Having spent 14 years achieving UK growth, Mr Simms Olde English Sweet Shoppe is quickly building a name for itself internationally
Remember the delight felt as a child when filling a bag with pick and mix? Times have changed as penny sweets went out the window to make way for big brands’ confectionery but that didn’t stop Martin Peet from bringing some much-needed nostalgia to high streets with Mr Simms Olde English Sweet Shoppe. “The queue was out the door,” he recalls of his first store opening in his hometown of Leek in 2004. And having expanded internationally he’s now seeing similar long lines overseas.
With Mr Simms, Peet was no stranger to business having bought his first newsagent at 21 and accumulated five sites over ten years. “I refitted them, refurbished them, relit them, remerchandised them and trebled the turnover,” he recalls. However, a bad lease left Peet starting over as an employee in retail, putting his skills to good use as a sales director.
Peet eventually called it a day on employment and found himself salivating over the sweets sector, well aware how popular pick and mix was from his newsagent days. “I felt big brands had taken away choice on products, which left some of the small manufacturers losing out,” he says. Conducting four months of market research, during which he discovered his great-grandfather was a confectionery manufacturer, Peet built his first Mr Simms shop over ten weeks with a design inspired from Victorian shops. “I thought, just as Cadbury, Mars and all those shove stuff under your nose, if I could bring back retro sweets and stick them under people’s noses, I’d have a winner,” he says.
Recognising he was onto a good thing, Peet soon opened a second store in neighbouring town Longton and quickly experienced similar success. Continuing his growth plan, Peet got to his third store and, with the sweet taste of victory in his mouth, he was interviewed for a BBC documentary. That was the turning point as letters arrived from across the UK with senders eagerly seeking sweet shop advice. This led him into franchising in 2007 when he was about to open his seventh shop.
One prospective shop-owner proved particularly pivotal in Peet’s franchising journey. “He was paying me a daily rate and I went looking at shops, rents and fit-outs,” he says. But when the advice-seeker asked Peet to essentially build his shop for him and to follow the exact Mr Simms design, Peet declined and insisted it was his trademark. Fortunately for future franchisees, the person was unrelenting and offered to become a franchisee paying £60 a week for their own piece of the brand, a price following franchisees pay to this day. “That’s how my franchising model was born,” says Peet. “I fell into it.”
In addition to low fees, franchisees also benefit from Peet’s knowledge, whether he’s helping them with customer engagement or selecting from 25 choices of pear drops. “This is why people come to me,” he explains. “If people ring and want something done, we’ll do it.” One such example was when he reversed the layout of a shop to put an end to sticky-fingered customers. Generally though, after Peet has been there on opening day franchisees want to be left to it. “They pretty much want you to get out the way,” he says. “It’s their business. Inside the shop it’s like a family-run business but with a brand name at the front.”
To this day many budding franchisees have found their way to Mr Simms without Peet marketing the opportunity any further than a page on the company website. But while many have heard the call, few are let into the network. “There are some where I’ve said ‘this won’t work, don’t do it’ – it’s very much about the franchisee,” he says. Usually, he’ll stop them from signing the dotted line if they lack passion or a great location needed to launch a successful business. Nevertheless, he’s convinced franchising is the way forward. “Those that do it right are successful,” he says. “Once you’ve set it up, there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue performing.”
Similarly, he didn’t seek out his first international expansion but seized the opportunity when the right one presented itself in the form of an English expat visiting from his new Hong Kong home. Having spotted a Mr Simms store, the traveller was convinced the concept would prove a success in the far east. And despite bypassing previous international interest due to the greater risk, Peet was intrigued by the idea this time. “It’s a free trade area and very easy to do business in Hong Kong,” Peet details. He still did his due diligence though, which meant lots of skyping about logistics like transport of products. Satisfied with what he’d heard, Peet flew to Hong Kong to assess shops and was shocked at the eye-watering rents they’d have to pay. “We’ve got a shop in the UK that’s 350 square feet and we’ve rented for £125 a week but that first shop in Hong Kong cost £2,700 a week,” Peet says.
Rent wasn’t the only challenge when opening in Hong Kong: signing up new properties was much faster. “If you sign a shop lease in Hong Kong on Tuesday, you get it by Saturday,” says Peet. “I knew we had to mobilise the shop-fit very quickly.” Having found the perfect location, he paid a shop-fitter to build out the store. However, Peet and his partner soon faced another hurdle when the shop-fitter realised he couldn’t build a Victorian-style shop. He refunded Peet but the franchisor was still left in a pickle with £25,000 of stock being flown in. Refusing to be beaten, Peet took matters into his own hands. “I flew my brother-in-law across and built the shopfront with his help,” he says. “I lost three stone and worked 18 hours a day. I got arrested three times for working on a Sunday – you’re not allowed to work Sunday as a contractor – but I wasn’t going to let it beat me.” Thankfully these efforts paid off as the Hong Kong shop turned over £1m in year one. Today, the same master franchisee is about to launch his fourth shop.
Having acquired a taste for international expansions, Peet has since recruited a master franchisee in France. However, instead of micro-managing it, this person has full control of Mr Simms in the country. “You can’t be everywhere all the time,” explains Peet. “I can’t oversee France and Hong Kong. I could employ people to do it but it’s better to have people on the ground that want to grow the business to make money for themselves.” But not all expansions have gone as smoothly. For instance, the franchise in Singapore was unable to overcome location and language barriers and closed after two years. Fortunately, the setback hasn’t discouraged Peet from planning to expand into China and the US in the next year. Even though this will cause challenges, he’s bullish about the future. “We’ve just got to overcome those hurdles,” he says.
Peet has now built over 130 stores up and down the UK and beyond, has five on the drawing board and expects a 20% overall growth this year. Having proved the notion of the UK high street dying wrong, and giving it a news lease of life overseas, Mr Simms looks set to leap over any obstacles in its path with room to spare.