Midlands Co-operative is a case in point, especially now it has brought sparky Shaherazad Umbreen on board as its Head of Fashion and Home. Her remit includes seven department stores in Chesterfield, Derby, Stafford, Wigston, Coalville, Ilkseton and Eastwood and home stores in West Bridgford and Longeaton.
Shaz, as she prefers to be known, joined the society last year after a spell as National Project Manager for Superdrug. Before that, she held a series of positions with Boots and Comet in operational and management roles.
The 34-year-old went into retail after studying English at the former University of Central England and earning a vocational Masters degree at Birmingham University.
“I did English for the sheer love of it, but when it came to the practical business of getting a job I knew I would need other skills like IT and management science,” she says. “To fund my post-graduate studies I took a part-time job at Comet on the customer service desk and I found that loved it. I decided then that I would focus on a career in retail.”
After university, Shaz took a graduate trainee place as a sales manager. “I took to it really well,” she said. “I got a promotion every year, working in places like Leamington Spa and out-of-town stores. I then moved on to Boots and was in charge of flagship community pharmacies and opticians.”
Three years later, she was headhunted by Superdrug, which was looking to move upmarket. “They wanted to get away from their image as the cheapest place to shop for pharmaceutical products.
“They were involved in a project where they were opening the next generation of stores and wanted to be more trendy and fashion-focused. It was a good thing to be involved in.”
Shaz’s experience of re-branding Superdrug should hold her in good stead as she gets on with re-vamping Midlands’ non-food portfolio.
But she also likes the way the co-operative does business. “What I like about the Co-op is its community feel, the way people look out for each other. I think that is recognised by our customers.
“I also like the fact it’s not hierarchical, unlike other organisations, and has an open-office environment.
“I’ve always shopped at my local Co-op stores and have seen first-hand the wonderful work they have done with food re-branding. I see it as a major part of my work to try to do the same with fashion and homeware items.”
As Shaz admits, the customer profile of Co-op clothes shoppers is not exactly cutting-edge. “It is going to be a challenge,” she says. “We have a loyal customer base in our big department stores, most of whom are 45-plus and rely on tried-and-tested brands like Alexon and Windsmoor but now it’s time to go to a wider market. What I’m looking for is a way of bringing in younger customers.”
In the past few months, Shaz has been talking to a variety of smaller independent retailers who can provide up-to-the-minute designs which do not cost the earth. She is also determined to do as much as she can to ensure the labels are as ethical as possible. “We always ask for the evidence to show that nothing they are selling us is manufactured in sweatshops,” she said. “We don’t have the same kind of network as there is for Fairtrade food but we are doing our best and want to do better in the future.”
Shaz’s mission is to widen the range on offer to male and female shoppers, and moves to improve the homeware range in the Midlands are already paying dividends
“The economic climate has changed. People have less money to spend but they are buying more homeware and looking at devoting more time to decorating and DIY as they go out less, and try to make their home as comfortable as possible. Basically, they are cooking in instead of eating out, which is good for us.
“In our larger stores we have an extensive range of furniture and beds and even in our smaller stores there is now a capsule collection of things like towels, sheets, handbags and beauty products.”
Before Christmas, the Midlands Society also trialled a small raft of affordable perfumes from major brands such as Cacharel, DKNY and Marc Jacobs.
Since being appointed, Shaz has recruited a new fashion buyer and is focusing on broadening the customer base — and keeping loyal customers happy.
“In the next 12 months I want to see a big change with more choice and wider customer appeal,” she said. “My priority will be to source new products and improve on quality without deserting in any way our loyal customer base.”