How to Have a Successful First Three Years in Retail: Indie Case Study
“I didn’t have any funds to speak off so I started small by getting an £8k credit card loan and doing gift parties in people’s houses, mainly friends to start with, but then expanded it to others who were interested. I choose what to sell from years of researching, either online via websites or visiting shops in towns all over the UK, galleries, craft fairs and festivals”
Over a champagne-fuelled evening as Two Ducks celebrated its third birthday, I met owner Claire who shared her experience of the challenging but successful first years in retail.
How did you decide to take the leap and become an independent retailer?
I’d wanted to own a gift shop for about 15 years but got to a point in my marketing career after I’d had my children where I began thinking if I don’t do it now it might never happen. We also had friends who opened their own wine bar and that inspired us to take out first steps.
How did you decide where to be, and what to sell?
I didn’t have any funds to speak off so I started small by getting an £8k credit card loan and doing gift parties in people’s houses, mainly friends to start with, but then expanded it to others who were interested. I choose what to sell from years of researching either online via websites or visiting shops in towns all over the UK, Galleries, craft fairs and festivals.
The gift parties helped me refine my collection and work out what people were most interested in or wanted more of.
I moved on from the gift parties to a pop up shop in Woking town centre and after six months of doing that (and learning loads), I was offered the opportunity to take a more permanent shop in a village called St.John’s. The opportunity was to share with another business, a Deli, so we mitigated risk by not being the head lease-holders and keeping rent lower. Eventually we took over the whole lease.
We thought St.John’s would be good for us for a number of reasons; the rent and business rates were considerably lower than Woking town centre, the village was very picturesque, there was a lovely coffee shop next door, free parking opposite the shop and it suited the brand much better.
You’ve recently won the Muddy Stiletto award for Surrey. You’ve obviously made some good decisions, what is the most important factor when choosing product for the shop?
Keeping your customer in mind. I made some early mistakes by buying products that I really liked but weren’t quite right for my customers. I also like to find things that are really unusual and that you don’t see in lots of other shops - and that tends to keep customers really coming back.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in your first 6 months trading?
Very early on I made the decision to focus on British made products which was slightly naive as now I realise that just isn’t possible to survive on such a narrow category because the wholesale prices are high and our customers are usually keen to buy a lower priced gift. We’ve moved away from that as it became so restrictive to our success.
What’s the quietest part of your year?
Generally February so far. January is kept buoyant with Sales but by February the credit card bills have come in. August used to be quiet for us too as so many customers went away for the Summer but that doesn’t seem to be the case this year. We have done a lot of marketing which I think has really helped foot fall.
To boost interest in quiet times I’ll do things like ‘live video’ to show people what’s in or may announce a flash sale on our text message service. We also run competition on Facebook to encourage engagement and keep us front of mind.
How has consumer behaviour changed, especially during Christmas, since you first started?
I’m not sure customer behaviour has changed that much. I did notice that some customers like to see things really early, i.e. September, whereas the majority start seriously Christmas shopping around mid-November. And every year we have a deluge of male customers on Christmas eve!
How does your work/life balance look and has that changed over time?
In four years it’s improved. I now have a team of two in the shop and I have started to give them more responsibility for ordering stock - which not only takes some of my workload but helps them know that I value their input. I only spend two days physically in the shop now - my other days I spend networking, training and doing marketing work. This change in focus has really grown the business this year.
What are your views on the health and vibrancy of your high street?
Our highstreet is improving - the cafe next door has expanded. The beauty salon across the road is under new management and they are brilliant, the wood burner shop and the florist are very successful and now there’s a butcher. I think once some shops start doing well, others want to be part of it.
How do you feel indie retailers can personally improve and support their own high street?
I’d like there to be a proper Christmas market in the village which really takes some organising. We hired a professional Santa last year and it went really well, people loved it - but it wasn’t a real profit making venture - I think ideally all the shops would contribute to a village-wide experiance.
I think it is important for retailers to make sure their shops look really attractive and enticing. We also donate to several local charities to help support the village and to get involved.
What are your hopes for your business?
We’re bringing more fashion brands into the shop which is definitely improving revenues and our customers seem really interested in this aspect of the business.** I have bought in more reasonably priced gifts which means customers can still buy the gift they were after and treat themselves; average spend is going up.**
We’re looking at implementing Vend (Vend is a POS system, see this previous article for more info) shortly to allow the business to expand on line. A lot of local customers have also said they would like click and collect which will help drive cash flow more effectively.
We are putting on more ‘lifestyle’ events such as ‘How to Hygge’ this autumn with Danish Life Coach, Mette Thelmein where we will be serving Gluwein (warm, spiced wine) and homemade Danish pastries. This is our first ‘paid’ event so it will be interesting to see how it goes!
Does the uncertain political situation worry you or do you feel its effects on your business will be limited?
It does worry me as so many things seem uncertain/unclear and that makes customers uneasy and less willing to spend. I think we have very interesting times ahead of us as retailers. It makes the personal relationships we have with our customers of utmost importance.
Many of our suppliers are raising prices due to the falling value of the pound so that has meant price increases in the shop but so far we haven’t had too much backlash from that.
What advice would you give to retailers who are struggling?
I would suggest the following;
Re-analyse who your business/product is aimed at and check it really makes sense.
Where are those ideal customers spending their time on social media - then spend time on that platform engaging with them.
What are they spending their money on? Talk to all your best customers and find out what they want to see.
Raise the profile of your brand - look at how your shop is laid out, does the frontage need refreshing? Can you enter some awards to raise your profile - most are free to enter.
If a product isn’t selling, reduce it and get rid of it quickly. Give yourself some cash-flow to reinvest elsewhere.
Keep refreshing your product range - customers get easily bored with the same products all the time.
What’s the best thing about being a retailer?
The relationships you have with your customers - having their trust. I also love researching and buying new products - going to the trade shows both in the UK and abroad. I love the creativity you can use creating new window displays and shop displays and seeing how people react to them.
If you’re a retailer and would like to feature on inside retail, please do let me know. I’d love to come and visit you! Sophy.firstname.lastname@example.org