OPENING more stores has been the key to tackling the recession for one of Essex’s most enduring businesses.

Choice, the fashion discount store, which celebrated 44 years of trading last month, is still going strong, according to managing director Con Donovan.

Con, along with his wife Kath, started the business in Hadleigh with just one store on June 20, 1966. The company now has more than 17 outlets across the South East, including branches in Basildon, Wickford, Clacton, Grays and the original in Hadleigh, with plans to open more.

“Our way of tackling the recession has been to open more shops and get people in work, particularly young people,” says Con.

“The principle behind Choice, when we first started, was to give value and quality to the customer. We have been in business through a number of recessions and know, when times are hard, people want more for their money. We intend to continue giving good value on high street fashions, at up to half price.”

Brought up in Stepney, and having left the Army following his National Service, Con bucked the family tradition of working in the London docks to pursue a dream of working in the fashion industry.

That dream, together with Kath, who worked in a fashion production house, brought the couple to south Essex and, five years after they settled here, Choice was born.

Con says: “It is what Kath and I always wanted to do – sell quality high street fashion at discount prices.

“There were no multiples, no supermarkets selling cheap clothes in those days.

“We opened up a retail shop, but I still carried on as a freelance salesman. It worked very well, but I still kept my hand in on the manufacturing side and decided to open my own company. We supplied many mail order companies and produced up to 20,000 skirts a week.”

But competition in the early Eighties from cheaper overseas products made it difficult to compete on the manufacturing front and the decision was made to concentrate on the retail.

Around the same time an agreement was reached with mail order giant Grattan, for Choice to sell off its surplus stock and the company went from strength to strength. In 1989, the opening of the Wickford store brought queues in the street. A year later, the celebratory opening of the Basildon store brought the A127 to a standstill.

The Hadleigh store itself began life as a small corner plot in Rectory Road. Today it covers more than 8,000 sq ft of retail space and the company’s contribution to the local economy was acknowledged by the local council when the site of the shop was officially named Choice Corner.

Over the years the sort of stock the shops sell has changed, and while womenswear has always been a core line, these days shoppers can peruse menswear, childrenswear, furniture, bed linen, lighting, watches and glasses.

In the past couple of years, the rise in demand for good quality furniture at reduced prices has seen the company not only extend its instore provision, but also open dedicated furniture outlets. The first was in Hatfield, with the second in Edgware due to open in six weeks.

A new venture has also been introduced in the Hadleigh store, with a concession counter for Leigh jewellers Hatton.

Managing director Terry Hatton says: “It is a very exciting venture for us and it’s good that two local businesses are able to come together to support each other.

“We will be offering the same quality jewellery our customers recognise, but under the Choice pricing structure of a discount on the recommended retail price.”

As a company, Choice is still a family concern, with three of the couple’s four sons, Mark, Phillip and Neil, all directors in the business, which employs around 500 staff.

The board is completed by David Keens, Peter Chinnery and company secretary George Prentice.

“I still get the same enjoyment out of the business as when it began,” says Con, “I am pleased we have provided, and still do provide, a lot of local employment.

“It has been an extended family – there are a lot of people very loyal to the company. We have to thank the staff who have helped us to progress the business over the years.

“When I walk into one of our stores, the first thing I feel is very proud of what we have achieved and what we continue to achieve.”

Looking ahead Con acknowledges the business is in good shape, despite the challenging economic climate. He says: “I believe we still offer the best value for money.”