Independents and inflation: Just Around the Corner returns to Manchester in support of the north
In a setting where the buying season is largely centred around the south of the country, Just Around the Corner (JATC) is looking to continue switching up the environment in order to allow for more accessibility for small-scale independents and local retailers. The trade show returned to Manchester, its northern hub, for the AW23 edition, hosting the event over January 19 and 20, dates specifically set earlier in the buying season in line with exhibitor feedback from last year.
Now in its third round in the city, the relatively fresh event is beginning to make some headway in cementing its place in the industry. For one, the company has updated its venue, moving to Manchester’s Central Convention Centre, a large-scale industrial building located between the city’s main train stations. The upsized environment allowed for stands to be doubled in size, opening up the space for bigger collections and in turn more exposure. Compared to last season’s initial leakage and lighting issues, the location was a professional step up for JATC, with its founder Juls Dawson stating that the venue and its team enabled them to focus on other aspects of the event.
Despite the positive outlook for the venue, the weather still had some impact on visitor numbers. Snowy weather took hold of the north of England Thursday morning, halting travel across most of the country, which was reflected in attendance numbers during the beginning of the first day. On clearing up, however, things started to slowly get moving, particularly in womenswear, where a positive attitude remained throughout.
Traffic People, which attended the fair last season, had a regular flow of customers sifting in and out of its booth over both days, drawn particularly to its collection of velvet pieces and separates. Existing customers made up most of the orders, with both physical and online retailers present during the event. Speaking to FashionUnited, a representative of the brand stated: “We’ve had a good season. And we were surprised as a lot of the retailers coming on also said they had a good season. We were expecting it to be tough.” The Manchester-based company also expressed their satisfaction with the convenient location. “We have been looking for a Manchester event for years, and we really believe in supporting it.”
Other brands in the division also praised the event for prioritising a laid back atmosphere that still centred around an order writing environment. This was boosted by the introduction of a new order writing incentive that exhibitors could opt to participate in, something many buyers were said to have taken advantage of. Independents were in abundance during the event too, with the base drawing in a wide range from across the north and Scotland. Among them were Harrogate-based Porters, Newcastle’s Airport Retail Group, Durham’s Urban Surfer, Rosy Penguin from Edinburgh and Spiders from Whitby. Meanwhile, the likes of Next, Very, Get the Label and M and M were among the key accounts.
Like last year, menswear suffered a lack of attendance
Menswear suffered a slower build up, similar to that of the category’s steady pace during the SS23 season. While the section did offer up a good overview of the current menswear market, featuring everything from sportswear to more formal brands, like last year, the division was smaller than womenswear and some exhibitor’s continued to state that the dates were still too late, despite the change in time. A handful of brands noted they were already preparing to close their books once the event wrapped.
Sportswear and lifestyle brand Nicce was among those that this rang true for. The label set out on a mission to attract more independents, a goal it did manage to achieve. The brand is set to close up its buying season soon, after already having opened it in early December. However, senior account manager Chloe Edwards noted that, as their focus on independents was key in their approach, this factor did not have an impact on the brand’s success at the event, as independent’s were currently more flexible in their buying schedules compared to that of larger retailers, which are more likely to purchase during a shorter time period.
Edwards continued: “It’s nice to see some more northern brands because for us, as an east London brand, it can be hard to get that northern visibility. We are really trying to expand our distribution outside of London. In the morning, we had three or four accounts signing on with us, but I think it is also a really good networking event. We have been talking to other distributors so it's good to gain an understanding of what is going on in the market at the moment.”
Swanndri was another brand for which the event appeared slightly too late in the season. The New Zealand-based outerwear brand is currently attempting to crack the UK market, where it has only been operating for a few years and is positioned within the more traditional marketplace segments of outdoor leisure and countrywear. As a small brand, however, JATC provided a perfect, no-frills approach to showing that was accessible in terms of price and set up, two factors that were important to a brand trying to enter or grow in the region.
The brand’s UK sales agent Ben Trueman was not entirely surprised by the lack of turnout. Speaking to FashionUnited, Trueman said: “Some things just go either way, with factors that are completely outside people’s control. Maybe there was too little of a window from when the event was announced to when tickets and details were released, so we couldn’t prepare as much. Also a lot of our outdoor customers are finished, they run much earlier anyway. A northern based trade show is a good idea though, it's a great concept.”
Inflation, Brexit and pandemic defined underlying conversation
The state of the UK’s current economy was something that could not be ignored this season and seemed to have had an impact on retailers and exhibiting brands alike. Many representatives recognised that the possible lack in attendees could be attributed independent’s simply not being in the position to make the trip to trade shows. Zubair Mal, VP group sales for BBBGroup UK, which presented global sportswear brands Fila and Sergio Tacchini at the event, noted that, in light of the economic climate, independent retailers are being forced to cut costs in almost all areas of their business. This has ultimately resulted in a more cost effective approach to buying, as well as cutting down on their own teams, leaving them with limited flexibility to attend events during the week.
