Welcome to a world of designer labels, footballers’ wives, fast cars, false nails, botox and bling. Welcome to a world where wider economic problems seem to bear little relevance. Welcome to the affluent North west of England.
This pocket of the UK – specifically around the Cheshire village of Alderley Edge – is home to the highest concentration of millionaires in the UK. It is a breeding ground for entrepreneurs, new money, footballers and their WAGs and, for the record, has the highest per capita champagne sales in the country.
Of course, not everyone is rolling in cash, but you only need to glance around to realise its glamorous reputation is no cliché. A Gucci-handbag-clad woman wearing high-heeled diamante sandals and perfectly manicured nails sits outside Costa Coffee. She is with another, equally glamorous woman who could be her sister but looks suspiciously like her mother.
Meanwhile, one woman asks her friend: “I was going to wear that Valentino dress but it’s from two seasons ago. Do you think she’ll notice?” “I bet she wouldn’t, you know, you could get away with it,” comes the reply.
So what is the local retail scene like? How does it meet the very specific needs of its image-conscious locals? And does its super-aspirational, super-wealthy clientele mean it is immune to macro-economic troubles?
Over in Liverpool, paparazzi regularly lurk in wait for the likes of Alex Curran, Coleen McLoughlin and Jennifer Ellison outside fashion boutique Cricket. Its most expensive fashion lines include Chloé, Lanvin – a midnight blue dress is on sale for£2,065 – and Balenciaga. But owner Justine Mills is also adept at tapping into the aspirational shopper. People travel for miles just to see if they can get a Cricket carrier bag. Mills now sells plastic ones at£20 each, as well as compact mirrors bearing the Cricket logo.
Celebrities are a regular fixture at most of the stores that Retail Week visited. At Cricket, sales assistant Katy O’Grady says: “Coleen [McLoughlin] has a great sense of style. She did the George campaign for Asda so she’s really good at mixing designer with the high street. Alex Curran’s taste is quite…” She trails off and spies a microscopic Balenciaga skirt on a mannequin. “She loves this type of look,” says O’Grady. It is beautifully constructed, but very... daring. And it comes with a price tag of£2,000.
At Threshers in Alderley Edge, store manager David O’Connor talks about the steady stream of footballers: Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Wayne Rooney – all of whom have a penchant for “good bottles of wine”.
Amusingly, many of the retailers try to be discreet about their rich and famous customers but, well… they just can’t help themselves. One explains that the previous customer is worth “around£400 million”, giving a detailed account of exactly how her family made their money. And yet he later refuses to talk about celebrity patrons because “I’m not like that” and “I won’t name names”.
Michelle Knowles at Alderley Edge’s shoe boutique Daniel says Coleen McLoughlin visited the store the week before and bought “lots of pairs of shoes”. She adds: “Which ones she bought isn’t for me to say,” but enthuses: “How anyone can take a photo of her looking a bit curvy I have no idea. She’s absolutely tiny, got a gorgeous figure and such a lovely girl.”
And who can blame them for their love of the local celebrity? After all, they help keep glitz, glamour and aspirations alive. And one thing is for sure, every store caters for local tastes perfectly. Krug champagne is prominently displayed in off-licences, the wedding shop boasts a fairy-princess-style dress in the window. The Daniel shoe boutique sells Juicy Couture handbag charms at£50 each. In Cinderella, there is more than the odd homage to WAG glam – notably a shiny black Moschino anorak with large white polka dots – priced originally at more than£300 pre-Sale.
Over the road at interiors store Posh, there is a crystal-encrusted cabinet for£2,500. Think gilt console tables, mirrors etched with images of chandeliers and a smattering of animal print. The most costly item in the store is a slate and mineral falcon for£6,800. “It was made for a Sheikh. We’ve had a lot of interest. Men tend to like it, women tend not to so much,” says the store owner.
Image is everything. At Barnardo’s charity shop in Alderley Edge, vivacious store manager Melanie Connor chats about the closure several weeks ago of Garbo Fashions in nearby Wilmslow. The owner shut the store after the birth of her twins, but had previously moved it from a picturesque Wilmslow location to the town’s Summerfields Shopping Centre, near Lidl. “It was like putting a Chanel boutique in the middle of Bluewater,” says Connor. “People didn’t like the location so they didn’t go there. Before it was very Wilmslow, you know, good place to be seen.”
