Retail therapy

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The Independent Online
RESIDENTS of Street in Somerset should brace themselves for coach-loads of trippers when a shoe museum opens in the village next month. But for many the attraction will be new shoes, because the museum is a small part of a factory shopping complex that will offer up to 60 per cent discounts on a range of goods from top UK manufacturers.

Factory shopping is not new. In the United States it is a way of life. Whole families flock to buy seconds, ends of ranges and last season's stock. And, just as American-style shopping malls are now a familiar feature of the British landscape, so these discount emporia are bound to proliferate.

Quite a few isolated factory shopping units already exist in the UK, often offering discounts to staff and intrepid bargain hunters who have managed to track them down. The new trend is for manufacturers to club together to sell their surplus.

Paul Knight, retail and factory outlet development manager at Clarks Shoes, the company behind 'Clarks Village', the Street venture, says that in the past 10 years the US market has developed rapidly. 'Their latest factory complex scheme is under construction and is going to be larger than Meadowhall, near Sheffield, the biggest out-of-town shopping centre in Europe. We saw an opportunity to develop the concept over here.'

Clarks has created 17,000sq ft of footwear selling space and 43,000sq ft for letting as 22 shops. Attractions will include shoemaking demonstrations, children's playgrounds, a picnic area and cafe. The company believes that Clarks Village will be a tourist attraction.

Some manufacturers are open about their involvement in the scheme, but others are more jittery. They may be desperate to get rid of their surplus stock, but worry that their retailers will not be best pleased. Mr Knight insists, however, that Clarks remains committed to retailing, in which it has a great vested interest, and he sees no threat to the high street outlets. 'In the US,' he points out, 'the massive factory shopping market accounts for only around 1 per cent of sales.'

Of course, the approach must be intelligent, he says. 'The location is very sensitive. It needs to be in a place where there is nothing else, but which has a fairly large catchment area. Certain manufacturers want to keep it low-key so we won't promote individual brands.' A lot will depend on word of mouth.

Triumph International, the lingerie manufacturer which has also taken space in the new complex, has sent a reassuring letter to all its retailers. 'Experience in other countries, and with our own factory shop in Swindon,' it says, 'indicates that such outlets have little or no effect on sales of normal current merchandise in existing shops in the area. On the contrary, it often stimulates business in shops stocking a wider range of goods.'

Surplus stock has to be sold somehow, and there is an argument for doing so in a controlled environment, rather than market stalls where a slightly tacky, if not downright dubious atmosphere can queer the pitch of high-quality branded goods.

So far, space at Street has been let to the following companies: Laura Ashley, Farah Manufacturing UK, Wrangler, Woolea, Alexon/Dash, Benetton, Dartington Crystal, Denby Pottery, Jumpers, Pierre Cardin, Royal Brierley, Royal Worcester, Triumph and Thorntons.

The Clarks Village opens on 14 August (0458 42131). Regional factory shop guides are available for all areas of the UK (also one on Italy), written by Gillian Cutress and Rolf Stricker, which detail individual outlets. Prices from pounds 3.95, at W H Smith and some tourist information centres (or phone Ms Cutress: 071-622 3722).

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