In these challenging times, it’s easy to get nervous and question where the market is going. This month’s topic is about longevity in business
“As we retailers are all too aware, the market has changed, buying habits have changed, and brides’ expectations have changed. And, of course, challenges from the high street and internet have changed everything, too. I have been in business for three years and want to be in business for the next ten at least, but I do feel threatened. How do those who have clocked up decades stay on top of the game? I could do with some sound advice here…”
Andrew and Rob Pearce | Creatiques | Southsea, Hampshire
As a bridal retailer for over 28 years, we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs within the industry.
The main thing that we have learned in our time is that every bride is different to the next, and that means you have to constantly adapt your style and approach to meet each bride’s requirements and expectations. This is why it’s called ‘Customer Service’ – the service you offer to every individual bride.
Something else we’ve learned is that you could have the best dresses from each designer, but they may not necessarily be the right dress to suit your market and fit with surrounding venues.
Think about the area you’re in, brides’ budgets, and popular wedding venues in the vicinity. In Southsea we have a selection of beautiful seafront hotels, and some 15 miles up the A3 there’s a whole host of rustic barns – both of these venue types call for different wedding themes and dress styles.
Another tip we’ve learned over the years is to spend time before any major show going through your stock. Look at what you are missing and don’t buy gowns for the sake of buying them.
Do you really need that strapless, dropped-waisted A-line that is very similar to five others you already have? Make a note of it and include that particular dress in your trunk show event.
Finally, be consistent. Offer the same level of service to each and every bride who steps through your door. Whether you work by appointment or not, every bride wants to feel like they are the only bride in the world.
We are a very small team in comparison to other shops we know; aside from we two owners, we have one full-time member of staff, Kayleigh, and we all offer the same level of continuity, compassion and customer service to our clients. That goes a long way when it comes to the word-of-mouth recommendations that are key to building your boutique’s success.
In our industry, customer retention is hard to measure, due to it really being a ‘once in a lifetime’ thing to get married (but we know that times are changing; in fact, we’ve seen the same bride twice for two different weddings!), but by ensuring that each bride sings your praises to her friends, those girls will make a point of visiting you when, in turn, they get engaged.
Helen Lord | Lulu Browns | Whalley, Lancashire
The main issue with our sector (independent bridal shops) is that there are too many of us.
Sadly, you have every reason to feel threatened as our diluted market fights to service the same number of brides as more and more shops open.
My best piece of advice is to keep your eyes down and your mind focused on your own business. Don’t get caught in the trap of watching what other shops are doing. Your competitors are not sat on your door step or in the next town; they are the boutiques that carry the same labels as you.
If your bride wants, say, a Justin Alexander gown and you don’t stock that label, let it go. You simply can’t have every designer. If your bride buys the same gown that you stock, from another store, it’s then when you need to ask yourself, why was that? Was it your service? Were you beaten on price? Answers to questions like these will help you build a stronger business going forward.
Here are my top tips to long-term success…
- Buy from fewer designers, but stock them in depth and become important to them.
- Choose gowns that sell, not necessarily the ones that you like.
- Make your advertising and social media one of – if not the – most important job in your business.
- Do not compete on price – let your service shine and you won’t have to discount your product or products.
- Spreadsheets don’t lie. Test and measure everything so you can make informed decisions.
- Invest in training your staff. To stand out from the crowd, you have to offer a customer service that is second to none. This comes from passion, but also their knowledge of your product.
- Don’t look at your figures on a monthly basis; analyse at least six months at a time, or better still, a full year.
- It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a moment to ruin it. Always have your game-face on, even when you don’t feel like it.
- Be realistic with your business finances. If you’re still not making a profit after two or three years, I would say it’s time to close or make drastic changes to your business.
Stephanie Hanks | Bride To Be | Reading, Berkshire
In my opinion there are two golden rules for ensuring longevity in business. The first and key rule is ‘a willingness to embrace change’.
Life as a retailer has never changed as quickly as in the past few years. Brides will no longer accept the same level of store layout, décor and ambience, the same ‘slow-to-load and difficult-to-navigate’ website or just ‘average’ customer service that they all took as the norm once upon a time.
Everything from the minute they start looking on the internet for shops to visit to try on dresses must be easy for them and it must be an enjoyable experience.
Customers definitely want an ‘experience’ and no longer see buying their dress as merely ‘shopping’.
