Retailer Spotlight: W J French & Son

At Start-Rite, we are incredibly proud of the longstanding relationships that we have with brilliant independent shoe shops across the UK. As we don't have shops of our own, independent retailers are our trusted salesman on the ground. W J French & Son, located at the northern edge of Southampton city centre, is one of our trusted partners as a family-run business that embodies our brand values. We are thrilled to kick-off our latest series of ‘Retailer Spotlights’ by focusing on this long-standing partner. We spoke with the current Managing Director, Caroline French, who is the eighth generation of the French family to run the business.

Shop front of french and sons

About W J French

W J French & Son was established in 1803 after Francis French qualified as a master shoe repairer, making it one of the oldest independent family-run shoe businesses in the country. Initially, he worked from his own home!

After various moves, in 1890 W J French & Son relocated from the high street to Bedford Place, where it remains today in a Victorian terrace surrounded by a variety of independent shops and restaurants. Initially one dwelling, the French family who lived on-site expanded the business into the two Victorian houses adjacent and extended the back to improve the workshop space. Caroline’s grandfather was born in one of the rooms at the top of the shop and her office is located in what was his sitting room. The family, the business and the building have a rich, entwined history together.

Our partnership story

W J French & Sons and Start-Rite’s partnership started in 1910, meaning the two family-owned, British businesses have been working together for 114 years! The partnership started when Start-Rite traded under the family name, James Southall & Co. 10 years later, the Start-Rite Shoes brand name was born and that is when the brand itself adorned the shelves of W J French & Sons.

After World War II, the government spearheaded the first children’s feet survey and Start-Rite used this guidance to become a pioneering force in the children’s footwear industry, with designs shaped specifically for the needs of children’s feet. With shoes initially available in two width fittings, Start-Rite created a third, ‘medium’ fit as a special order for W J French & Son. Soon after, Start-Rite’s width options grew to six (C to H), and the business improved shoe sizing and shape to reflect how children’s feet change as they grow.

Quality in children’s shoes

Over the years, Start-Rite has researched and improved shoe design and materials to ensure the very best fit to support a child’s healthy development. Every technical update has been well received by the experts at W J French & Sons, who are thrilled to offer the very best in children’s fitted footwear to their customers.

Caroline is concerned that the public is becoming less aware of how important it is to get your children’s shoes fitted by an experienced shoe fitter and the need to have regular check-ups throughout the year to ensure they are wearing the correct size.

Her analogy is that you wouldn’t ask just anyone to fix your computer or cut your hair – she feels it’s the same with shoes. Fitting shoes needs professional expertise, because badly fitting shoes are not only uncomfortable but can lead to a variety of foot health issues. And this is particularly important when it comes to children’s shoes, because a child’s foot development will impact how they walk for the rest of their life.

The element in the partnership that Caroline most values is that Start-Rite shoes are highly durable, presenting great value for money for her customers. W J French & Sons know that, when they sell a pair of Start-Rite shoes, it is with the reassurance that the child will grow out of them before the shoe wears out. Caroline assures her customers that W J French & Son will never sell them a new pair of shoes if the current pair are the right size and still fit for purpose.

Start-Rite shoes’ multi-width fittings mean the staff are confident they will find the correct fit. Start-Rite shoes are designed with excellent proportions to mimic the size and shape of a child’s foot so they fit snugly in all the right places, with good growing room built in. This means the toes aren’t squashed, enhancing the overall comfort.

This combination of performance and comfort is reflected in satisfied customers coming back to the shop year after year.

Fitting Start-Rite shoes

Favourite Start-Rite shoe picks

‘Brogue’, is an enduring classic style for girls that, Caroline reports, she ‘simply can’t live without’. It’s an appealing style that looks great and is offered in E, F and G width fittings. Because of this, it fits really well on the majority of feet that come through the W J French & Sons door.

For boys, Caroline’s favourite shoe is Strike. Another very popular trainer style shoe, it is an excellent fitter with a near indestructible bumper toe. Boys love the football detailing on the shoe so it’s always a popular choice for school days and active playtimes. Caroline also told us that boys’ shoes with bumper soles have been top sellers as the shoes can survive lunchtime football sessions!

As for girls’ shoes, Caroline says, “The brogue pattern lace-up girls’ shoes have sold well for the last few years and shoes with thicker soles like Impact and Impulsive are growing in popularity due to their durability and chunky fashionable style.”

In the younger girls’ shoe range, Caroline notes that patent has grown in popularity over the last five years and is now as popular as plain leather. She believes this is because patent technology has improved so much over the last decade, that it is now much more durable, softer and is easy to keep clean.

WJ French & Son today

W J French & Sons has seven loyal members of staff who have been with the company for over 20 years. Each and every one of them has excellent shoe-fitting skills and the teams are led by expert assistants with a long career of fitting quality shoes.

Roy, the manager of the W J French & Son’s men’s department, started with the business when he was just 15 years old - he’s been serving customers for 58 years! Over in the ladies’ department, manager Sue has been with W J French & Son for 45 years. They were both employed by Caroline’s grandfather and have excellent shoe-fitting skills and brand knowledge.

W J French & Son are also keen supporters of charity. All the money from their bags goes towards research into Parkinson’s Disease. They donate shop vouchers to local schools for raffles and at Christmas they raise money and collect presents for ‘Cash For Kids’ who make sure children in poverty get a present at Christmas time. The shop also has Shoe Aid boxes in store, where donated shoes in good condition will be recycled for children in need.

On top of that, Caroline has organised the Bedford Place Festival, a community event for the last five years to promote the wonderful independent businesses in the local area and help bring more people to visit and shop in Bedford Place. Please give W J French & Son and their neighbouring independent retailers a visit next time you are visiting Southampton city centre.

After all these years, we are still incredibly proud of our long and successful partnership with W J French & Sons, as a family-run British business that is dedicated to serving its customers with quality fitted footwear. We look forward to working together for another 114 years!