Mal did note, however, that with the varying concerns retailers have faced over recent years, pre-covid and post-covid, retailers who changed up their approach came out on top. “Everyone says it’s difficult, but this period weeded out the strugglers in some ways,” Mal said. “Those people who brought their business to the modern generation, and incorporated social media for example, started to see an increase in sales because of that. It’s just sustaining that for them at this point, whether that be closing down one or two stores, or moving online.”
Brands respond by adjusting their strategies
While it can’t be denied that prices due to both Brexit and inflation have indeed shot up, many customers are often unaware of the cause and effect such a shift has had on retailers and brands alike. This was the sentiment noted by Sue Grimsdell, a sales agent at Fashion Theatre, which represented the brand Black Colour. The Danish label was among those exhibiting at the event for the first time, a far cry from its usual stomping ground of Copenhagen’s Revolver trade fair, which it is a regular attendee of. Now the company is trying to tackle the north of England, after initially taking a fairly London-centric approach to the buying season. Like others, rising costs are lurking in the back of the brand’s mind, yet the current environment hasn’t damped the spirits.
Grimsdell noted: “It’s really important that shows outside of London are supported. It’s tricky though, because it’s about reigning in, trying to be mindful of expenses – whether you're a buyer or someone presenting. However, post-pandemic, a glorious plus was that so many people started thinking more carefully about their local High Street and why they appreciated it. In fact, so many independents did really well in this time.”
A similarly positive mindset was adopted by Level One Showroom director David Smith, who exhibited five of the 14 brands the firm represents, occupying a large part of the womenswear section. With each brand offering up different price points for alternating target groups, the section proved to be a popular one, appealing to a wide number of visiting buyers. “In spite of lower attendance, we’ve been steady the whole time,” Smith noted. “We had a few lulls on the first day, but we have opened new accounts on every single brand. I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t say that they would wish it was a bit busier, but it’s great to provide some quality to visitors. Unlike other trade shows, this is more like a showroom setting, but with a good flow of customers coming through. It’s also mostly been independents, which is what we wanted.”
In response to covid and Brexit, the company doubled down on its distribution approach to supply, operating all the imports and hassle of its brands, meaning its customers don’t have to pay duty. In the end, the period ended up being a lucrative one for the London-based business, which further backed up its efforts by hosting its own regional events, such as pop-ups in the likes of Bristol and Edinburgh. Smith noted: “There’s no doubt there have been some blips last autumn, but as I say: you can’t tell if you haven’t bought it. Some people have come in with the approach that they want to freshen things up, rather than jump in and pretend things aren’t happening. We have had a lot of barriers, but most of my customers ended the season relatively well and are experiencing a reasonable January. We have also seen some new businesses, so people aren’t scared of coming into the industry.”
Founder and organiser Juls Dawson also recognised the difficulties faced by both retailers and exhibitors. Speaking to FashionUnited, he said: “I think budgets are tighter than ever, everyone’s battening down the hatches expecting a challenging year. But all the more reason for careful buying and trying to offer something different to the competition. Hopefully from an exhibitor perspective, we can deliver a return on their investment, because at the end of the day, shows are about seeing new customers, existing customers, writing orders and finding new business as well.”
On to London and future shows
While many factors may have contributed to the turnout, one thing was for sure, the backing of a northern event remained a consistent attitude throughout. Every exhibitor expressed a willingness to support the show and hoped that JATC would keep coming back to the location in an increasingly developed format. Dawson was particularly pleased with this feedback, commenting: “There is no doubt people love what we do, from all the added extras of complimentary food and coffee, to the relaxed approach. And I’ve got a great team, which always gets compliments. We’ve got an independent vibe, we’re not a big corporate trade show or events company. We are just trying to give the independents and buyers what they have been asking for – a northern trade show – and we were happy to oblige.”
Now the company is setting its sights on the upcoming London event, which is set to take place from February 8 to 9, in its homebase of the Truman Brewery, albeit in a similarly upsized format. For this season, the show is sold out, meaning Dawson’s outlook is positive as he goes into the coming weeks. A notable addition to the occasion is the expansion of its lifestyle and beauty section, where around 20 brands will be exhibited. “The market for lifestyle and beauty are keen to get in front of a new audience to what their existing trade show calendar enables them to do, because not all fashion buyers will go to these types of events,” Dawson stated. “Like what we have done for the fashion sector, we are offering a new type of event. We are not traditional stand builds or conference centres.”
In terms of next season, Dawson said the company has pencilled in some dates for July, a month ahead of its previous August dates as he recognised that the late schedule had impacted attendance last year. While he couldn’t share exactly what will be brought to the shows for SS24, he did state: “If lifestyle and beauty proves to be successful, we’ll roll it out to Manchester for next season.”