In a recent three-part series of BBC television programmes entitled Robert Peston Goes Shopping, his remarks about high streets included two highly significant statements; “People need a reason for visiting the High Street” and “High Streets had better and worse ends.”
Back in late August 1973 Country Casuals arrived at 88 High Street next door to Bellmans Scotch Wool Shop and Wool Stores.
This was a good location because of the nearness of two jewellers (Samuels and Lumbers), and also national chains notably Boots Chemist, butchers Baxter and Dewhurst, and such well-known names as International Stores, Littlewoods and Woolworths.
Although Banbury already had established ladies’ fashion shops nearby including Dorothy Perkins, Brown’s and Marilyn, Country Casuals had a trump card in the sense of being the first retailer to offer a fully co-ordinated range of separates (revolutionary in its day). Their coming to the town was not an isolated happening; current publicity from the company suggests that they made national retail history by opening 55 stores in 11 weeks.
The decision to come to Banbury must have taken into consideration the significance of the market town status.
On Thursdays especially when farmers came in their droves to do business at Midland Marts livestock market in Grimsbury, their wives would have focussed on the centre and especially the High Street stores.
Market research is likely to have revealed that Banbury already had a strong dress shop presence and possible rival in the shape of Judges who were higher up the High Street and next door to the White Lion Hotel.
Established way back in 1854 it could be said to be a local relic of free enterprise.
An advertisement revealed that the store offered ‘a nice combination of intimate service and smartness without extravagance’.
Right at the other end of the scale was a shop called the Pirates Den situated at 55 Broad Street.
The first week in July 1973 had been their fashion week when cotton dresses in seven styles cost as little as £2.75 and trouser suits were available at £3.75.
Between these extremes was a small fashion business opened by a Mr and Mrs Robson in 1952 whose selection of goods reflected national events and overseas ideas.
It would be interesting to discover how far a determination by Country Casuals to get going in early autumn 1973 was influenced by the knowledge that Northampton-based Walter Hibbert was expected in the upper part of the High Street from November onwards. The latter took a whole page of the Banbury Guardian targeted at the over 25s, and offered a half-bottle of champagne to each of the first 50 customers.
It can be said that Country Casuals’ great strength was that its sales were divided into eight categories.
These included elements as diverse as yarn, hosiery and accessories, Jaeger knitwear and of course both Jaeger and Country Casuals fashions.
In the opening week this last category sold well with most sales taking place on Thursday, market day.
As time went on the company found one disadvantage of the lower High Street location. During the period of Banbury Fair sales dropped significantly.
A note in the first ledger records the fact that from 17th to 19th October 1973 there were fewer customers because of parking difficulties due to the fair.
In 1974 a significant move was the agreement between Country Casuals and Austin Read.
The former’s range of fashions was made available in all the latter’s stores.
This was capitalised on in the 1990s when Country Casuals was one of the first fashion retailers to advertise on television and also to launch a customer loyalty scheme.
In 2005 CC replaced Country Casuals as a logo and shops took on a more contemporary feel.
This year local initiative was evidenced by CC getting together with Banbury Inner Wheel for a charity fashion show to celebrate their anniversaries.
Above all it is good that CC has kept faith with the changing High Street.
l My thanks to the company and the Banbury manageress Trish Needham for memorabilia.