I would say ‘embrace’ those girls who come into your store and who you think will never buy a dress from you, because you assume they would rather buy from the high street. You will always manage to convert a percentage of them – it’s amazing how, if a girl loves a dress, she will find the money from somewhere!
In addition – even if you don’t manage to get her to buy a dress from your store – she will tell all her friends how wonderful you are and it’s quite probable that one of them will have enough of a budget to buy from you when her wedding day comes around. Word of mouth is powerful.
My second golden rule for longevity is to keep a tight rein on your cash flow. The old saying ‘turnover is vanity, profit is sanity and cash flow is king’ has never been more appropriate than in today’s difficult climate.
To run a successful business, it is vital that you pay your rent and suppliers on time, that you can afford your VAT and tax bills and that you can employ good staff. If you want to work with the best suppliers, it’s vital that you pay them in a timely manner – after all, they are not banks there to fund our businesses! If you look after them, then they in return will look after you.
It could be so easy to think you have lots of money to play around with when you have your own company, but one very wise accountant once said to me “it’s not the bills that make a business go bust, it’s the flash lease cars parked on the driveway!”
These words have always stuck with me!
Nicola Garton | The Wedding Shop | Colchester, Essex
Don’t be afraid of change: be willing to adapt your business.
How often do we watch Mary Portas or Alex Politzi try to help a business owner who just cannot see that they are doing things wrong, that they want to keep doing it the same way they have for years because it worked back in 1980?
The pace of change within bridal retailing is quicker than it’s ever been and we must be prepared to try new approaches and techniques.
Brides now expect far more than years ago and we have to change our levels of service to mirror this: refreshments, comfy sofas, longer appointment times. Never lose sight that for the bride this is her one and only experience of buying a wedding dress; she wants it to be perfect, and rightly so!
Customer service is key. Great customer service is a must to win sales, but it’s also vital that you learn how to deal with unhappy customers.
Make sure you have procedures in place to handle complaints in a professional manner – try turning a complaining customer back into a happy one. Deal with complaints swiftly and try to speak to the customer in person.
Remember that emails can always be read in the wrong way and that a dispute can escalate through email when a quick phone call with a genuine apology can often nip a potentially difficult situation in the bud.
Retail is Detail. Make sure your shop always looks its best, and that includes the exterior – it sets the tone for what a bride expects from the off, and when she steps inside make sure she gets a great first impression.
Don’t over-buy. It’s easy to visit your favourite designer and order more dresses than you actually need as you get caught up in the moment or think you must have that dress for the window.
These can prove to be costly mistakes in the long run. It’s important to research the designers you are stocking and make sure that they will be able to give you the back-up service you need. If you’re trying out a new designer, make sure you are confident in them and their ability to deliver.
Don’t be tempted to have too many designers – try to find suppliers that work well for you and stick with them. It’s always better to be a good customer to fewer suppliers that an average customer to many.
Emma Hartley | Emma Hartley Bridalwear | Colne, Lancashire
How to survive in bridal in ten easy steps… Oh, if only it was that easy – I would have sold the magic formula and made a fortune by now!
I think there are common attributes which separate the businesses that survive the long haul from the ones that fall by the wayside.
The magic ingredients are passion, determination and hard work. Unfortunately, you can’t buy any of them, but the survivors in this industry possess them all.
I am not just talking about passion for the product – let’s be honest, it’s not too hard to muster up enthusiasm for beautiful bridal gowns. It’s about passion for your customers and being determined to find every bride the perfect gown. Not just to make a profit, but because you want to help someone.
You must be passionate about training your team to a high standard and assisting in their personal development. You also need to have a genuine passion for retail and constantly strive to improve your customer experience.
Determination is the next ingredient. You need to never give up on your dream, even when the odds seem stacked against you. Be determined to be the best you can be as an owner, as a team and as a business. Always look for ways to improve and be determined to remain relevant in today’s ever-changing market.
The final ingredient is hard work… Be prepared to put in the hours. Bridal is not a lifestyle choice unless, of course, your dream lifestyle is working every weekend, with ideas constantly whirring through your mind even when you are not physically present.
The work can be physically and emotionally hard – you are dealing with the most important day in someone’s life. There is no room for ambivalence and no room for error. You have to offer excellent service to every bride every day.
If you feel you have passion, determination and are prepared to work extremely hard, there is no reason why you will not still be here in ten years’ time.