Discounting, pricing and sales are causing headaches for the travel industry and retailers no matter which sector you are in. Just look at the Black Friday phenomenon that crossed from the US to the UK earlier this month, causing fights and havoc in supermarkets and online. But for businesses like outlet shopping village Kilver Court, it’s serious business. Well it is their business.
When I arrived at the shopping outlet in mid-November it was a few days before one of its sales. Nine brands were offering up to 80% during the weekend. It’s a logistical nightmare for the small town of Shepton Mallet where the outlet is situated, and on that rainy Monday it was hands-on to ensure the space was ready for the thousands that flock to source out their bargains.
While this concentrated month is one of the busiest in volumes, Kilver Court has been building its reputation as a shopping destination, helped along by its Mulberry connections. Not only is a Mulberry outlet based just next door but it’s the brand’s founder Roger Saul that set up Kilver Court and it’s very much a family affair when I meet with his wife Monty and son Freddie.
The site is a former wool and lace mill with many of its original features still apparent as you walk around. The Saul family took over in 2008 and expanded in 2011, recognising that they had a catchment of affluent West England-based customers that had nowhere to find discounted premium brands. Freddie tells me it has not always been easy to get brands on board, but there are big names here including Jack Wills, Hawick, Pringle, Paul Smith and the Duchess’ favourite LK Bennett. Despite acting as different stores or concessions the outlet feels like one large shop and it’s the perfect way to spend a rainy day getting lost looking around.
There’s also a quaint café that’s been expanded due to its popularity, and stunning gardens which have previously hosted performances in conjunction with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. The main house and buildings are all former homes and recreation rooms of those who worked for Ernest Jardine. Similarly to Bourneville in Birmingham, Kilver Court was Jardine’s space to look after his 128 employees. The gardens were later modelled on a Chelsea Flower Show garden seen in the early 1960s and also includes the viaduct, which serve as the backdrop to its wedding room. Kilver Court currently hosts 30 weddings a year but is looking to do more. Plus with so many other buildings and space still untouched, it has potential to turn into more than a shopping outlet. “A hotel could come later on, we’ve certainly thought about it,” Freddie tells me.
Later ex-Dior model Monty Saul says a hotel addition would make sense. “When people get married here they would often like accommodation too, and it would allow us to make up more packages geared towards our shopping weekends too.” The couple have experience in hospitality too, previously running the Charlton House hotel. “We learnt a lot of lessons with our previous hotel, it was a romantic buy and mainly a space to promote the Mulberry Home Collection,” she says. “We’d certainly consider our experiences with the previous hotel to any rooms that we open here, perhaps in the higher levels of the buildings where retailers are not so keen to have space [being further for people to get to].”
It’s the combination of the shopping, events and hotel element that I think holds the most potential for Kilver Court. It’s early days for the site yet but for city dwellers the concept of everything on-site in such a rural location will add appeal. It’s already attracting thousands each year for its discounted goods. For the two days I’m in Somerset I hear tales of shoppers arriving from London in the morning, heading to Kilver Court for a spree or special gift then catching a train back in time so the other half thinks you’ve just been at work all day. More foreign businessmen and tourists are also finding their way to the area hunting out the British brands and authentic feel.
Bath: The stylish city accompaniment
Visiting the area to shop is certainly not new with a city like Bath nearby too. Bath Tourism Plus’ marketing manager David Jackson told me shopping has been a focus for its campaigns and has developed a stylish and aspirational image that causes millions to visit each year. Another shopping phenomenon, the 13th annual Christmas Market, brings in 300,000 people alone.
“Generally the retail businesses here have had a buoyant few years and the number of vacant units is significantly lower compared to other cities. Some brands are even coming here that do not have any other outlet outside of London,” Jackson said. “The Christmas market adds another dimension and is expected to bring 300,000 people alone over the 18 days. It generates £36 million for the local economy and only £10m of that is on the market itself, the rest is going to restaurants, attractions and hotels.”
He adds Kilver Court complements the city with its premium offering, and the pair are working together to crack the Chinese market. Value Retail, which owns Bicester Village and other shopping outlets across Europe, has been particularly successful in packaging up trips to its villages for the Far East and Middle East markets. Between January and September this year China represented 43% of all tax-refunded sales at its villages, up 25% year-on-year.
Premium travel is also a trend that is growing in Bath when it comes to groups of women travelling together. Groups will often book their own house, spend in the shops and enjoy the city’s spa destination reputation with their own private chefs and bespoke elements. Hotels are also being updated with millions spend on accommodation in recent years. The highly-anticipated opening of The Gainsborough hotel next spring will also boost the premium offering. The five-star hotel will be the only hotel in the world that will offer natural thermal waters from the city’s famous spring, and as part of Leading Hotels will have an international appeal.
Plus if your customers are willing to fly half way around the world for a four-night spending splurge in New York to get deals for Christmas, then they will just as likely love a cosy trip to Somerset where minimal mobile reception is a welcome break and your only concern is which dress to buy, or both.
Somerset for foodies and the younger crowd
The Sauls spotted an opportunity to target affluent local residents but those looking for a girls’ weekend away, food lovers or even the hipster crowd can find their place among the fields and small towns.
Soho House’s Babington House was name-checked by Freddie Saul for helping the area become trendier and has sparked the opening of contemporary restaurants and pop-up cinemas.
Somerset is also home to some of the UK’s best food produce, well in my opinion you can’t get much better than cheese and cider. Although sadly you can’t visit them, the Shepton Mallet Cider Mill and Babycham factories are right opposite Kilver Court, but who knows if this could change if the development carries on going up.
Stay where Beyonce does when she’s in town
Somerset has no shortage of accommodation options particularly when it comes to grandeur and comfort.
If you want to follow in Beyonce’s footsteps, then book clients into Ston Easton Park, where the popstar stayed when she played Glastonbury in 2011.
It’s immediately homely when you walk in the door even with its impressive front and approach, and I had no problem sinking into the large sofa into the lounge to catch up on emails and sip a Baileys next to the roaring fire.
I didn’t have time but also would have loved to have taken the resident dog Charlie on a walk around the grounds to work off the gorgeous meal I’d eaten in The Sorrell Restaurant, said to be one of the best in Bath.
The four-star country house hotel was previously under the Von Essen collection but is now owned by Dragon’s Den’s James Caan. Room rates start from £146 per night.