Starting a new business is notoriously tough – particularly in the middle of a pandemic. But for Cuckoo founder Jai Parbat, who opened a new womenswear boutique last April, it’s been challenging and rewarding in equal measures. Its journey to establishing itself amid lockdowns and then a cost-of-living crisis has been a bumpy road. However, with a strong line-up of brands and standout experience, it has already built up a loyal customer base with strong sell-through rates to match.
Although the former insurance broker never planned to open her own boutique, you could say retail was always part of Jai’s destiny. Her father was a market trader in Crawley for many years selling fashion and later ran a womenswear shop called Abigail’s with extended family. Meanwhile, her mother ran her own boutique, Orchid, in nearby Horley for over 25 years.
In 2018, in a cruel twist of fate, Jai’s mum was involved in a serious car accident. Her injuries left her incapacitated and in and out of hospital for six months. “It was a really scary time,” says Jai. “It meant she would probably never be able to work again and as a family we had to make some big decisions about her business.”
Jai felt there was no other option than to take over the shop. Initially she just worked over the weekends and continued with her full-time job. But as time went on and it became clearer that her mother wouldn’t be able to return, she left her role as an insurance broker to take over the business.
Orchid is a well-established bricks-and-mortar retailer selling Indian cotton dresses and Italian womenswear sourced from stock houses. And after three months of immersing herself into buying and business operations, Jai had been well and truly bitten by the retail bug. “I realised really quite quickly that I wanted to do it for myself,” she says. “I was getting to grips with what was selling and seeing the reaction from customers; I found the whole process really fulfilling and exciting.”
After a while Jai began to put her own stamp on the boutique’s product line-up and realised that she had a natural flair for buying. However, she knew there were only so many changes she could make without alienating the store’s customer base. So, with encouragement from her mum, she decided to open another boutique in a new area with a vision to offer timeless womenswear that focused on quality and longevity.
Sometime during the first UK lockdown, the perfect vacant unit became available in Horsham and Jai decided to bite the bullet and sign on the dotted line. The area, positioned about 20 miles south of Guildford, seemed like the perfect choice as it has a strong retail offer as well as a gap in the market for another boutique. “That was back when we were all wondering when we’d come out of lockdown. Things were really hanging in the balance with the landlord but luckily they decided to wait it out with us until we were able to take it on.”
Cuckoo was originally scheduled to open in November 2020, but its launch was pushed back to April 2021. But as it turned out, securing premises wasn’t the biggest challenge. With harsh covid restrictions in place and in-person buying still on hold, obtaining the kind of stock Jai wanted was verging on the impossible: “I remember having meetings with potential stockists just four weeks before we opened,” she says. “At that point I hadn’t set a date a definite date for the launch as I had no idea if we’d have anything to sell. Some brands had in-season bits that I could order and the agents helped to make sure we got things in. Some UK brands also scraped around to find pieces for us. There were certain lines that we couldn’t get in a full size range, but it gave us enough to merchandise. I also selected some stock from the existing business that I felt would sit well alongside the brands I’d chosen. We were still opening boxes on the day before the opening.”
Now fully stocked with forward order Scandinavian, European and British brands, Cuckoo line-up includes Ichi, Numph, Grace and Mila, FRNCH, Soya Concept, Kaffe, Sugarhill Brighton and Louche. Jai says the brand mix appeals to a younger demographic than those shopping at Orchid, although the boutique does attract a broad spectrum of customers aged from 25 to 90. “We offer an eclectic edit,” she says. “Shoppers can find something fun and quirky but we also have everyday elevated basics that they will wear year after year.”
Jai says her main aim when selecting the collections was to fill a gap in the market and bring something new to the area. “I did spend a lot of time looking at what was already available in Horsham and trying to figure out what was missing,” she says. “I felt the market was already saturated with the kind of pieces my mum had been stocking but there were also shops like Jigsaw and Hobbs alongside more premium boutiques. I felt like there was a gap there for the everyday shopper who was becoming more conscious and wanted quality.”
As well as the buying, Jai had to get to grips with the technical side of running a new retail business – especially at a time when most of her competitors had moved into omni-channel. However, her previous work experience in insurance broking and IT stood her in good stead: “I didn’t pay anyone to set up any of the systems in the shop,” she says. “From the barcoding to the website, it’s all my own work. Having the experience of working with computers in my previous job – and being a millennial – really helped.”
So far Cuckoo’s shoppers have been mostly using the site as a shop window, browsing its product range before visiting the physical store. As the store becomes more established Jai says she hopes to expand its reach to shoppers further afield using the power of social media. “A big focus for me at the moment is growing the online side of the business,” she says. “We haven’t been as bold as doing live streams yet, but we’re now in a better position to start showing customers what we think they want to see. We’d like to replicate what we do in the shop in our videos, and we hope that will generate some more online sales.”
Sales have been strong so far at Cuckoo, with year-on-year figures increasing despite the cost-of-living crisis. Jai has noticed a distinct difference, however, in her customers’ buying habits over the past few months: “Premium brands seem to be doing very well,” she says. “People are investing in quality at the moment and are really thinking about the longevity and versatility of the pieces they’re buying. Our most popular pieces have been good quality t-shirts over the summer and now we’re selling a lot of timeless wardrobe staples like oversized white shirts.”
Jai says that helping customers find items they love is one of the best aspects of running a boutique. “Getting great feedback is amazing,” she says. “Some people are so genuinely happy they skip out of the shop – then they come back again for a repeat purchase. You can’t help but feel a real sense of achievement about that.”
The coming weeks will be an important time for the business as Christmas approaches. Jai is planning to host some in-store events to help promote gifts and the store’s AW22 collections and will also take part in late night shopping and Small Business Saturday: “We celebrated our first year in business with a party for our customers and it was really successful,” she says. “It’s a great way to get people into the shop and we’ll also offer an incentive on purchases.”
When it comes to Black Friday, Jai is still undecided about whether she’ll be taking part this year. “We didn’t partake in it last year and some people did ask us why,” she says. “I would like to do it in an independent-friendly way if we are able to strike the right balance. If we decide to take part, it won’t be to just drive sales – it’d be more about supporting customers like they’ve supported us. Some shoppers may be looking for promotions because of their financial situation and I would like to give back where I can.”
For the longer-term future, Jai has her sights set firmly on growth. The staff on Cuckoo’s payroll has now expanded to four, with the owner working full-time alongside three part-timers. Each brings their own unique set of skills, with visual merchandising and customer styling at the fore. And this will be important for Jai moving forward, as she is keen to achieve a good work-balance: “The business has grown massively in a short space of time – and that’s great,” she says. “But I’ve been running on pure passion and adrenalin for the past 18 months and that’s not sustainable long-term. I’d like to think there will come to a point where I’m able to take a step back. I want to see my friends and look after my mum. There’s no point working hard if you can’t play hard, too.”