South East Workwear has bucked the trend by expanding its retail shop and seeing a 500% increase in footfall. Mark Ludmon went to Abingdon to see how Adrian Burton and his team have managed to succeed when so many high street shops are failing

When I meet Adrian Burton in South East Workwear’s shiny new premises in Abingdon in Oxfordshire, he and his team are recovering after a manic few months. Since the start of this year they have expanded into a much bigger site including a stylish shop, invested in a new IT system and website, taken on more staff, and increased business. “We did it all together at the same time,” Adrian says. “I’m absolutely shattered at the moment.”

The family-run firm is entering an exciting new phase after 25 years as a distributor of workwear. Adrian’s dad, Keith, who previously started out selling tools from a van, founded the firm in the mid-80s. His customers also asked him for workwear and safety gear and, by 1994, this demand far outstripped the tools sales, so South East Workwear was born. Adrian himself has been involved in decorating since 2002 when he started printing garments from his garage at home alongside his day job as an electrician. With financial support from his father-in-law Peter Jamieson, he switched to doing it full-time and invested in his first embroidery machine, taking on embroidery and garment printing that his dad had been outsourcing to other companies. In 2005, it made sense for father and son to join forces and they created the combined business as it is today.

Support from Dickies

Since the start, South East Workwear has been a distribution partner for workwear brand Dickies (or Clares Dickies, as it was still called back in 1994), supplying clothing, including footwear, for all kinds of jobs from builders and plumbers to grounds maintenance and hospitality. 

The new shop was made possible with financial support from Dickies, whose products take up much of the space alongside more recent additions to the portfolio, Helly Hansen and Scruffs. 

The shop has a wide range of workwear on display

South East Workwear had a shop in the same building before, but much smaller and with the embroidery equipment out front rather than located at the back as it is now. “In our old shop, it was like a builders’ merchants, everything stacked up in boxes, still in Cellophane, but this has really changed everything,” Adrian says. “We are trying to make it more of a retail experience. It’s such a nicer way of presenting it.” They have found that the more premium look means they can ask a better price for workwear from retail customers. It also brings in orders for the embroidery side of the business, Adrian points out. “As there is no minimum order, we can say to sole traders, ‘Why not put your own logo on a polo shirt?’”

Based for its first quarter century in old stables next door, the company is now all together within the neighbouring, more modern, Coxeters House. Its premises cover over 4,000 square feet, of which around 2,500 is retail and the rest production, compared to a total space of 1,900 square feet before. The workforce has grown from 12 to 16 over the past year, including a second sales person on the road alongside sales manager Matt Jones who has worked at the company for 10 years.

Out back, they have an eight-head Tajima embroidery machine and two SWF machines – one six-head, the other a dual function six-head – giving them 20 heads altogether. The business added two Epson SureColor SC-F2000 DTG printers two years ago and a Mimaki CJV150-107 printer/cutter in October last year. “We have gradually expanded as we have grown and invested as we need newer equipment to keep up with the latest processes,” Adrian adds. Investment has also been in IT, including a new order-processing system that not only automatically keeps track of all orders, but also offers a password-protected portal for customers. 

There are 20 embroidery heads in the production room

“We had a private website portal before but this is really easy to use,” Adrian says. “It gives us more stats, such as peak times in the shop, sales in different areas… It shows you the status of everything.” It also helps handle Amazon and eBay orders via the Shopify management system – a small but potentially time-consuming part of the business. Also new is an improved website at which features a full design system that anyone can use to design their own embroidered and printed clothing, running off the TradeGecko platform. “We are using every bit of technology now to bring the company forward,” Adrian adds.

Since the new shop and production space launched in February, business has been increasing all the time, Adrian says. “We are just exploding with work. Our [sales growth] target for last year was 10% but we ended up doing 25% and that was without advertising.” There has also been a 500% increase in footfall, which Adrian calls “bonkers”. Along with acquiring new customers, they are retaining existing ones, both regionally and nationally. Key accounts include Severn Trent Water, Oxford Instruments, local authorities and the NHS as well as every college at the University of Oxford – for both staff and students. It also provides customised clothing for sports and social clubs and sells uniforms for a local secondary school and 10 primaries – a small, supplementary part of the diverse business.

Targeting the skate scene

The latest innovation is a move into leisurewear. Some of the company’s high-quality workwear has always appealed for leisure pursuits such as fishing and walking, but the new shop is building on this by targeting skateboard enthusiasts with casual clothing, shoes and even skateboards from leading brand Globe.

With a big skatepark in Abingdon and no other retailers catering for this customer base, it is drawing people in, Adrian says. “We are starting to push it. Word is getting out.”

Skateboarders are part of South East Workwear’s new target market

The company’s move into leisurewear follows the arrival in the business of Adrian’s 22-year-old daughter, Jodie, in October last year. With a background in cosmetics sales, she has been instrumental in the new retail set-up as well as production and marketing. Adrian’s wife Viv has been on board since the garage days and now looks after the accounts and helps in production. Their youngest, Sam, aged 21, joined the business in production two years ago after doing an apprenticeship in engineering. While Keith has retired from the day-to-day running of the business, he is still involved and his wife Pat – also there since the start – continues to work three days a week. “It is a proper family-run, third-generation business so we are pretty proud of that,” Adrian says.

After this year’s developments, sales are currently split around 20% consumers and 80% trade, with garment decoration remaining the largest part of the business. With both sides growing, Adrian is committed to not chasing sales just on price. “There’s no point trying to compete on price: you are just buying business. There’s no margin for error. I just don’t want to get involved in that kind of work.” Instead, South East Workwear thrives on relationships with customers and Adrian’s expertise: he presents YouTube video series, Hammer and Togs, with carpenter Wayne Perrey, showcasing all kinds of new products from workwear to tools – filmed in a purpose-built studio at the family home.

Adrian may be shattered, but he still has a restless energy that suggests South East Workwear will not be standing still. “There’s an option for more space here which would allow us to expand the shop – I would like to try making it more like a department store – and to have a little bit more room for production,” he says. But, as the embroidery machines whirr in the background, he concedes that this may have to wait until next year.