Sass and Edge in Winchester is one of those indie success stories that makes the rest of the industry sit up and take notice. Open for just six years, its original modestly sized shop has blossomed into an award-winning fashion retail business boasting strong profits and a staunch customer base. And while the pandemic was a challenging time for some indie retailers, the lockdowns and consequent boom in e-commerce proved to be pivotal in its success.
In 2021, the retailer moved to larger and more prominent city centre premises as well as investing in additional external space for its online operation. Today, with co-founders Rachel Hunt and Sally Gott at the helm and a 17-strong team behind them, it sells a skilfully curated edit of premium womenswear to Winchester locals, tourists and fashion fans nationwide.
Big retail energy
Sass and Edge’s owners have a palpable energy and enthusiasm for the business – and their dedication and determination undoubtedly hold the key to its success. “Originally, we went into this hoping for a better work-life balance,” says Rachel. “It’s probably had the opposite effect as we work more now than we ever have” (daily from 8am – 7pm, in case you were wondering). She adds: “But the point is, it never feels like work. The shop is like a second home and there isn’t a single day we don’t want to be here.”
Both co-founders say they have worked in retail “forever” and bring decades of experience to the business. Sally previously held several senior positions with corporate high street brands such as Next and M&S while Rachel’s background in the independent sector has seen her working as a designer and for an indie retailer. They first met while working for The White Company in Winchester and fast became friends.
It was over festive drinks during a particularly frantic Christmas period that the initial idea for Sass and Edge began to take shape. “Opening a womenswear shop was something we’d both wanted to do separately for a number of years,” says Sally. “But after a lot of soul searching that night, we ultimately decided to just go for it. And we’ve never looked back.”
Their vision was to create a shop selling stylish, premium fashion for women who were, in a lot of ways, just like them: “Our original target customer was a local woman who loves clothes and has some expendable income,” says Sally. “She’d probably been used to traveling to London to get her fashion fix, so our aim was to bring her sort of labels to the local high street. She’s still very much our core customer, but our true audience is much more varied; we have everyone from teenagers to elderly women buying from us.”
A couple of months after their first brainstorm meeting, Sally and Rachel were at Pure London hunting down suppliers. They focused on sourcing premium European brands that weren’t necessary known in Winchester. “We knew how important it was to get the right mix of brands,” says Sally. “It’s not always easy getting the exact suppliers you’d like from the very beginning, so we went for good quality labels that weren’t being sold anywhere else locally.”
Today Sass and Edge stocks womenswear, footwear, accessories, jewellery and fragrances from over 70 different designers including Bash, Rails, Self-Portrait, Paige, Ash, Anna Beck, Kirstie Le Marque and Samsøe Samsøe.
Both co-founders share the store’s buying responsibilities equally, travelling to showrooms and agents all over Europe. “To be honest, we’re never not buying,” says Rachel. “Wherever we go we’re forever searching for the next big thing. Often we’ll approach brands directly instead of relying on trade shows.”
Another priority for the co-founders in the beginning was sourcing the right retail premises. “Finding a unit was probably our biggest challenge,” says Sally. “Rents and rates are so high in Winchester. Plus, we wanted to be in the centre but not actually on the high street; that doesn’t come up very often.”
As fate would have it, Rachel’s husband stumbled upon the perfect empty unit just a few months later: “A former café went onto the market and while it needed a lot of work, we just knew it was the one as soon as we saw it,” she says. By June, the co-founders had the keys in their hands and had completely refurbished and opened the shop just two months later.
Once the physical shop was in place, Sally and Rachel began setting their sights on e-commerce. They decided to sell via Trouva and Atterley “quite early on” to help drive online sales and promote the Sass and Edge brand. “We wanted to get our name out there, keep stock moving and help cashflow,” says Sally. “Trouva still works out well for us; it’s a completely different customer who buys different things, but we find it’s a great way to sell old stock and keep things ticking over.”
For the first few years, online sales made up just 12 per cent of the business. However, once the pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown, Rachel and Sally increased their social media presence in lieu of their physical store. “Things really started to change online for us in 2020,” says Sally. “We’d always used Instagram, but during the first lockdown we started broadcasting lives three times a week. It had such a huge impact on the business, and there was a direct link to sales.”
Currently, online versus in-store sales are near-evenly split with 40 per cent of Sass and Edge’s revenue coming from digital channels.
According to the duo, part of their success on Instagram – which saw them scoop Drapers’ Best Use of Social Media award in 2021 – is down to their laid-back approach: “We don’t take ourselves too seriously and customers really like that,” says Sally. “We’ve created an online community and it feels like we’re all in a big gang.”
Sass and Edge now also employs a dedicated social media manager to oversee its Instagram and Facebook pages, which now boast a collective 16,000 followers. “We’re very dedicated,” says Rachel. “It’s not uncommon for me to answer customer enquiries from my bed at 5am.”
As the business flourished, the duo found they were outgrowing their original premises: “We’d been processing all our online orders from the shop floor but as our customer base increased, we needed to take on an external stock room,” says Sally. “We just didn’t have enough space.”
So, in the middle of the pandemic, the co-founders signed a lease for a much bigger shop while taking on another off-site unit to fulfil its online orders: “The move meant we were tripling our rent and rates, but we were confident we could do it,” she adds. “It is amazing location in Winchester’s golden triangle and a really lovely shop. It’s a completely different kettle of fish to our first unit but it has made the hugest impact to the business.”
As the cost-of-living crisis batters retail, Rachel and Sally admit they have been very lucky to remain largely unaffected in the “bubble of Winchester.” They say: “People have started talking about it more in the shop but that’s quite a recent development. The amount shoppers are buying has stayed consistent year on year and so has our returning customer rate. We’re up +3 per cent on last year to date, which we’re delighted with as we had a really strong year in 2022.”
Sass and Edge’s customers are buying across the board with all product groups performing well. Dresses remains its strongest category followed by tops and shirts. Meanwhile, denim is a key year-round revenue maker alongside footwear.
When it comes to buying for SS24, the co-founders say they’ll be looking for newness and brands that will set the shop apart: “We’re always seeking to source different labels and products that other retailers don’t have,” says Sally. “It’s so hard though because as soon as you bring something in, everyone is following suit. We’re constantly aiming to stay one step ahead to keep it fresh. We never stop.”
While the duo has certainly uncovered a winning formula with Sass and Edge, they have no plans to expand with other physical stores. Instead, their focus will be on growing the business with e-commerce while keeping customers and staff happy. “We like working together and if we opened another shop, we’d have to split ourselves in two,” says Rachel. “For us, that wouldn’t be Sass and Edge anymore. If you work as much as we do, you need to be having fun.”
Having each other has been key to the continued success of the business. As Sally concludes: “Running a shop on your own it’s hard, but when there’s two of you nothing feels difficult. If one of us is struggling the other picks it up. We feel like we’ve sailed through the past few years on adrenalin. We absolutely love what we do.”