Running a Small Independent Shop
Thank you for visiting this part of our blog, where we share what we have learned about running a small, independent shop. I'm presuming you're here because you have a small shop, or plan to have one. If so, you'll want to know about growing your shop sales, and improving your shop's cash flow. But you may not know who we are, so allow us to introduce ourselves, and why we like to think we know a bit about running a small, independent shop!
We are Bev and Andy Toogood. We’ve been shop owners for the past 16 years. We’re business partners and we are still (ha!) married to each other.
Over the 12 months to the end of November 2020, we had sold 39,662 units of products to our customers in the shop we now run: Almost Off Grid. From a zero start in 2016. With most of the growth occurring during the last 2 years.
We’re approaching 40,000 Ebay feedbacks, 99.9% positive, as at today. We sell on Etsy, OnBuy, Amazon, our own website and in our shop, plus we fulfil to Amazon. Yet there are just the 2 of us. We employ no staff. We have no storage, other than our loft. And our running costs are minimal. However, it wasn't always like this.
How did we get here?
4 years ago we were in a very different place. We had a shop business that was failing, and we were like a pair of rabbits in the headlamps.
The background to this was: We had opened our first shop in October 2004. It was a European children’s fashion business called Little Sunflowers, a tiny shop in Back Street, Wendover, Buckinghamshire. You may actually have been a customer of ours in those days? If so, thank you :)
It was a very yellow shop. With a homemade logo. Can you tell?
We were online within a year of opening, mainly thanks to Andy. I just wanted a pretty shop with mannequins, lovely children’s clothing and our baby son in the shop with me.
We were doing reasonably well by 2007. But no matter what we did, our walk-in customer sales reached a level and stayed there. We couldn’t seem to dramatically increase that number. We implemented a few changes, but our sales had plateaued. Meanwhile online sales were already outstripping our shop sales.
We worked out what we needed to do. Relocating to a house we could run our business from would significantly reduce our costs. So we moved to an old Sussex shop on the front of a house. And we lived above the shop. How young do we look?!
Our sales continued to grow once we’d relocated. Within a couple of years we had taken on staff. We totally outgrew the shop space, so we had staff working in our spare room upstairs as well as in the shop with us.
We then took on a warehouse and more staff in 2012. It was an empty shell with no heating, no flooring, no nothing. So we had heaters installed, carpet fitted, bought furniture, the whole bit. In anticipation of the next phase of our business: massive growth.
To cut a very long story short, all we really achieved with taking on additional premises and staff was saddling our business with a load of cost which was unsustainable without a significant increase in sales. Only now we were spending a disproportionate amount of time managing staff and buildings, rather than growing the sales we needed to justify our new cost base.
The growth didn’t come. And we were all a bit cold, even with the heaters.
So in short, it all went wrong. We ended up moving back to our own shop on the front of our house in 2015, 3 years almost to the day from when we’d taken on the warehouse. We limped on for a while, borrowed money from everywhere we could think of to try to make it work, when it was never going to because we were too deeply in debt. And then…
The UK held a referendum in June 2016, and elected to leave the EU. Within 2 weeks we had our lovely European brands asking us how it was going to work when we left the EU, and we had no idea. This was the final straw really, it gave us the impetus to do what we should have done earlier or, to put it another way, the kick up the backside we needed. Plan to pull the plug on Little Sunflowers and start something new. By October 2016 we had the first delivery from our new suppliers.
Babygrow or Beer Kit?
The new business we started was this one: Almost Off Grid. A shop selling home brew kits and ingredients, together with cheese kits and other related ingredients for making artisan food at home. The two businesses overlapped for a while, so for 2 years you could buy a babygrow and a beer kit from us. Which was an exciting period 🙂
We went about growing our new shop in a very different way to how we’d built the last one. And much faster. We only sold on third party marketplace sites initially, so Amazon and Ebay. We did that until we were sure our new business had ‘legs’, that we could sell these products at a decent margin without discounting, and that there was a demand for them. Which is a great way to test the water for a new retail business, by the way.
Running a Small Independent Shop
As a consequence of working smarter, we grew our Almost Off Grid sales to the same level in three years as we had achieved in Little Sunflowers in eight years. And now we’ve exceeded it. With no staff and a very low cost base. This is the business we run to this day. Not everyone out there who is giving advice can say that. Dan Kennedy, who sadly left this earth in 2020, used to call them Shovel Sellers. The people who sold shovels during the Gold Rush and made the most money. We are giving advice from the best point possible, from doing the do, every day.
We started teaching other small shops how to sell online and how to develop additional revenue streams a couple of years ago. But it’s only since COVID-19 came along that the old small shop on the High Street model, and its limitations, have come sharply into focus.
The Implications of COVID-19 on Small Retailers
During the first COVID-19 Lockdown of 2020, consumers were 4 times more likely to shop and buy on a third marketplace platform than on an independent website. And they couldn’t shop in shops, because they were shut. It is no longer good enough to expect customers to come to you. Instead, you have to be where they are.
The model we are working with is the one that, we believe, all small independent shops need to work to if they are to survive whatever is coming next. Many shop owners we know don’t like the idea of email lists, third party platforms and blogs. They just want their bricks and mortar shop. We sympathise wholeheartedly with this sentiment. But, our controversial but nevertheless firm belief, is: those days are gone.
If you want a bricks and mortar shop, of course you can have one. There will always be a love and place for them on the UK High Street. But unless you want to be a ‘failed business’ statistic, it has to be more than that. Other revenue streams are essential if you want the luxury of a bricks and mortar shop. We are way beyond the “build it and they will come” period. Now we have to be where our people are.
And there's another part of this, for us. We want to grow in a sustainable way, being careful that what we do is good for us, our family and the environment.
So that’s a bit about us. In this part of the blog, we will share our knowledge to help you dramatically increase your shop sales without increasing your costs, and improving your shop's cash flow .
The best place to start is The Three Ways to Grow Your Shop Business. These are the principles upon which our whole ethos is based, and the information we share will revolve around them.
If you already have a shop and are looking to share knowledge with other small retailers then feel free to join our Small Retailer Lounge, a community of shops looking to dramatically increase their sales and future-proof their shops. We would love to see you over there.
And if you haven’t already, please download our 10 Ways to Grow Your Shop Sales Right Now – it’s free!