Shirley Leader opened her womenswear boutique Velvet & Rose in March 2018 in the market town of Petersfield, Hampshire.
“I’ve always had an eye for what looks good on someone and have always wanted to open up a little shop from when I was a young girl,” she told Retail Gazette.
“At one point in my career, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to join the police force or take the plunge and start a little boutique – of course, I chose the latter.”
Since opening her fashion retail business, Shirley’s focus has been to offer classic yet affordable clothing of good quality which is ideally sustainable, all while having a little twist from the main high street brands.
“There is certainly something for everyone and we have ladies – and some men – from teenagers to 90 years old shopping with us, so it’s quite a big range,” she said.
As Velvet & Rose is still relatively new, Shirley runs all areas of the business. She also employs “local ladies” to impart their advice as they have had more years’ experience in the retail sector that her.
“With a big drop in income we had to do some careful juggling with our finances”
“I make sure that I stay connected with them and listen to them,” she added.
So what makes Velvet & Rose different from the swathes of other independent fashion retailers across the UK?
“We know who [our customers] are and what they like,” Shirley said.
“We like to think we go the extra mile to buy clothing which they will love – our combo knits at the moment are a prime example of that.”
Like the majority of retailers, lockdown has provided challenges for Velvet & Rose. When Retail Gazette spoke to Shirley, it was preparing to reopen ahead of the easing of lockdown on non-essential retail in England this week.
Shirley said the most challenging aspect of running Velvet & Rose during each of the lockdowns over the past year was managing cashflow.
“Mainly to ensure that you do not over-buy in all aspects,” she explained.
“It is always tempting to buy in lots of brands but we focus on what is right for our local demographic first and then our wider customer base.
“During the lockdown this was even more important.”
Shirley went on to highlight that operating online helped prevent Velvet & Rose from seeing a dramatic decline in profit and revenue.
“Many businesses were rushing to go online in the first lockdown and we were fortunate enough to already have a shoppable website,” she added.
“I much prefer face to face interactions with my customers but even our local customers had to switch to the internet so that they could continue to support us.
“We also took more advantage of social media, and joined MyStreet.”
In fact the MyStreet app, which connects independent retailers with shoppers, gave Shirley the opportunity to reach a wider pool of customers across the UK. It also helped grow Velvet & Rose’s digital presence at a time when customers were turning to online shopping more than ever before.
“It was interesting because [MyStreet] enables us to have direct communication with potential customers and answer common questions like how an item fits, material, sizing etc, which gives shoppers more confidence in buying decisions and less reasons for returns,” Shirley recalled.
“We pride ourselves on customer service and the app allows us to give shoppers a personalised experience, just virtually.”
Despite the challenges faced over the year, Shirley said she and Velvet & Rose has managed to gain more connectivity with local businesses.
“I joined Facebook Lives with them to see how they were getting on and this certainly helped both us and them in lifting ourselves up again,” she said.
“On a national level, I joined Boutiques in Business and without this group I would have struggled. We compared notes and tips on how to survive the lockdown.
“Independent retailers are the heart of the local high street.”
“Also this past year has given us the time to reflect on our business and to focus on different areas and try different products so we are pleased that we have been able to do that.
“It has definitely brought us a sense of positivity and collectiveness.”
In the wake of a slew of big name retailers disappearing from high streets over the past 12 months, Shirley discussed the importance of independent retailers in the industry.
“They represent the community around them and the resilience of a business owner,” she said.
“They are mini entrepreneurs and strive to make a success.
“Nobody wants to wear the same top on a night out or more aptly a walk to the park or eat the same pre-packaged sandwich day in day out.
“They are the heart of the local high street.”
As well as staying connected with other smaller businesses, Shirley has prioritised supporting her local community.
“It is good to give back to the community who has supported you and be a part of something special,” she said.
“Locally we have close ties with the Rosemary Foundation.
“We have supported their events and fundraising and they are such special people.
“Also, many are business owners are supporting each other, creating a sense of togetherness, which has been even more evident during the pandemic.”
With the easing of lockdown on non-essential retail now finally a reality, Shirley has ambitions for Velvet & Rose to continue building a solid customer base, both locally and nationally.
Short term goals include fine tuning the shop’s product offering, while long term, Shirley said she’d love to start looking into an own-label line.