The Things You Need to Know About the Small Retail Business!

The UK we have been witnessing a lovely resurgence in the local shopping experience. This has been lovingly and loyally supported by our biggest community institution, the WI, with their ‘Shop Local’ campaign ‘SOS for High Streets’ launched in 2014. Here at Oh Sew Crafty we have been graced with a steady stream of new customers over the last 3 years and locally our business group has added a town-wide shopping loyalty scheme that has been received really well by the shoppers.

Whilst this situation helps develop a great shopping experience with both retailer and customer, it also brings with it a whole range of more challenging issues that can frustrate everyone! I think that many people are out of practice when it comes to local shopping in small businesses. We have been provided with fantastic shopping experiences over recent years from supermarkets to online stores. We have 24 hour delivery for products that are coming from massive warehouses full of wondrous technology. Customer Services that can be contacted deep into what would be classed as unsociable hours are commonplace on the paper information that comes with our orders. Items can be ordered and delivered ‘Postage FREE’, in bulk and from anywhere in the world

.Oh Sew Crafty

So – lets just look at this from the ‘local’ and small business persepective…

  • Opening hours – this has to be one of the biggest organisational and frustrating aspects of shopping for anything. Customers work long hours, they often work shifts. In fact some customers experience this directly as they work shifts in large retail businesses. The small retail business in many instances are run by a family or a sole trader. They will open their doors to the customers during traditional opening hours of 9 – 6pm – or thereabouts. Why is this? This is when the bulk of their customers will come in to shop. What about the workers? I hear you shout… well they are also workers, and often the only ones working in that establishment. They need to go home, to look after family, to shop for their own needs…. They will endeavour to open later at seasonal times such as Christmas and maybe if they are in a tourist area use some seasonal opening times – it just needs a little time management from everyone….
  • Payments – we live in a plastic society, our money is mostly invisible; it comes into our bank and out of our bank without even touching our purses and wallets. What is money? Money does make the world go around its true – however for small businesses money needs to be real. It needs to be visible and accountable on a daily basis. We have items for sale from 5p to £70 and it is frightening how many people do not understand that a card payment cannot be reasonably offered for a very small purchase. I dont think many people realise how much the processing of card payments costs. The amount of money in transactions that are being processed from large corporate businesses is so vast that they can negotiate their charges – even have them removed in a lot of cases. The large stores do not want the cash hanging around the building – it is safer to have an invisible transaction. For the small retail business however things are very different. We pay for everything… did you know that we pay for our change for the till? Did you know that we pay rental for the card processing machines, as well as paying for each transaction? Did you know that we pay to bank our money in the banks? We pay more if we go to the counter and are offered a cheaper rate to ‘post’ our money to central services that the banks use. When you want to purchase something for £1 on your card the large companies will ask you if you want a cashback added to get rid of the real money… we will likely decline to take the payment as it will cost us more for the transaction than we will receive for the goods. It just takes a little planning from everyone…
  • Stock – how wonderful it is to walk along vast aisles of products that have been arranged in an orderly and clinical fashion to speed up our shopping experience. To gather our purchases into our baskets or trolleys in the knowledge that we have had every choice available and have fulfilled our weekly requirements quickly and without having to miss out. If a particular product is not available then chances are your choice is enhanced by the same product from different companies being available on the same shelf. Hmmmm – not much fun though… It is lovely to be able to purchase 20 loaves of bread because you are taking a group on a picnic or having a party – did you know the local bakery can also provide you with the 20 loaves – and might even do a small deal – if you give them a little bit of notice? The large craft stores provide a fantastic range of products but then – how frustrating that the ordering is done centrally and that they are not going to get another bag of that wool so you can finish your jumper! The small retailer is often happy to make sure you get your products – the biggest difference is that it cannot be done in 24 hours. We need to have minimum orders with suppliers before they will send out an order. We pay for carriage in a lot of instances and we cannot get just a couple of balls of yarn that you need – we need to order sensibly. It just takes a little planning from everyone…
  • Service – with a smile? A small business is very visible to its customers. When you dash around the supermarket chances are the only time you interact with a member of staff is to ask where the store has moved a product to! You might get a short conversation with the cashier as they try to smile and make your shopping experience a little more enjoyable – oh but you are in a hurry, not impressed with the chit chat as they whizz your items down the shute. The store is busy and they open up more tills – or you choose to opt for the completely impersonal option of the self serve tills… When you shop local the smile and chat are a large part of the service. You are trapped! There are no extra tills to open – there is probably no-one to man them if there were… The small retailer enjoys giving a more interactive experience to its customers. We like to share our knowledge and advice for product use. We like to answer questions about skills and techniques… oh but you are in a hurry! Hmmm It just takes a little patience from everyone…
  • Response – I think that everyone at some point will have asked a question of a retailer or ordered a product that is needed for a project. In a large organisation there is probably a system where the information is placed onto a form then passed down a processing line to a person that will respond. With a small business there is probably a system where the question or the order is placed onto a form and then passed to a person…. oh yes – they are that person! That person that will need to go to the children’s school play that night, after they have made tea, got the family ready and once home from the play – after a full day in the shop – will sit down to update the books, count the money, sort out the stock orders and probably need to sleep but will not be in bed before midnight! If your response is not there in 24 hours… there may be good reason… It just takes a little organisation from everyone…
  • Support – This is were the small business excels! The larger stores have lots of staff but they may not necessarily have the quality. In lots of instances the small retail business will have people working that have knowledge and experience. They can help you get started on a project, pick the correct tools and resources, explain the task instructions, work out problems and probably know your name! They will want to see you finished project – they are interested… It just takes a little determination from us all…
  • Prices – I place this subject a little further down the list than you might expect but here is why – I know that there are goods and services out there that are cheap and effective. There are stores for everything ‘budget’. They have their place in our shopping plans, it is always lovely to get a bargain. The larger businesses have the ability to buy in bulk – and we know that is better for costs; but also they over buy which gives us even more opportunity for bargains when they sell off surplus stock. The small business does not often have a reasonable chance of buying in too much bulk. Their prices however needs to remain competitive. The internet is not always cheaper – if you look at postage etc. The small business cannot necessarily negotiate cheap postage. They do however stock items that are relevant and of good quality. Recently in our local area we had a retailer that closed his doors for a final time because he was fed up of permanently having to re-price products  as customers asked for discount so they would buy from him and not online or in a larger store. We need to earn a wage – if a product is discounted you can bet that it is already priced with the smallest of margins and that margin, after the tax and the VAT and other overheads have had their bit is our wages. It just takes a little respect from everyone…
  • Variety – This is definitely an issue for a lot of people. We love to have choice, variety and we want it quickly – but I think this is something we can control very easily. It’s like the strawberries at Christmas scenario. Sometimes the small space available means you have restricted choice, however often the alternative options are available. They may be in the small storeroom as there is no space, or maybe they have the chance to add them to a next order. Talk to your local shops, tell them the types of choices you need to make. At midnight, after a long day, when you are choosing colours of buttons the decisions can be made without much reasoning as the energy is waning. It just takes a little communication from everyone…

