We wanted to get the perspective of a well-established independent retailer, so the team at Inglesina kindly arranged for us to speak with The Baby Lady, Debbie Homer-Davis, who has been selling prams for more than two decades.

Can you tell us a bit about the business during 2020?

We started the year on an absolute blinder – it was record beating in a huge way. We saw a massive, uplift in demand and footfall with the demise of Mothercare. And that was terrific. And then of course, we went into lockdown.

So we had to really change the way we structured the business on the whole. We’ve had some exceptionally good months, we have had some challenging months, and we’ve had to address the way that we do things. And they haven’t been as profitable as maybe we would have liked. But our percentage profit margin generally has remained quite high.

It’s not just about turnover, it’s about the percentage profit margin we’re making as well. You need to maintain profitability. It’s fundamentally important. The profit is the secret to everything, you can do a very small turnover, but a very high profit, and you’ve got a good business.

What are the foundations on which the Baby Lady has built up over the years? And how does it translate into everyday business?

So the foundations were based on old fashioned values, customer service and really what it translates to. I would like our customers to have the experience that I would like to have if I go to our shop.

And I read a brilliant quote, which goes like this: “If you had someone come to your shop, and they were celebrity, how would you treat them? Would you treat them differently to how you’re treating your average customer? If you treat that celebrity differently to the way you’re treating your average customers, why weren’t you treating all of your customers that way?”

Because you should be, this is about customer service, and it is challenging. Don’t get me wrong, it is very challenging. And sometimes we don’t always get there. But that’s what we aim for. And that’s what the core business is set up about. I want people to have a brilliant experience.

Which brands do you see as being on the up? And perhaps which ones are you moving away from?

We would be moving towards brands that are working with us in a very proactive way. We are working to do more business with brands who are looking after our profit margin, who are protecting our sales so that we are not doing all the work for others.

How do you see the long term trend in the retailers that are not online focussed?

I have always believed that there is a place in the market for real, proper shops. Now it’s going to be harder, because people have got used to shopping online. But I am a massive believer that people want to touch and feel, they want to interact with real people. And I honestly believe that there is a place in the market for that type of experience. But you have to make it good. And if you’re not good, you won’t survive. You can’t just go in, open up, put stuff on the floor, expect people to walk in and buy it, unless it’s rock bottom prices.

You still need to have an online presence as a window, I think. And that is something we’re working on. If we see that there is a rival – particularly in the supermarkets – that we can’t compete with and makes us look expensive, we need to move away from that, because that’s not good for us.

Some customers are nervous about buying wheeled goods online. I think they also benefit from the massive amount of knowledge that we provide them with and help them make those choices and and certainly wheel goods are our hero products. I would say we are very good at car seats too.

What positive opportunities do you see for the market ahead in 2021?

I think 2020 also gave us an opportunity. Where there is challenge, there’s also opportunity. We’ve redecorated our showroom in the last few weeks when we’ve been shut. And the girls have worked so hard, and my husband – who is amazing – has completely redecorated my work office.

We’ve developed our skills online, we’ve developed our videos, and I have worked really hard on my presenting skills. So actually 2020 has provided opportunities.  Yes, it’s been challenging, but you know, you have to have to try and look for the little of ray of sunshine everywhere.

2021 is going to be an amazing year, it’s our 30th anniversary, I’m very excited about the future. We’re working on lots of ideas for next year already. And we think that there is a huge opportunity for stores like us to provide a really, really good service. Obviously, it will still be challenging until things settle down. And we still have to be very, very careful about keeping everyone safe, which we’ve worked extremely hard on and I don’t see that we will change from the appointment only system anytime soon.

What has the response has been from your customers since the changing retail landscape with the closure of Babies R Us and Mothercare? 

For me, the Mothercare business model was just broken. I would like to see suppliers providing more profit margin for retailers like ours, and more incentive to put things on their shop floors. Because it costs money to do this when we have to buy things in at full price. And we’re not given any discount so unless you’re going to make a huge amount of sales from it, that’s a very expensive way to do business.

After the collapse of Mothercare, we saw a huge uplift. We could hardly get any more people in the store, which is so weird now when you think back to that, but we would have 50 to 60 people in the store. So it was just manic.

And of course now we limit it so that we only have two sets of customers at any one time, which is probably being overly cautious, because we do have 2,000 square foot. It means you know exactly how many staff to have.

I think the biggest thing we’ve had this year is when we have customers turn up without appointments, who get annoyed and very angry. That’s really difficult to manage. But we can only see a certain number of people at any one time.

What top tips would you give any new independent retailer?

There is opportunity for someone who wants to work really, really hard. You’ve got to be passionate and love what you do. If you go into it just for the money, it’s not going to work because it’s so cut-throat and so competitive.

I think if you are going into this as a new retailer you’ve got to ask yourself, what do you want to get out of it? Profit margin in nursery is so small compared to so many other industries, that if you are coming into this, I think you’ve got to come in with your eyes wide open and really do your research and add up the sums.

And, yes, rents are going down on the high street, but so is footfall. I’m not saying you can’t make it work. You can, but you you have to be prepared for how hard it is.

What tips would you give to brands wanting to work with independents in the future?

I think brands really need to understand that your primary business is to sell directly to the public, so you’ve got to be fair to the retailers and either work out a completely different strategy, or not use the retailers for shop floor and then sell direct.

In terms of how you can work with us, I think that shops need help with display models. It is hugely expensive to change your display models regularly. And I think that all suppliers should look at that with a contract to make sure that the product stays on the floor.

I also think that suppliers need to work out a plan. If you want stores to survive to showcase their products, you’ve got to work with those stores to make that happen.

Next year is going to be difficult because lots of people are going to lose their jobs, money is going to start getting very tight. 

Do you have any plans to move your business or to enlarge your store? Or to open another store?

No, I don’t have any plans to move the business because our overheads are very low. You have to look at your overheads – what your business costs you to run is absolutely fundamental. It’s very important to me that we don’t over stretch ourselves.

I love what I do. I put myself under pressure, but quality of life is also really important. And I need to balance that. I’ve given a huge amount to the business over the years. But I also need to balance that with other things in my life: my children, my family, my husband.

Find out more about the Baby Lady

You can find out more about the company on their website.

The Baby Lady

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