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How Javelin is still in fashion after 30 years in Bury St Edmunds

Changing shopping habits; Chain shops gaining power; Independent retailers being squeezed out. Life was tough for high street shop owners in 1989.

The year the Berlin Wall fell was also the year Jeremy Clayton took on the running of Bury St Edmunds staple Javelin – which he still leads with his wife Joanna.

Now, with the business celebrating its 30th birthday on Abbeygate Street, the owner is well placed to provide some insight on high street trends for our latest Love Local feature – a series celebrating Bury’s retailers.

Javelin turns 30 in 2019
Javelin turns 30 in 2019

Javelin is so well established as a leading seller of men’s and women’s clothing that it might surprise a few shoppers to learn it started as a sports shop.

Jeremy’s grandfather set up shop in 1953, and by the time his son (Jeremy’s father) took over it had shifted from a country sports shop into a mainstream seller.

“It was getting harder,” said Jeremy, on trading conditions in 1987, the year he came on board.

“The trade was getting tough for independent retailers as there was a rise in multisport retailers like JJB.”

Back then, Javelin was operating from The Traverse, and it was Jeremy’s decision to move to the 14th century Abbeygate premises, which he has since expanded.

His advice to anyone starting out would be to “have a clear idea of what you are looking to sell”.

“You have to give yourself the best opportunity for presence on the high street,” the 53-year-old said.

“You have to be excited about the product. You have to know the product and the customer base.”

He says Javelin has never been about high-end fashion and has always been more affordable.

The shop attracts a broad demographic from teenagers all the way through to customers in their 60s and 70s. It’s not unusual for three generations from one family to come into the shop at the same time.

“Online is so convenient, so we have to offer an experience that would make people want to make the effort to come into town rather than buy over a computer."
Jeremy Clayton - Owner, Javelin

Jeremy says that making changes to enhance the shop has been key to its continued success over three decades.

“I think our longevity comes from being local and knowing our customer needs.

“We have evolved from the original sports business when that was struggling.

“There are always challenges around the corner. There has been that evolution and we have brought out staff with us along the way.”

In 1999, a second Javelin outlet opened in Sudbury and the business now has around 40 staff on its books. A third branch was added in Cambridge in the late 1990s, but high rents and high street challenges led to him closing to prioritise on Bury after nine years.

The latest step in the shop’s evolution has been opening another level of shop floor beneath the ground. Managers have converted the shop’s 14th century cellars to become a menswear department – which opened last week. Extra space has allowed the creation of a lifestyle and gift area in the entrance.

“The project is part of that evolving and expansion,” Jeremy said. “We are doing it to enhance our customer base. We have always prided ourselves on customer service and we give an individual experience as well.”

For a company with an eye on the future, it is interesting to hear the majority of Javelin’s sales come from ‘bricks and mortar’ – proving that the traditional model is still workable in 2019. Jeremy feels that keeping up with the trends, engaging with customers in-store and working hard to select the right products is as important as ever.

“Online is so convenient, so we have to offer an experience that would make people want to make the effort to come into town rather than buy over a computer.

“The online will never eclipse the physical because people will always want to see a product and experience the service that goes along with that.”

Jeremy adds: “Retail is the ultimate in multi-tasking. There are digital challenges, merchandising and all the traditional challenges.

“Social media has changed everything, and Instagram is transforming fashion.

“The celebrity culture is what we wear now.

“The mistake a lot of brands make is doing the same thing twice, because something worked one year, they try again. But you can’t do that. You have to take risks.”

Over the course of our series
of Love Local features, retail insiders have put forward suggestions and ideas of what can be done to help the high street in a time when it faces unprecedented challenges.

But while some have spoken about tough times for the trade, Jeremy feels there is as much scope for opportunity – as consumer habits change.

“I am a lot more optimistic now than I was about the future of retail,” he said.

“The consumer is getting tired of the ubiquitous high street model and there will be more opportunities now for independent fashion retailers.

“It will evolve into something that is different. It will look different to a trader. It may be smaller, but it will be exciting.

“People will still come to an attractive high street to see interesting shops and cafes.

“It will get stronger. I think St John’s Street is great, and is almost the blueprint for how things will develop.”

Jeremy is already the third generation in his family to have taken on Javelin. The natural question to ask is whether his daughters, who are 15 and 12, would want to carry it on.

“I’m not sure,” he laughs, “but we will see.”