In this fast moving marketplace that has developed over the last 10 years or so we have become a little complacent with shopping. I see many people now opting to have the afternoon off, go out with a friend for afternoon tea and have a general browse around the local shops as well. Thank you to you all – we really don’t mind the browsers – they often come back again when they know what project they are going to start. Thank you as well to the shoppers in a rush – you are also always welcome. I know it looks like I am having a good old moan in this blog but nothing could be further from the truth. I suppose it is a little education for our customers… it just takes a little inside knowledge for us all!!

The Great British Sewing Bee Effect…

I remember the first series of the Great British Sewing Bee with mixed emotions. I had spent all summer doing extensive market research in my local town and in other places across Britain with regard to setting up my dream business – Oh Sew Crafty was moving from being a tiny little thought seed into a whacking great big business venture! Well that is how it seemed when the roller coaster started.

At the time we had been enticed back into the ‘make do and mend’ attitudes by the lack of disposable cash and the throwback to the glorious vintage era that made it trendy to be crafty. The lovely Kirsty Allsopp had shown us that being thrifty or crafty was achievable by any one of us… that we could create, mend, adapt and re-use items that were previously discarded recklessly as we shopped relentlessly for the next fashion piece. My research showed that people were starting to miss having easy access to sewing essentials and good knitting yarns. This was a re-assuring aspect to my plan.

We opened in October 2012, and by the following spring we had started to feel our feet, just in time for the pilot series of the Great British Sewing Bee. I was new to running a business and knew that I would need to be guided by my customers where stock was concerned. I was not prepared however for the mad rush that ensued when in the first episode the ‘bias binding’ machine, demonstrated and positioned perfectly, encouraged people to dash to the nearest haberdashery to purchase one of their own! We sold out in 2 days… the tool famine that followed lasted for weeks! Other items to take us by surprise that season included invisible thread (thank you Ms Allsopp), hessian and ribbon.

And so we were hooked – all summer the customers chatted about this lovely mini series of craft. “would there be another series?” was the most asked question. “Did you see that lovely dress that Ann made?”. Everyone saw something different in the series. Some people were dismayed at the way the stitchers created their garments, preferring the security of traditional working with its regimented and sometimes soul-destroying perfection, whilst others saw the breath of fresh air that was being demonstrated with relaxed techniques and a definite smile on the contestants faces as they proudly completed their tasks.

buntingWhen the announcement came that there would be another series my customers were so excited! I had 3 customers that applied to go on the show. One of them got through to the 3rd round and she was very pleased with herself. The second series did not disappoint… once again there was a great effect on the buying trends. This time however there was another, deeper, effect that was starting to emerge. Many of my customers had repeatedly voiced their opinion that sewing, crafting and knitting were dying skills and that the ‘young people’ were not interested. Well, that certainly changed in 2014. Many of those young people emerged from the shadows and showed that actually they had been having a go for quite some time but had not been admitting it. Suddenly my shop was being visited by timid and nervous young mums and teenagers that braved the doorstep and came along to learn better sewing and knitting techniques. My workshops filled with new blood – those ‘young people’ have gained confidence and produced some fantastic projects.

