As Smiggle opens its 100th UK store, group managing director John Cheston shares his top tips for conquering global markets.

Cynics may have raised an eyebrow or two about the expansion ambitions of Australia-born tweenagers’ stationery retailer Smiggle, which landed in the UK in 2014.

But, as stores have popped up at pace, Cheston has stuck to his guns about opening as many as 200 branches by 2019, and – despite economic uncertainty in the UK – is on track to do just that.

John Cheston Smiggle Launch

Smiggle boss John Cheston

As well as also launching in the Republic of Ireland and dipping its toe into retail parks, Smiggle has made quite an impression on British youth.

Without disclosing an exact number, Cheston tells Retail Week sales momentum has remained buoyant in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the recent snap election.

“Our like-for-likes from February to July show very strong growth. I couldn’t be happier,” he says.

As many retailers such as White Company, Paperchase, House of Fraser and AO.com, eye global debuts or expansion, and others such as M&S pull in their horns, the secrets to international prowess are highly sought.

So, as Wasfarmers-owned Bunnings accelerates its assault on the UK DIY market, and The Just Group-owned Smiggle toasts the opening of its 100th UK store in Plymouth, Cheston shares his tips for entering new markets.

Do your homework

Acknowledging it is not rocket science, Cheston says the most important thing to do before entering a new market is thorough due diligence.

“Me and my team did the most tremendous amount of due diligence before committing to the UK,” he says.

“Everyone says they’ve done their homework, but have they really? Have they visited time and time again, asked every question? When you think you’ve got every bit of ground covered, what else can you look into?”

“We couldn’t have envisioned Brexit or the outcome of this election, but we found out everything there was to know about the UK market.

Interview with Smiggle global boss John Cheston

“I’m talking about the impact of back to school, significant dates, timing of school holidays and school uniform rules, popular shopping destinations, other retailers in the category, and not in the category.’”

But in addition to the desktop reconnaissance, Cheston says his team put their “shoulders to the grind”.

“We walked the centres, checked the footfall, scouted out preferable locations. I can’t be the head of a stationery brand and not do my homework, can I?”

Make sure there’s room for you

“The other thing that cannot be underestimated is the competition,” Cheston says, suggesting retailers ask themselves if there really is room for their proposition in the market.

“The Just Group wouldn’t attempt to bring over its fashion brands – we respect those in the UK too much, there’s far too much competition.

“Ensuring your brand is transferable internationally is so important – knowing that the market needs your proposition”

John Cheston, Smiggle

“Ensuring your brand is transferable internationally is so important – knowing that the market needs your proposition and that your model is suitable,” he adds.

It is common knowledge that many a business before now has attempted to duplicate its offer in other parts of the world, without tackling the nuances of the market such as seasonality, sizing and cultural variances.

“It’s important to never be complacent. We made sure our proposition, the colours and patterns didn’t need to change.

“If you don’t adapt the products before you go, you’re going to come a cropper,” he says.

Smiggle 2

Smiggle’s 100th UK store

Execute expertly

Last but not least, Cheston says the execution of a brand overseas must be spot on.

“Decide if a franchise agreement is for you or not,” he says, “and recruit the best team you can.

“We personally prefer not to franchise. To us, the business is our lifeblood, our baby, and we want to look after it ourselves.

“There are of course upsides to franchising, but you have to be sure the partner can represent the brand”

John Cheston, Smiggle

“There are of course upsides to franchising, but you have to be sure the partner can represent the brand as well as you can and doesn’t treat it like just one of a basket of brands.”

But, it begins and ends with the homework, Cheston reaffirms.

“Some retailers think the answer is to go international, but they won’t make it if they fail to do that.”