I used to edit a magazine called Childrenswear Buyer, covering the fashion and gift market for kids and babies. As a mum of two young children, I also have a vested interest in this area of retail, so when I heard that Laura Tenison, the founder of Jo Jo Maman Bebe was visiting Harrogate to give a talk, I just had to go along.
Laura was passionate and enthusiastic about her business as well as refreshingly candid about its slightly chaotic beginnings – all of which was hugely inspirational to the mainly female audience of business owners and budding entrepreneurs. Here’s what she had to say:
Eighteen years ago I was an idealistic entrepreneur and wanted to make fashionable clothes for mothers and babies. I wanted it to be a middle-market, global brand and I had £50,000 to invest in it, which I had made from my first business. But my business plan was all wrong and my bank manager told me to go away and come back with some reasonable financial predictions as I had been rather over enthusiastic. Looking back I think that young naivety was an advantage in some ways. I was starting out and I had nowhere to fall from. I was unmarried with no children. I wonder if I would be so brave now. But I have always had huge amounts of energy and a determination never to accept no for an answer.
In those early years things were quite disorganised. The sales were building and demand began to outstrip supply. Needless to say I had to start fielding calls from people asking where their stuff was and I was still the only employee. I can remember trying to give the impression that we had several staff and transferring people to another ‘department’ then picking up the call myself and pretending to be someone else. It was great that sales were going through the roof but it was a horrible time because we just didn’t have enough stock. I hadn’t kept an eye on the financials and eventually the VAT man paid us a visit and ended up staying two weeks sorting out our chaotic (but honest) system. Finally he said, “I don’t know how you’ve done it but I owe you £50.”
Then the stock market crashed and the business became insolvent and I had to remortgage the house. We had been going for four years with plenty of trade but we hadn’t been making any money. I had also spent a lot of money on off-shoots and the time had come to have a major re-think and look at the parts of the business that were making money and focus on them. It’s a good lesson: stick to what you know and don’t get distracted.
Today we still own the company, we’re self-financed, we’re profitable and we take few risks. There are no Porsches or villas in Spain because every time my husband suggests it I say, “but I could open another store instead”. It’s an expensive habit of mine but we’re growing the business safely and we open around ten stores a year. We want to stay niche, we’re not another Mothercare.
My mantra is good values equals good business. I’m no saint but I subscribe to good ethical business practices and a non-hierarchical management style. I think that the person who starts work first gets to park next to the front door – there are no reserved spaces for directors in our car park. Everyone eats communally in the staff canteen and I like to walk around the warehouse at 7am and talk to people because it’s the best way to find out what’s going on in your business.
Eighteen years down the line, there’s not that much difference between that business start-up and our business today. But there are some things I’ve learned that you need if you want to succeed.
Firstly, you need Innovation.
You don’t have to have the one and only of something but you just have to do it better. Take the example of one of our all-time bestsellers: the pocket highchair. This idea came to me when I used to go to cafes with my child and there wasn’t a high chair so I used a scarf to tie my baby to the chair. There are lots of other versions of this product but ours is a simple idea that works.
Secondly, you need to have Inspiration.
It’s not just about inspiring your customers or even the press but you’ve got to inspire your teams. How many sales assistants know and understand the finance of the business or even the store they work in? We encourage our teams to take on extra training such as NVQs. It’s really important to stretch people’s imaginations and I strongly believe in promotion from within especially through re-training.
It’s also about giving people new ideas and experiences and trying to encourage staff to do different things.
Thirdly, you need to have Imagination.
It’s really difficult to keep coming up with new ideas so I give different creative people a term to look at the design of the catalogue, the look of the windows, the marketing strategy etc and it really helps to have a fresh pair of eyes. I even get the managers to step back sometimes and let juniors take a turn to use their ideas. Putting people out of their comfort zone sparks inspiration. 20% of our customers buy from us more than ten times a year because we keep them fired up. There’s always something new and fresh coming up.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a mini-break and meet up with a couple of friends in Brighton. We were looking for somewhere nice and affordable to stay but with a little bit of personality. Haphazardly, and happily, we stumbled across the fun and funky Snooze guesthouse.
Situated in Brighton’s cool and quirky district of Kemptown, with its myriad independent shops, bars and restaurants, Snooze is a near-perfect boutique hotel with bags of style. If, like me, you like to stay somewhere that provides inspiration and escapism as well as fluffy towels, mod-cons and a cracking breakfast, then this might just be for you.