Connor adds: “A lady brought in eight pairs of designer sunglasses the other day. You know that’s only a percentage of what she’s got. A lot of clothes we get are unworn – people can’t be bothered to exchange them or they forget they’ve got them.” She refers to two businesses adjacent to Barnardo’s: “We call it the Holy Trinity. People and their housekeepers drop clothes off here, go next door to have their hair done, then go shopping in [fashion boutique] Cinderella.”
Staff at Cinderella say the Cheshire clientele is an altogether different breed than their Liverpudlian friends 40-odd miles to the west. “They’re all about labels and flashing them. We’re about labels, but you’d never know it. We’re more understated chic”.
Alderley Edge’s Barnardo’s store is famed as the place to pick up cut-price designer items. A quick browse on the rails unearths a black Amanda Wakeley dress for£60, a pink unworn Juicy Couture tracksuit for£70, and a white J’Adore Dior t-shirt emblazoned with gold letters for£20. Glass units house stacks of designer jewellery and sunglasses. Barely worn designer shoes adorn the shelves. One of the most expensive items sold here was a Gucci leather jacket for£600.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of retailing here is the personal touch. At Cricket, part-time fashion student O’Grady is not the average sales assistant. Apart from everyday styling advice to customers, she helps oversee the personal shopping service, available outside normal opening hours. “People tell us the events they’ve got planned, we’ll pick an outfit,” she says. This year at Aintree, Alex Curran was dressed head-to-toe in Cricket purchases.
The owner of Posh is talking to a customer about her impending summer-long excursion to Mallorca. He asks about her husband’s golf and her house renovation. She hangs around chatting and says she’ll be back soon to confirm what she wants for her son’s bedroom. After she leaves, he explains they send a lot of goods over to clients’ holiday homes abroad. Building up a rapport with locals is clearly lucrative.
At Barnardo’s, Connor picks up the phone. “Oh hello darling, how are you?... I’ve got the perfect thing… Came in this morning, a little cream Mulberry bag, yes, a Mulberry. I’ll put it to one side… I don’t know,£70? OK, got to go, chat later,” and puts the phone down. “I do a lot of my sales over the phone,” she laughs. “We really get to know the locals and we have so many regulars who we tell if anything comes in they might like.”
The question is, can these wealthy locals sustain their champagne lifestyle? Mills says economic problems have so far had no impact at Cricket. She says the opening of the Liverpool One shopping centre has helped, as has the steady influx of tourists to this European Capital of Culture.
At Cinderella, the sales assistant says: “We’re well known, there are lots of affluent people and they’re still buying.” She adds, though, that it’s quieter at the moment because “everyone goes away” during the school holidays. It later becomes apparent where they have gone. Knowles at Daniel shoes says: “It’s quieter now because lots of people have gone to their summer homes in Abersoch [North Wales], Mallorca, Marbella and Puerto Banus, but the downturn hasn’t affected us – there’s still such huge demand for labels – people come in and buy several pairs of shoes costing£300 pounds each.”
But there are a few signs that people are not spending as freely as before. Despite being the UK’s champagne capital, this is one category in which sales are suffering. One off-licence manager says: “Champagne sales have slowed. Yes, it’s a massively wealthy area, but a lot of the time it’s just a load of show boaters who have overstretched themselves and an increase in interest rates has hit them hard.” He adds that the champagne lifestyle is “very much about being seen”. People may still buy Cristal in a restaurant, but off-licence sales have dwindled.
O’Connor at Threshers agrees. “People are mortgaged up to the hilt. We still sell a lot of champagne, but not as much as we used to. We’ve got our own-brand champagne, which I think is a nicer grape, but no one ever buys it because they’ve never heard of it.”
Connor at Barnardo’s also hints strongly that spending is not what it was. “I’ve noticed a huge difference around here in the past six months,” she says, adding that more people are using the store’s dress agency service, in which sales are split 50/50.
Maybe these retailers are in the minority or maybe many local customers really are able to enjoy their own bubble of protected wealth. Regardless, this is local retailing at its very best – it is friendly, perfectly pitched and knows its customer – literally. The retail world needs a bit more glamour and decadence at the moment, so let’s raise a glass of Krug to their “understated chic”. Here’s hoping it stays that way.