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Maureen Cookson closes shop after 40 year of business
By Bira

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Last September, after 40 years in the business, Hilary Cookson closed Maureen Cookson, the award-winning womenswear shop her mother had established in 1956. Here she reflects on that momentous decision.

Some months ago I wrote an article about the move towards closing my fashion shop, Maureen Cookson of Whalley in Lancashire. It was an iconic store founded by my mother in 1956. A survivor of several recessions, dips and challenges, it became a victim to a lack of succession, bank personal guarantees and the demise of my own local high street.

I approached a company that specialises in Closing Down Sales, but I didn’t progress that any further when I learned they charged 11% of all takings. When I asked what we got for that, it seemed to be advertising and a database. Well, we had those already, so I chose to ignore GDPR, working on the principle I needed everyone on my database to hear the news (and then sign up).

Thus we built a campaign of media, radio and leaflets advertising my Retirement Sale. There was a phone-in programme on the local radio for customers to tell the stories of their visits. I had a whole radio prog to myself to talk about the history of the shop. The local rag ran a front-page feature, free of charge, the week of the sale. We maxxed out on social media.

I wanted it to be a great story, but more than that I wanted free advertising to bring those customers in one last time. The last day, 29 September, was a party day. We served champagne throughout and I can only describe it as the nearest thing to attending my own funeral, complete with floral arrangements, letters and cards from folk who wished us all well. We ramped up the music and ended up selling everything off for £10 a garment. From 11,000 sq ft of retail space, we were left with one rail of garments, which went off to a charity.
All credit to my staff who were at the coal face all day as customers lamented our demise and speculated where they were going to go now for clothes and shoes. Our stock answer to many was: “Wherever you’ve been going for the past five years.”

Those who had been in business locally, or still are, shook me by the hand and looked me in the eye, saying, “Good for you.” They understand the pain of standing still and better still understand the hardest decision is when to say “Enough”.

Getting out was very complicated, not least with 35 staff who we worked out had over 400 years of service. Several are over retirement age, so their pay-out was a welcome end to a career. Some wanted to carry on working. All were placed immediately with long service at Maureen Cookson being an automatic reference.

Me? Well, I am still working through accountants and advisors and closing things down. No delegation on tasks now. I have had to learn all the things I had staff to do historically! Every day is still a school day. I am hoping to walk away with nothing – and trust me, that would be a great outcome. Personal guarantees and the loans I have taken out to reinvent the business over the past five years need to be paid. My sympathies are with House of Fraser and Debenhams when the experts say they need to create theatre and invest in refits. We did all that, in our own small way, but you have to pay it back, folks.

What next? My financial advisor has assured me I can retire well for around half an hour. I don’t want to start to draw my pension, so having thought in the past year that my ambition had evaporated, I find I am starting to get my head back over the parapet. I am looking to see who might want some part-time, eager, retail-loving input from a serial shopkeeper.

I haven’t once looked back or regretted my decision to work in retail over the past 40 years. Nor have I thought it was the wrong time to get out. Certainly, I feel sure it’s the right time to get back in again, but this time all I want is to leave work and go home and drink that glass of wine socially and not because it’s my only friend at the end of a very tough day.

Posted by Maureen Cookson on Wednesday, 19 September 2018

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