Snooze has been lovingly renovated and furnished with a combination of vintage and contemporary design, ensuring every one of the six rooms and two suites available has a look and feel all of its own. The decor of our room instantly transported us to the swinging Sixties with its way-out wallpaper, original furniture and classically kitsch prints.
But Snooze offers more than just style – this place has substance too. We loved the laid-back unpretentious feel of the place and the two couples who run it. You are made to feel relaxed and at home, yet nothing is too much trouble either. You can tell that Snooze has been a labour of love for these guys, and they have put their hearts and souls into the business. Consequently Snooze is one of those rare finds; an experience that surprises and satisfies in all the right ways and a real antidote to the carbon-copy blandness of most chains.
And best of all, it leaves you wanting more. I’d love to go back and try a different room each time!
Following the success of the inaugural Vintage at Goodwood festival, which took place last month, I spoke to the event’s mastermind Wayne Hemingway to find out how it was for him….
Q: Have you recovered from the festival yet or are you already working on the next one?
A: We’ve learned loads. Obviously we’ve created something that people really like. From what they are saying we have leapfrogged all other festivals. The feedback has been amazing – the best festival they’ve ever been to.
But we’ve now got to build on that. Over the last few weeks we’ve been having lots of debrief meetings to discuss where we go from here and how we approach the next one. Nobody can really understand how much work goes into creating something like this – it takes over your life.
Q: How would you like to develop the festival or try to improve on it?
A: Now we have to work out how to deliver a sustainable event and to improve on it each time. There are a few things that need tweaking such as the parking and the variety of food options. I know that some of the clubs were a bit rammed and people had to queue too. But there was a lot we got right. The content was spot on, especially the music element as well as things like the fashion shows, the shops and the kids’ activities.
Q: Why do you think the festival resonated with people today?
A: There were so many fun things to do. We definitely got it right because people don’t just want to see a band when they go to a festival. This event was intended as a voyage of discovery in the sense that it gave an in-depth look into the underground scenes of lots of different kinds of music and design but in an accessible way. Importantly it didn’t feel nostalgic though. We were keen that it didn’t feel like were looking back but that it was fresh and exciting.
Key to the success of the festival is not packing people in so that everyone has a chance to experience what they want to. Unlike other festivals, this is not about the numbers. We are capping ticket sales at 25,000, which is small in comparison to say Reading at 90,000 and even Bestival at 45,000. We’re looking at a business model that may involve sponsorship to offset the need to have a larger audience so that we can make it financially sustainable.
Q: Did you feel the event was a personal success?
A: I received an email this week that really made my day. It was from a guy who had come to the festival with his 80 year old mum and his 25 year old son. They’d spent the weekend talking about his mum’s life during the war and spent time in the Torch club where she got to dance like she used to do as a girl. Now the 25 year old is having dance lessons too. It’s an example of how a cultural event can bring the whole family together. So yes, job done, we achieved what we set out to do.
My favourite retailer this week has to be White Stuff for its rather brave and sweet National Wear a Tea Cosy on your Head Day, which is running this month and culminating on 29th September. This is quite a neat little marketing idea and an altruistic one too as the store is challenging the public to don a tea cosy or even host a tea party to raise money for a local charity.
It was the gorgeous tea cosies displayed in the window that first caught my eye (I am a bit of a teapot freak) and then I picked up a flyer instore. The retailer is offering 10% to anyone wearing a tea cosy on the day and will also donate 10% of the day’s sales to charity.
I like this. The quirky and kitsch theme of the campaign is on-brand for White Stuff and will appeal to both its young and young at heart customers. And it’s also a good opportunity to flog a few woolly tea cosy-style hats, which are on sale in store too!
I hope it gains the enthusiastic response it deserves and raises a few bob for a good cause.
I love the art of window dressing. A really good shop window can literally stop you in its tracks and make you go inside and buy something. Selling tools don’t get much more powerful than that. Visual merchandising is still one of the most important and exciting aspects of shopping and yet so often it’s viewed by retailers large and small as an unecessary expense and something of an outmoded art form.
During a recent trip to Leeds city centre I came across some interesting window display designs. Admittedly most of them are by high end fashion retailers and sadly this is because they are one of the few types of business that seem to a) still see the value of creative and original window display and b) have the budgets to do it properly but I hope these examples can offer a little inspiration to others.