops, are candid about what they are offering. Each has a plaque outside in tasteful green and gold (to match the signposts to the playground, plentiful pristine loos and Clarks shoe museum) explaining the nature of their wares. "We're all in the business of fashion," says Mr Knight, "and by definition, what was fashionable at one time soon becomes unfashionable. Successful retailers will always have big winners, but they'll also have to deal with their losers. And though we don't like the word losers, certain products can only be accessed by the public at lower price points."

Mr Knight insists he is speaking on behalf of Clarks and all the partners in the village (company policy includes a reluctance to use the words landlord and tenant as they imply conflict) and he would actually prefer to be referred to simply as a spokesperson. Such semantics are the only detectable glimmer within this new operation of the strong Quaker reputation of the Clark family in Street, who remain the major shareholders in all its dealings.

Down the original main shopping street stands the elegant Quaker Meeting House, iron and windows too high from the ground for curiosity. Gravestones are all the same unassuming shape, set in rows, many bearing the name of Clark in plain lettering. It seems as distant as the moon from the avid throngs in Clarks Village, where the Quaker stress on avoiding the snares of worldliness and all that encumbers the soul from communion with Christ must be a tricky concept to deal with.

The tills in the malls are whirring well. Clarks not only knows how many wallet-bearers come through the gate each hour, but also how long they are there and how much they spend. This is a crucial consideration, though far too "commercially sensitive" to divulge, says Mr Knight. After all, the company does not charge a basic ground rent to its partners, but employs a turnover-rent system, whereby Clarks takes a percentage of each outlet's takings. All the cleaning and facility maintenance is arranged by Clarks, and it seems to be done in an up-front American style, by people dressed in unmissable uniforms: window cleaners, motorised mall-sweepers, landscape gardeners, and loo inspectors. It certainly makes for a spick-and-span atmosphere. "We have a great time here," said one 20-nothing couple with two tiny babies from Cardiff. "It's so convenient and easy and it makes a brilliant day out." Day-out mentality is what Clarks banks on. The village has 1000 parking spaces, and could do with more, since pilgrims come from far and wide.

Different groups of customers are targeted by multi-media advertising campaigns, but the coach trips and Street's inclusion in holiday itineraries are the way they get the numbers in. Each year, the village can accommodate 4,000 coaches, coming from as far as East Anglia, Birmingham and South Wales.

Mr Knight tells how his mum came to see him from Swansea only eight weeks after the village opened. Instead of getting his dad to drive her down, she caught the Clarks Village coach, together with two women who were on their third visit and were acting as enthusiastic voluntary guides and promoters of the trip. "That's not untypical," he explains. "Our average catchment area is two hours' drive; 40 per cent of our customers travel at least 50 miles to get here, and then they often come back again. They make it a regular day out, which is why we've opened a tourist information centre here. They're looking for a bit of culture to legitimise spending money."

I spoke to 15 families at Clarks Village the day of our visit, and no-one intended to venture anywhere else in Somerset. It was half-term and many had small children, hordes of them crowded round the mega-telly in Clarks shoe outlet while their mums and dads sorted through the sizes.

There is plenty to buy. Triumph obviously did not do too well last year with its midnight blue bras with gold lace and a diamante clasp at the cleavage: the Triumph shop was selling them at pounds 14.99 instead of pounds 32.99. Monsoon had a glut of silk and linen shift dresses in slightly murky colours, with X marking the spot where glossy red lips had hit the neckline or the thread had been pulled in a previous life. And Imran Khan's personal journey book, Warrior Race, with a shot of the smouldering Imran and his mates, was down from pounds 20 to pounds 8.99 in the Claude Gill bookshop. Bargains, if you like that sort of thing.

At Easter this year, the second enterprise opened in Kendal under the umbrella of Clarks subsidiary, K-Shoes. The mall is covered "because it rains so much up there". Clarks did a survey of holiday makers in Cumbria, and 66 per cent of them put shopping at the top of the list of preferred activities,way above fell-walking and sightseeing. The third is planned for spring 1996 in Doncaster. It will be twice the size of Street.

Clarks is at pains to point out that it has no intention of jeopardising business in the high street. After all, it has 800 proper shoe-shops, and "people continue to use them for their mainstream buying. This is something new, something very exciting."

Whether the ordinary burghers of Street find it so exciting is less easy to gauge. Michael Cooper, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in the town and a local businessman, admitted the village has been beneficial, but other small traders are more reticent. Not keen to be identified, one told me she thought the way Street had changed was rather sad. "People used to turn up here after they'd climbed up Glastonbury Tor, full of the spirit of Somerset, and really hungry. Now they're just worn out and laden down with carrier bags, looking for a cheap cup of tea."