Published: 11 May, 2006
Think of a store name that will have feminine appeal and the moniker Sweaty Betty does not perhaps spring readily to mind. Yet these are the words that greet shoppers frequenting a distinctly aspirational chain of activewear shops aimed solely at women. Simon Hill-Norton, joint founder and co-owner (with his wife Tamara) and the only man in this outfit run "by women for women," says that the name is clever: "It's a very ugly name, verbally, and it's extremely polarising between the sexes. Women get the joke, 90 per cent of men don't. Women do sweat when they exercise and this reflects this." The first store opened in 1998, in Notting Hill.
Eight years later and that store no longer exists and the centre of the Sweaty Betty universe is to be found on the Fulham Road in south-west London. Hill-Norton says that the 20-strong chain employs 140 people, full and part-time and that this is a retailer on a strong expansion push which has enjoyed very rapid growth almost since it started.
He is reticent about numbers, but points out that sales for the year that ended this March have come out at £8m: 64 per cent up on the previous year. The year preceding this saw growth of 86 per cent and Hill-Norton is confident that the pattern will continue during the remainder of 2006. All of this on the basis of one store that opened eight years ago with £50,000 borrowed by the Hill-Nortons from clearly affluent friends and a modest £10,000 loan from Barclays.
So what is it about these shops that enable them to grow at this sort of rate and equally what are its plans for the future?
Hill-Norton says: "We think that we're doing something completely new in the market. We don't use the word sport because that has competitive male connotations." It is however activewear and in practice this means four ranges are on offer: "sweat" (gym-wear), "yoga", "beach" and "snow". The shopfits are stylishly minimal and the pink and white shop-fronts and interiors provide the clue that this is a store that is really not for the fellows.
In location terms Sweaty Betty is a curious beast. Hill-Norton says: "We like to be secondary in prime locations and prime in secondary locations." This means that currently there are stores in towns and shopping centres as diverse as Bluewater, Guildford, Cardiff and Brighton, but all have in common a well-heeled catchment.
Bluewater is in fact something of a curiosity as, by any standards, taking a store in the centre involves being "prime in prime," as Hill-Norton puts it. The store in the Kent mega-mall opened last July and for Sweaty Betty it is still an experiment that needs to be proved one way or the other.
Hill-Norton says that it is unlikely that Sweaty Betty would become a mainstream mall operator as the customer base is probably not there. However, there are a number of locations that he does not rule out, and a concession recently opened in Selfridges at the Trafford Centre.
"Selfridges was just sensational. It's done better than anyone expected, including Selfridges, and it was this that gave us the courage to go into Bluewater," Hill-Norton says.
Brent Cross is mentioned as a possible location for another mall-based Sweaty Betty, although nothing has been agreed to date. The will to keep growing is there however. Sweaty Betty opened stores at the rate of one a month last year and five more are slated to welcome their first customers during the rest of 2006 if agents Briant Champion Long do their stuff.
By any standards this is a successful retailer, and if you can persuade Hill-Norton to join your party, then Sweaty Betty should prove a very popular guest.
=== Statistics ===
== Sweaty Betty: the low-down ==
First store opened: 14.11.1998
Joint founders: Tamara and Simon Hill-Norton
Number of stores: 20
Turnover for year to 03.06: £8m
Agent: Briant Champion Long