Q&A with Mark Holland
Mark, the son of Malcolm Holland, co founder of Hollands Country Clothing, and uncle to Matthew, Sarah and Robert, recounts stories of Gucci, Luck Money & the Peak District...
Q: How does Hollands Country Clothing strike a balance between catering to diverse tastes and focusing on unique market niches? Can you give us insights into your product range and the qualities that set you apart from mainstream options?
A: You are probably aware that we have a background in farming, the family hanging around for a century or two on the eastern edge of rural Cheshire in the foothills of the Peak District, just where the land gets difficult.
But equally we exist on the edge of the Manchester conurbation, and to be part the British country side does not mean you have to be a farmer – our modern green and pleasant land has a lot more to it than shearing sheep and milking cows. The countryside, with all its different aspects, belongs to everybody, with all their different aspects.
Indeed, I’d like to think that anyone who finds themselves standing in a puddle looking at view while the heavens open above them could be our customer.
So why is what we sell any different from any other kind of clothing?
Well, if you think about it, true country clothing is a little bit special – it has that little something you just don’t see in high street shops, there’s a particular look, a certain style to it, and of course there’s always the underlying thread of having to be good value for money. You don’t afterall see a lot of Gucci and Armani in the Peak district.
For country clothing there are no strict rules, but when it’s right it’s right. Some of the brands we stock might seem a little obscure at first glance, but to those in the know they are respected as being ‘good kit’. And in truth, being ‘good kit’ is about the best compliment you can pay to anything we stock.
Q: How has your background in farming influenced the types of products you offer? Could you highlight a few products that are unique to farmers?
A: If you have studied our website closely you may have thought it looks a bit more ‘farmy’ than some of our rivals’ – which clearly has something to do with where we started, namely selling wellies and wax coats at Chelford Agricultural Market in the dim and distant past (the market is now a housing estate , but that is another story).
It seems to me that if you come from a long line of farmers and deal with them every day for many years, you form a good idea of what they are looking for in what they wear. And it mostly seems to have a lot to do with being ‘up to the job’. And of course, ‘not costing the earth’.
Although it does have to look right too, something that will not be acknowledged but simply understood. I once purchased a job lot of wellingtons that were slightly too bright a shade of green thinking that the very reasonable price would offset the unusual colour. It did not. The wellingtons would not sell at any price, I believe I still have some of them. Apparently, the cows will roll their eyes if you don’t get your wellies right…
Oh, and course, let us not forget, crucial to any sale, in the days of face to face selling, the question of ‘luck money’ – not something our present website can accommodate – you can imagine the chaos on the checkout page.
If you want to name the defining farmer’s product must be the wellington – we now stock hundreds of different styles, but back in the 80’s we stocked two types, one at £10 (minus a quid when you get your luck money), and one at £20 (you are obviously too rich to be a proper farmer and know to don’t ask for luck money). These days we have wellies in every conceivable colour with buckles, zips, straps and more, although we have yet to have a pair with bells on.
After wellies it would be the wax coat. I’m old enough to remember the wax cotton coat boom of the mid 1980’s when everybody suddenly had to have one. This traditionally well worn and rather smelly garment suddenly became the height of fashion – something to do with the Sloane Rangers craze I believe. Of course, it all ran out of steam eventually, but I do remember before the boom selling genuine Belstaff jackets for less than £50 for people to work in, and by work I mean actual manual labour, not fiddling on a iPhone. Obviously things have moved on since then.
Q: Online shopping has evolved significantly since you launched your first website. How has Hollands Country Clothing adapted to this change in e-commerce, providing an engaging experience for customers?
A: Launching a website was a game changer for us. I originally hoped that online sales in a year might equal what we took at a good country show in a weekend. But it rapidly far surpassed my expectations, the website would beat the best country show not in a year, but in a day, and every day, day after day.
You have to remember our first website was pretty ramshackle, constructed with handwritten HTML ( the coding equivalent of paper and string) , but then all websites were – who remembers the distinctly homemade look of the original Amazon?
Obviously things have moved on, even average websites seem pretty slick these days. But the fundamentals stay the same, you can’t beat a good picture of the product (a picture paints a thousand words), the description needs to be accurate (surprisingly difficult to achieve!), sizing information is essential (nothing is more disappointing than when the parcel arrives and the item doesn’t fit), and perhaps most importantly, if all else fails, there must be a phone line to ring and somebody to speak to, somebody who understands your needs and can help you. In the end a website is only as good as the customer service behind it.
Q: Navigating challenges is part of any journey. What was the biggest obstacle the business has faced? How did you tackle it while continuing to bring the best country clothing collections to your customers?
A: Over the years the biggest obstacle the business has faced is scaling itself. When you go from packing every parcel yourself on the kitchen table to seeing ten or so people busily swiping away with some form of electronic device at a custom built packing station, it may not seem a huge difference but it is in reality a quantum leap.
To go from kitchen table to packing station in ten years is the result of a lot of hard work and not a little inspiration across the whole of the business. I sometimes liken it to going from haymaking with horses and carts to haymaking with tractors and bailers.
Going forward, I see the biggest problem as being one of focus. How does a business stay true to its roots when you no longer answer the customer service phone yourself, you no longer pack the parcels and open the returns?
It’s easy to lose touch with what initially made the business successful – that being our relationship with the customer. But I am happy to say that there is a new generation of Hollands who are eager to take up the challenge, they are essentially the equivalent of ‘good kit’ and I believe more than ‘up to the job’.