the Priory // a lifestyle or brand // reflections with Vince Clarke
Vince Clarke founded the Priory in 2012 with a modest ambition, a small shop in a coastal town. It's aim, to be a business which offered flexibility and an income to support his growing family. What it became was something else, it surpassed any ideas of what it might be and became a celebrated brand and community.
In this three-part piece Vince narrates his own story from there to here.
‘We closed the store, maybe now six weeks ago. It was for two reasons really, the first main factor was what was going on with the town [Bridlington], our instore business went from about £700 000 to around £400 000 a year, local authority infrastructure works made access to the Priory really difficult over an extended period and secondarily for logistical reasons.
‘So, we’re now part of a bigger organisation called Internet Fusion and our biggest platform, which they bought just after the Priory, is Surfdome. Surfdome have always been very big on sustainability. This whole sustainability thing I’d never been educated enough on, that would be the right answer. Never cared enough about it really is the true answer. As I’ve got a bit older, in the last two or three years, it’s something I’ve become really conscious of. Now we’re part of a group where it’s the centre of everything they do. I mean you can have a look on Surfdome’s YouTube channel, on their you can see some of the stuff there doing. We had a brand day the other week where we specifically talked about plastics and the way in which goods are coming into our business and the way we’re fulfilling goods to the customer. There’s so much packaging and crap around products that nobody even wants, so you get it as a consumer and you don’t want it. That’s the exciting thing for the Priory now. It’s sad that we’ve lost the retail stores, but we’re now part of a bigger group where there’s [are] economies of scale. We’ve never been more prominent and visual from an online perspective.
‘From a sustainability point of view the wider group is great, we run the second most sustainable distribution house in the country, we use a grey water system, all our electric is from Solar PV, it has a heat retention system and a zero to landfill policy, which is incredible. To have a business that as a group turns over something in the region of £125 million a year and nothing’s going in landfill. The disposal of plastics is on every business’s tongue, whether that’s because they truly believe in it, like it’s in their DNA, (like it was with Surfdome) or not. For a Surf retailer plastic in the ocean is a massive issue because their customers care about it.
‘Back with the Priory, for me what made it such a success was one hundred percent identity. We created a brand. We created a language, both visual and written. Continuity with that is now the challenge, we wanna carry on from an online and social perspective. I think if we didn’t build those foundations and stay true to who we are along the way, the message would have become very lost. Ultimately I think the business was built around family. Most people started with us when they were young. It’s incredible how people have grown with the business, they’ve grown as individuals, doing what they’ve always done but they’ve grown and developed. Comes back to identity and personality, which are the two big things for me.
‘Under the new business, I oversee everything with a Priory perspective, but my main role now is as the brand development manager. I look at things across a brand and category level across all our areas. At the minute it’s a hybrid role between… I still do an element of buying, going onto next year I’ll properly be looking at 20 brands, but I’ll be looking at them across the group. I mean we’ve got retailers from with a pretty even gender split, outdoor retailers like Country Attire, then we’ve got Surfdome. So, you’ve got brands like NorthFace and I’ll look after that from a consumer and segmentation base across six websites that are very, very different. I think my strength is… I don’t mind looking at spreadsheets and what not, but I’d much rather be looking for products. I much prefer trying to understand what we’re doing from a direction and consumer stand point.
‘Internet Fusion as a story is a completely different thing. So basically they were three young lads, it’s almost like a Silicon Valley story. So yeah, they were three young lads at Bradford University who imported two or three scooters from China (I think), listed them on a website and sold them, bought a few more and sold them. They started when the scooter boom was the first time around.They used to have the stock in the dorms, and yeah, like I say InternetFusion now about £125 million.
‘Looking back I would do it again, absolutely. Weirdly sat here today without a little bit of a burden of running the retail stores it definitely now feels easier on me. I would encourage anyone thinking about going into retail to think long and hard about it. It’s really, really difficult. If we’d done what
we’ve done over the last seven years, ten years earlier we’d be incredibly wealthy because it was a lot, lot easier. It was difficult, but it made us perform to the standard which we did. Without a doubt, we’d be sat round a very big table today if we had started earlier. I one hundred percent believe that.
‘At the moment within fashion you’ve almost got… it feels like the industry is shrinking, there [are] more brands than ever before, there [are] fewer retailers than ever before but the retailers there are, are bigger than ever before. Also compounding those three aspects you’ve got brands now that have e-commerce people who used to work for an e-commerce business like ASOS. Let's say they go work for... Dr Martens. They're going ‘we can show you guys how to sell to the customer’, so you’re not buying from the Priory which is buying from Dr Martens, you’re buying direct from Dr Martens.
‘There will always be room for multiband retailers, but it’ll only be the best ones. It’ll either be the best ones for user experience, main stream retailers or uber cool ones with access to great products. Any of the wishy-washy ones around the middle without the scale it’s gonna be really, really, tough. Really, really, tough. That’s how businesses have to evolve, they’ve got to talk openly and honestly. When Internet Fusion approached me about buying the business there was nothing in the last five or six years which made me feel that the next five or six years would be any easier. So, it was like, I think we’ve got to do it. That’s how we reached that decision. We could see the change in the market place. My gut feeling is that in five, maybe ten, years time, of course there’ll be Amazon, there’ll be ASOS, there’ll be End Clothing, JD Sports, Sports Direct. I mean Sports Direct already own Flannels, Cruise, Van Mildert. So you’ve got these really good retailers, I mean, most people wouldn’t know if you went into Flannels and saw all this luxury clothing, high end brands, like Gucci, X Y Z that actually if they took the time to read the bank statement, that the £700 they’d spent on those Gucci slippers, they’d spent at Sports Direct. That’s where it gets a little bit scary now and we’re part of that.
‘The reason that we went with Internet Fusion was because as much as we wanted to work with a business that would give us the logistical power we also didn’t want to stifle everything we are about. There are other businesses I know which have been bought by bigger businesses and its stalled what they were trying to do. It’s not been easy, even from a Priory perspective, I mean let’s say we get a delivery from a small-scale brand which is super cool, and we need to get it online quick and the box comes into the warehouse, there’s no swing tickets on it, there’s no bar codes and its not been booked in, then, 25 pallets of North Face turn up and there’s ten different, well selling products there, which one are they gonna check in first, obviously the North Face gear. That’s where it’s been particularly challenging for the Priory. We’re a smaller website which is part of much bigger group. Sometimes, because of what we’re trying to achieve on the group level you have to have priorities.
‘For me, personally I don’t think the Priory has ever been better than it is now. One thing we’ve really trying to do is… we’ve got to keep that… we’ve got to stay real. That’s always been paramount to the business, that we feel real. We should still feel real going forward.’