With a penchant for colour and passion for customer service, Alison Townshend has spent the last 17 years building an indie retail group and womenswear brand. Her mini chain Sassy and Boo has grown from one single store in Bath into a cluster of shops dotted around the Cotswolds. Meanwhile, since launching in 2013, her brand Luella now boasts over 400 stockists across the UK and overseas.
But despite its impressive growth, a large business wasn’t always part of the plan for its owner.
A former property developer with an eye for fashion, Alison opened the first Sassy and Boo boutique in 2005. “I suppose it all started by chance,” she says. “A boutique I used to like shopping in went up for sale near Bath’s Royal Crescent and my husband offered to help me invest. I loved the idea but I was quite nervous – while I’m a natural sales person and was used to selling properties, I had no experience in retail.”
As it turned out, there was no cause for concern. With the aid of a mentor who was experienced in working for high street retailers and indies, the concept for the first Sassy and Boo store began to take shape.
Alison was set on creating a boutique that offered a completely different experience from high street multiples. From products to service, she wanted to provide a unique way for Bath’s well-heeled shoppers to browse and buy fashion. “The idea was to offer an outstanding service encompassing help with styling, colour coordination and creating a functional wardrobe,” she says. “Colour is our ‘thing’ and it plays a huge part in all our collections across the shops and brand.”
Sassy and Boo’s location was also vital for its success. Bath is a tourist hotspot for affluent shoppers visiting for day trips and weekends away. And as more stores followed over the years as it expanded into towns including Tetbury, Cirencester and Woodstock, destination is now an integral part of the Sassy and Boo formula: “We do spend a lot of time on choosing the ideal locations for our stores,” says Alison. “We usually go for small market towns that get lots of visitors; shoppers who are often on a pilgrimage from London for the weekend. Our offer appeals to that type of customer.”
Armed with seven years’ experience as an independent retailer, Alison began contemplating the idea of launching her own label. And using all the knowledge she’d gained as a buyer, Luella was born.
The collection offers high quality knitwear and womenswear in vibrant colourways – crucially, with short lead times. “I was getting a little bit fed up with placing large minimum orders six to eight months in advance,” she says. “It was particularly problematic for the spring/summer seasons, as drops would start arriving in January when there was little chance of selling warm weather clothes until March. I felt there was a real need for quality pieces boutiques could buy as and when they needed to.”
With a vision to break into the wholesale market from the get-go, Alison began producing knitwear in small quantities with a clothing manufacturer. The pieces were then shipped to warehouse to hold until buyers wanted new stock. To launch the range, she ran an advertising campaign with Boutique magazine and won some initial stockists. “I encouraged boutiques to order little and often and everyone was thrilled – it worked very well and growth from there was pretty much organic,” she says.
But it wasn’t until Alison took Luella’s now-signature star jumper to Pure London that the brand really took off. “It was just my husband and I on the stand that season and we had a 30ft-long queue,” she says. “We were inundated with orders for the entire three days; it was incredible and to this day I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
The rising success of Luella provided a catalyst for the growth of Sassy and Boo’s bricks-and-mortar stores. Since the label’s introduction nine years ago, Alison has opened five more boutiques, with another set to open in Marlborough later this month.
Today the Luella range makes up around 70 per cent of Sassy and Boo’s edit and includes bright cashmere blend knitwear, dresses, shirts and resortwear. Its most current AW22 collection is based on four colour stories to make merchandising easy for retailers. “The idea is to help buyers make a lovely edit for their individual store,” she explains. “So if they’re keen on the berry and teal story, for example, we can pull out various pieces that work very well aesthetically alongside each other. A buyer might not have bought into our shirts, but when they see everything together, they can visualise how well it works.”
To complement Luella, Sassy and Boo also stocks a range of mid-price womenswear from brands including YAS, Part Two and Anna Montana. Alison chooses labels that sit well within the stores – both visually and when it comes to the price. “It’s really important that we don’t go too high with our price points and also offer value for money,” says Alison. “Our dresses and cashmere blend knitwear remain at the RRP £72 – £85 mark, which is fantastic for the quality. I want to make buying from us an easy decision for our customers.”
Cost of living
Value for money is something the indie owner plans to focus on as she steers the business through the cost-of-living crisis. However, due to increasing wholesale and retail costs, she fears raising prices in the future could be unavoidable: “It’s unfortunately something we will be playing by ear and may have to consider,” she says. “I am slightly concerned about how much extra it’s going to cost to heat the shops this winter as energy prices continue to rise.”
Perhaps inevitably, Alison is starting to shift her focus increasingly towards e-commerce. Like many indies, Sassy and Boo wasn’t selling online prior to the first lockdown and had to pivot quickly to generate income. However, despite normality resuming in retail, e-commerce has continued to command strong sales. “I never wanted to sell online because we want to offer a personal in-store service,” she says. “It’s been difficult to change that thought process, but now I can see that online provides an efficient way for customers to buy from us. In the end we sold quite a lot during the pandemic and it really helped us through that time.”
For the coming months Alison’s strategy will be to invest in social media and online marketing to increase e-commerce sales. Luella is also poised for growth as the team sets its sights on further international export in USA territories, Canada and the Southern Hemisphere. “My immediate focus is launching Sassy and Boo in Marlborough,” says Alison. “There’s quite a lot of work there, particularly in ensuring we’re maintaining our high standards.”
With eight stores now in the group, does the owner think she will pursue opening more physical boutiques? “I’d never say never, but at this stage I can’t see us expanding the bricks-and-mortar business,” she concludes. “I think online growth will be our biggest focus for the years ahead. But you have to be adaptable as a retailer and open to considering every opportunity.”