Over the year the interest has gained momentum. My husband works with me at the weekend and he is a very useful asset when it comes to engaging with the menfolk as they accompany their partners into this ‘stash’ containing emporium. Once they see him, there is a distinct relaxation of shoulders! Often the conversation turns to the ‘Great British Sewing Bee’ and surprise surprise… the menfolk quite like this programme…fabric

And so to series 3 – so far we have run out of rotary cutters, princess seamed dress patterns and some vintage style fabrics. In fact the reach now includes children and more openly the men – thanks to great contestants! The Children in Need celebrity specials were very entertaining and the challenges are discussed at every possible moment in the shop. It is lovely to hear the conversations with my customers and their opinions about who is good and who is not.

This week has been filled with ideas for costumes for the World Book Day that the schools take an active part in each year. The ideas have proved to be more adventurous this year. What started 2 years ago with a bit of felt in a mask format has now bloomed into a full costume with embellishments as people have allowed their imaginations to be supported by their growing confidence. I love that there is a rise in those revisiting their sewing and knitting skills so that they can create better garments for what is essentially fancy dress. Well done everyone!

Thank you to the BBC for trusting the nation and providing us with a fantastic opportunity to revive some of these creative skills. What will series 3 bring to us? Who will win? Who will provide us with the ‘memorable’ garment that we will talk about for months to come? One thing is for sure – it is all good. The craft business is benefiting from a raised interest, and confidence, from the nation.

Inspiration, Activation, … Frustration…

I love to create something from nothing. In fact I love to create something from something else, something that was not intended to be what I would like it to become! Re-purposing fabric from clothing has been a small passion of mine for some time now. I could never be a serious patchworker so making quilts etc.. does not excite me however, creating an item of clothing or an accessory from something that had a different purpose is really fun. I am not patient enough to make sure all seams are the accurate and precise – I want to see the finished item!

If fabric is a little frayed or worn then it can bring a little character to your project. If you don’t have the correct thread – then contrast and compliment – make a feature of of the differences. It is lovely to add some embellishment using the buttons or belt loops of a pair of trousers or jeans. Use the old zips to make flowers or a top stitched feature. I am not patient enough to be careful to match completely the colours or patterns of fabrics – I just cannot wait to see the finished item!

Recently a friend of mine brought me a challenge. Her mum had been given a lovely tea-towel for Christmas but didn’t want to use it as it might spoil. It was a Fortnum & Mason linen tea-towel in a gorgeous green colour and just too nice to leave in a drawer. What to do…. what to do….IMG_20150122_132905

Action time, this tea-towel is going to regenerate into an apron! I had some similar colour fabric in my stash of used fabrics. I think it was part of a bedding set that never got used. I could add panels to the sides of the tea-towel and also across the top so that the correct shape could be achieved. I could also use some herringbone tape to create the ties and the neck strap. Here we go… remember – I am not that patient….

I set off with my scissors, seam ripper and pins. the bobbin was wound with thread that was pretty close to matching the fabric, in fact it couldn’t be better to be honest. Halfway through winding the bobbin it looked like I might run out of that colour, it was getting a bit thin on the spool (rummages desperately through the sewing box – unsuccessfully). Ah well,  I think there will be enough to finish the project (eternal optimist takes over the thought process at this point). IMG_20150122_132932

The seams of the tea-towel are taken apart using the seam ripper… oh dear. The print on the tea-towel is clearly not going to look good if I just do a normal seam, it is going to need to be a sealed seam, after all it is a Fortnum & Mason tea-towel! Slight change of plan coming on… French seams to be used. Will the thread last? Of course… optimism wobbles a little!

I plough through the task now – pinning, tacking, sewing. Shape the bib of the apron by removing a small amount of fabric from the edges of the tea-towel.

Things are looking really good – the apron is taking shape… I am getting very excited and cannot wait to see the finished item! Remember… I am not patient!IMG_20150122_132830

Alas the anticipation cascades into frustration as I drive the sewing machine down the final seam triumphantly, only to come crashing down when I realise that I have run out of thread… I cast a quick glance up at the bobbin on the top of the machine and see that it is dangerously close to being empty as well! What to do… what to do… then I realise that I have a shade of thread that is a little paler than the one I am using. Think…. well it is being used on the seam that is at the back. In fact it is being used on the ties! Actually – if anyone notices this is a different shade then they must be on their knees peering around the back of the wearer! Perspective returns – and breathe…

Job complete – very happy customer! IMG_20150122_133419

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