As leisurewear companies go, it’s reasonably safe to say that Cotton Traders is somewhat unique. It was founded in Cheshire by two former England rugby captains, Fran Cotton and Steve Smith. Men who had previously been more accustomed to breaking bones than making profits.
Now, fifteen years later, the company turns over around £45m a year, has a mail-order customer base of 1.2m people, 30 factory outlet centres and is preparing to open its first high-street retail store.
From a heritage of producing rugby shirts, the company has progressed into a fully fledged brand name and now, with its first high street store opening later this month, is poised to expand its customer base even further.
The man charged with ensuring that this possibility becomes a reality is retail director Nick Hamblin. It’s a goal that Hamblin has worked towards for the past six years, creating the company’s entire retail structure from scratch and building a team which is set to cash in, literally, on the company’s continuing expansion.
Hamblin is a retail veteran, having first worked at the famous Harrods as a graduate trainee, before working his way up to manager and subsequently being poached by retail giant Next.
He remembers: “The flagship store at the time was a very big Next in Kensington. I was store manager there and got to know George Davis, who was running Next at the time, really well. He left to set up George at Asda and about 12 months later he called me and I joined him.”
A four-year stint working on the George brand at Asda well and truly earned Hamblin his retail stripes.
“When I was at Next it was very difficult because they were opening so many stores that you were looking at so many places at once and working really long hours,” says Hamblin. “It was a similar thing with George at Asda: it was very long hours, and at the same time training Asda staff in clothing retail was really difficult.”
After putting in the hours at George, Hamblin was a clear candidate for building the retail side of Cotton Traders. He joined the company around six years ago to build that side of the business and, though the long hours, long miles and long explanations of Next and Asda were challenging, it has been the time spent at Cotton Traders that Hamblin feels most rewarded by.
Six years spent building up and strengthening the retail side of the business and Hamblin is ready to take his troops to war with the shop in London. The next challenge is how to build the Cotton Trader high-street presence, and ensure that footfall through the newly opened store will match up to expectations.
Marketing for Cotton Traders in the past has specifically focused on newspaper inserts, used as a direct tool for growing the mail-order side of the business. Yet despite the lack of an outright advertising strategy, Hamblin believes brand awareness is strong, both in the traditional rugby sector and in an ever-growing ABC1 target market.
“I think it’s fair to say that the brand has evolved,” he says. “The company comes from a strong rugby heritage, which it has definitely evolved from. The market has moved from solely rugby fans to people who have liked rugby and moved on. I think we are mid-market, the ABC1s. We’ve never tried to position ourselves to a particular market, but that is where we have evolved to.”
This evolution has included deals with leading global brands such as Budweiser, Guinness and Pepsi, which has allowed Cotton Traders to widen its offering by producing licensed leisurewear.
However, whilst allying itself with these high-level global brands, the company has also retained its original rugby heritage by producing shirts for a number of UK teams, including Sale Sharks, Leicester and Barbarians.
To support this growing market, and publicise the launch of the new store, which opens on October 22 in the brand new Festival Place shopping development in Basingstoke, Hamblin has appointed Manchester’s Mere Communications to develop PR. Focusing on regional press activity, Mere’s initial task will be to raise awareness of the store’s opening.
Hamblin is optimistic. He states: “The thing is that we are a well known brand. Most people know us, they’ve seen our catalogues in the papers and what we’re trying to do now is expand on that and let people know what we’re about. We see the opening of the new store as a natural progression. The mail order business is strong, the outlets are established and we feel now is the time to take the brand forward and sell it to a new audience.
“We’ve been getting requests through from our mail order customers for years saying ‘Why don’t you open a store where we can come in and see your wares?’ Now, after years, the time’s right to do that.”
The opening signals the next phase in the company’s life, but perhaps also in Hamblin’s career. If the store takes off, more will follow, and Hamblin will see himself responsible for marketing a leisurewear company with a growing public face. In several senses his role, along with the company started by two rugby players, is set to face its toughest test yet.