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Business Spotlight: Eric Spencer

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One particular clothing store in Ilkley has come a long way since its humble 1947 beginnings, but through an emphasis on attentive customer service and product excellence has built a well-respected reputation in the local area and beyond.

Over 70 years ago, founder Eric Spencer saw a gap in the market for high quality workwear and waterproof clothing for the farming industry local to the Yorkshire spa town. Starting out with a motorbike and sidecar, he visited various local suppliers to purchase cloth and other products, such as Hebden Bridge for the best corduroy and moleskin and Leeds for quality heavy-duty work boots, trousers and riding gear. He would then attend livestock markets where farmers gathered once a week to sell animals, taking further orders in the process.

As business increased, so did his transportation, with the motorbike and sidecar first replaced with a mini van and then later by an even larger cargo vehicle to carry increasingly more inventory. Well before the days of the highly competitive courier market choice we enjoy today, there was little other option than hopping in your car (or on your bike) and being a fully self-distributing operation.

“The internet poses a real, growing problem for high street businesses and we hope the general public don’t lose sight of the simple pleasure of a friendly human interaction.”

In the 1970s, a unit became available in the town centre and Spencer saw an opportunity. As current director Phil Atkinson tells us: “The retail unit enabled his growing business to offer the same high quality clothing to a much wider audience, away from the cattle markets and onto the high street.” Customers quickly recognised and appreciated the quality of the products and the unique customer service, and the business began to grow into the Eric Spencer that is more recognisable with local shoppers today.

“Eric’s son Ronnie continued to visit the auction markets until 2001”, says Phil. “But then the Foot & Mouth epidemic decimated the market business and so focus shifted not only to the retail outlet in Ilkley but the various rural shows and fairs up and down the country, which we still attend to this day with our mobile unit.” In the end, it took a national farming crisis to completely sever the Eric Spencer business from its original agricultural front line, but by this point its DNA had been set

Q: How would you describe the business in three words?

A: Experience, Service, Quality

As the times have changed, so have customer expectations: “Back in the 1950s, a buyer would have been happy to wait five weeks for a pair of trousers to be made, whereas we now live in a more instantaneous, immediate world where it’s anticipated that as a retailer, we automatically stock a wide range of sizes and options ready to take away the same day.” As our Amazon Prime-led purchasing ecosystem promotes the here-and-now as standard, not an exclusive, those behind Eric Spencer understand the obligation to not simply offer one or the other: “The ever-present demand for quality has always been there and we don’t believe that’s set to diminish in any way.” In a time where it’s tempting to ‘buy cheap (and quick), buy twice’, there does exist a sweet spot between quality and convenience.

Despite the emphasis on tradition and heritage steeped in agricultural durability, the business exists as much as an online retailer as it does a local shop, and its marketing strategy is as sensitive to the digital sphere as it is the face-to-face transaction. As Phil told us: “we use direct mail from our ever growing database of customers, supported by social media campaigns and targeted advertising. We also put the more familiar newspaper, radio or leaflet drop channels to some use to make sure we cover all our bases.”

“The ever-present demand for quality has always been there and we don’t believe that’s set to diminish in any way.”

The main long-term focus has always been to continually build a strong, loyal customer base built around putting Eric Spencer ‘front of mind’ when considering the type of products they sell. As any marketing strategy of value will show, it’s not only important to utilise a range of channels, but the right channel for the right customer.

But how do they know they’re on the right track? “Seeing customers return and stay with us is the only appreciation we need to know what we’re doing is worthwhile and well received”, states Phil, suggesting that the evergreen goals of brand loyalty, repeat custom and customer relationship building seem to be alive and well for the Eric Spencer team. In a time when loyalty is often as fleeting as the next seasonal sale or limited availability deal, customer retention can only be built around true relationships; something that a local seller with generations of experience can offer as an inclusive part of the experience.

Q: If you weren’t running your business, what would you be doing instead?

A: Cycling in the Tramontana mountains in Mallorca… Don’t get me started!

Telling us that it’s the emphasis on service, quality and experience that makes the seller stand out from the crowd, the store team also expressed some consternation over the way that the wide-open world of e-commerce can avert consumer’s gaze away from what is truly important: “As it stands, the internet poses a real, growing problem for high street businesses and while we have an e-commerce site to compete with general online shopping behaviours, we hope the general public don’t lose sight of the great products and services that sit on their doorsteps and around their local neighbourhoods, as well as the simple pleasure of a friendly human interaction that can only be experienced by paying us a visit.”

It could be said that online retailers only operating in the digital sphere miss out on that all-important opportunity to establish relationships through real life contact, rather than a chat bot assistant and 24-hour delay customer service email contact.

Although content with being situated in Ilkley, especially as it reinforces the tradition and heritage of the Eric Spencer brand, Phil wouldn’t discount a move to somewhere with higher footfall if there was a healthy return on the additional overhead. All things remaining the same, the staff believe that the spirit of Mr Spencer still runs through the business to this day. “His energy, enthusiasm and product knowledge was the best I’ve ever known, and he was a person who could probably adapt to any business trading environment, regardless of era. He’d be our ideal employee, in fact!”

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