Named in the Sunday Times’ Best Places to Live Guide, Saffron Walden is home to numerous inspiring independents – including 12-year-old womenswear retailer Blue. The “small but perfectly formed store” stocks an enviable line-up of 80 entry to luxe-level brands from around the globe. The retailer also sells via its own transactional website and boutique marketplace Trouva, with around 20 per cent of its revenue generated online.
Founder Hayley Attridge first opened the bricks-and-mortar store in 2011 with no previous retail experience. A former management accountant, she had spent the past two decades at home raising children but always dreamed of opening her own shop: “I’d reached a point in my life where it felt like it was ‘now or never,’” she says. “The right premises came up in Saffron Walden, which is a great retail destination full of amazing independents. My children went to school there too, so it felt like the ideal location.”
The owner says starting the business from scratch was “a real learning curve” and that there have been lots of “ups and downs” along the way. However, her vision to create a welcoming space for everyone, regardless of their budget, is clearly a winning formula.
Hayley also credits her loyal team, who help create a “warm, comfortable and relaxed environment” for customers, as her “secret weapon.” They include interior designer Gaye Linewood, who creates the store’s window displays and visual merchandising, Mandy Weetch, the marketeer behind its social media content, and “wingman” Helen Harrop, who looks after the online side of the business. Hayley, meanwhile, makes all the buying decisions. “Finding these amazing women has been the key to Blue’s success,” she says.
The retailer’s best-selling brands include resortwear labels such as Devotion Twins, Greek Archaic Kori and M.A.B.E. “These are our summer mainstays,” says Hayley. For the colder months, the owner says her edit moves towards Danish brands, which “come into their own for the winter.” Key labels include Mos Mosh and Shoe the Bear while Soya Concept provides a great entry level range. “I think people are often intimidated by boutiques and presume everything is really expensive,” she says. “So I do try to buy for all budgets – I never want anyone to think they can’t afford to shop with us.”
Prices at Blue range from £450 for dresses by Italian brand Lavi to £24-£29 for Soya Concept and Compania Fantastica basics. Blue also stocks affordable jewellery by Mishky and Scream Pretty as well as bags, purses and leather goods from Marlon, Columbian Bags and Smaak Amsterdam.
The owner’s favourite aspect of running a retail business is buying, and she selects each new season edit based on three fictitious customers: “Maureen, Margaret and Megan.” She explains: “Maureen is a retired professional whose children have left home, Margaret is a successful 40 or 50-something woman with older kids, while Megan is a young working mum looking for more affordable fashion. Knowing your demographic is absolutely key and having target customers in mind really helps when buying.”
When looking for new brands, Hayley says she makes decisions based on her gut instinct. “I instantly know if a brand is for Blue or not,” she says. After discovering a new label, the owner will usually test the water with a tight edit for the first season before increasing it for the next. “I always give new labels at least three seasons before deciding they’ve failed,” she says. “It takes a while for customers to get to know a new brand and what they’re about.”
While summer holiday dresses are currently the store’s best-selling category, Hayley says she’s seen a shift in what her customers are buying since the start of the pandemic. In 2023, she’s seen a clearer distinction between everyday clothing and special occasion compared to pre-2020. “People dress differently than they did before the lockdowns,” she says. “Whereas I used to sell dresses that women could wear as a wedding guest and then to the office, that’s changed. Customers are dressing more casually every day, so they often want something luxurious and flamboyant for events then more smart-casual pieces to wear at home and to work.”
Hayley admits that buying is a constant evolution to keep up with trends and customers’ buying habits. While her store’s original ethos remains, none of the brands she started out with in 2011 are sold at the store in present day. “The nature of fashion is that it’s a constant cycle of change,” she says. “As a buyer you have to keep my eye on the ball at all times to remain relevant.”
One of the biggest challenges she cites as a fashion retailer is that product drops often don’t correlate to the weather: “You’re going into sale just after Christmas and discounting coats and jumpers when there’s still three months left of cold weather,” she says. “Brands have to change this. It’s no good having a shop full of summer clothes when there’s snow on the ground outside.”
To drive extra sales, Blue runs various promotions throughout the year without implementing full blanket discounts. For example, shoppers were recently able to buy cashmere at a lower price as part of a Mother’s Day deal. “We only do two genuine sales each year in July and after Christmas,” says Hayley. “It can be hard sometimes holding your nerve and keeping prices where they are, but you have to be brave in retail.”
This was especially true during the AW22 season when Blue, like many other fashion indies, saw a drop in sales volumes on the year before. “We overstocked for winter and that was a mistake, but we couldn’t have foreseen the impact of the cost of living crisis,” the owner says. “In AW21 our customers bought a lot more, probably as a result of the pandemic, so I increased the buy for the following season. As we now know, energy bills and mortgage rates went up so that affected cashflow.”
Blue was also one of the fashion indies selling on marketplace site Atterley when it collapsed just before Christmas. And while Hayley said she’s owed money for stock that she’ll probably never see, it hasn’t had a detrimental impact on the business overall: “It was a huge blow,” she says. “Luckily, we’re in a fortunate position, but it has made cashflow much tighter.”
Moving forward into spring and summer, Hayley says she’ll be concentrating on selling as much stock as possible to make up for the losses. “I’ve also held onto stock this time which I’ve never done before,” she says. “There are coats, for example, that one brand does every year. Ordinarily I would have put them into the sale, but I’m holding onto them for AW23 to hopefully sell at full price.”
The owner also understands the importance of promoting the business and embraces every opportunity to raise its profile. Recently, she has worked with regional lifestyle title Velvet Magazine on a fashion shoot while there have been local radio interviews too. “Any exposure is good to keep your business moving forward and build brand awareness,” she says.
But with a great team and premises already in the bag, finding new brands and standout products to keep Blue’s offer fresh remains as Hayley’s key focus: “We have no plans to move the shop – we’re in a fantastic position and the store is a great size,” she says. “For me now, it’s about growing the online side of the business and discovering new brands that will excite our customers. And of course, we always want to make sure we’re always offering the best possible service, too.”