In the summer of 1985, just a week before welcoming her first child into the world, Claire Wright opened the first Gemini Woman. That store in Banbury rapidly grew into a small group before scaling back down to one again. Today the business boasts a hugely popular single bricks-and-mortar store in Stratford-upon-Avon alongside a thriving e-commerce operation. And its original team, which started in single figures, has grown into a troupe of 21 staff members – the baby, now a grown woman, included.
Owner Claire remains as involved as she was 37 years ago, steering the business through various challenges over the decades while evolving with changing consumer behaviour.
But retail wasn’t always part of her long-term career plan. After leaving school, Claire was an aspiring photographer and began working for a local jeweller as a stopgap before starting university. “I quickly realised that I loved selling – and I was very good at it,” she says. “I’ll always remember my first big sale: a diamond and ruby ring I sold to a gentleman who’d only come in for a small gift for his wife. One day a chap came in and I sold him a rather expensive Breitling watch. He was so impressed that he came back to offer me a job.”
The position was for denim retailer The Westerner, which operated several stores around the UK. Claire began working on the shop floor before progressing quickly to assistant manager. Later she was asked to travel to various stores within the group to help with holiday cover. And it was during this time that her sales skills really began to get noticed: “I was really driven in customer service and sales would increase quite substantially every time I was working at a store,” she says. “I eventually worked across the company to help boost revenue.”
By 1985 life had changed quite dramatically for Claire. She was now married, owned her own home and was pregnant with her first child. And it was at this point that she decided to go it alone and be her own boss.
Her first boutique in Banbury was a huge success and was followed quickly by a second in Leamington Spa then another in Stratford-upon-Avon. But as changes occurred in the towns and Claire gave birth to her son in 1995, she decided to concentrate on one single boutique. “I wanted to just have one really good shop instead of trying to spread myself too thinly,” she says. “I really admire people who run multiple boutiques, but for me I felt it was easier to manage one shop, especially with two children. I decided to focus on Stratford my parents also ran a shoe shop there and it was closest to where I lived.”
The Gemini Woman
Today Gemini Woman operates one store in Stratford-upon-Avon, stocking European brands such as Masai Clothing, Amazing Woman, Robell, MamaB, Thing, Sandwich Clothing, Sahara, Orientique, Adini and Coster Copenhagen. The owner describes the store’s womenswear line-up as “easy wear, easy care” encompassing elevated basics that shoppers can wear every day. Its prices range from £50 to £200 for dresses and £25 to £150 for tops.
Meanwhile, after taking over her parents’ shoe shop in 2001 and subsequently amalgamating it onto Gemini’s main shop floor, the boutique also offers a strong footwear line-up from brands such as Kennel und Schmenger, Victoria, Emu Australia, Ash and Caprice. “Bringing everything all under one roof was an emotional decision as my parents had been running that store (originally Strutters then renamed Gemini Shoes) since the 1980s,” says Claire. “The type of product we sell has evolved as it’s tailored to suit the womenswear collections, whereas before it was a standalone offer for footwear shoppers.”
As well as bringing her natural flair for selling and customer service to the business, Claire was a trailblazer in customer loyalty too. Gemini Woman was an early adopter of EPoS at the beginning of the 1990s, which led it to developing its own customer database, too. “That in itself really helped escalate the business as we were able to market to the people who were already shopping at the store,” she says. “By the early 00s we created our own loyalty scheme and moved to bigger premises, which really increased our revenue. I just knew from then on that loyalty was something we needed to keep building on.”
The boutique’s retention programme rewards shoppers for spending at the store and online. Once a customer has spent £75, they are automatically placed on the scheme and will receive silent promotions – either by email or post. “We’ll send out specific offers available only to the shoppers on our loyalty list,” says Claire. “For instance, higher spending customers might receive a voucher worth £30 to spend on transactions over a certain value. We’re found the more money we offer as a voucher, the better the return. Around 50 per cent of customers who receive one can end up using it, which is great for boosting revenue.”
The store has also introduced eight of its own in-house brochures each year, which promote its current collections. These include a mix of brand-specific brochures (a recent version focusing on the different shapes available in Robell’s trousers range did very well) as well as seasonal edits featuring multiple brands. “These are really key for us now and help to build loyalty,” says Claire. “We send out hard copies to our loyalty customers and digital versions to online shoppers. They’re really great for promoting what’s available at Gemini and increasing sales.”
Move to online
By 2008, before the financial crash, Claire had invested in Gemini Woman’s first transactional website. “One of our former staff members, who had been working for Arcadia at the time, came back to launch the site,” she says. “We ran it as a business within a business and it did well from the beginning.”
Despite the economic woes of the time, the site was re-platformed just a couple of years later and by 2012 it was “flying high.” Today the online business is run by a team of 13 people with picking and packing taking place in-house above its Stratford store.
Claire says online differs quite considerably from bricks-and-mortar retail and that “moving into e-commerce was a real eye-opener.” Its customer base, for example, is split into two: those who buy full-price items and those who only purchase discounted lines. “Selling online means you have a sale running 52 weeks a year,” she says. “So, both of these shoppers are equally important – and they need marketing to specifically.”
Competing with huge corporations is also part and parcel of running an online business. And for Claire, this can often mean going into sale earlier than she’d like to or partaking in national events like Black Friday. “When you sell online you are visible to the rest of retail, so even if the likes of Mint Velvet and Jigsaw go into sale early, it means you have to introduce some sort of offer to remain competitive. Black Friday is a prime example. I know a lot of boutiques stand fast and don’t do it, but the reality is that you’re going to miss out a huge volume of traffic if you don’t get involved.”
The owner says some of the biggest lessons she’s learned as a small business owner have been from the tough times, whether that’s been an economic downturn or Brexit: “There have been many times when I’ve had sleepless nights,” she says. “Because sometimes, no matter what you do, consumers just don’t shop and there’s not a lot you can do about it. But my advice to other indies is always to collect data so you can communicate with your customer base. Always reward your best customers, but don’t forget about the others as one day they might end up becoming your best too.”
For Claire and many other indies, one of the biggest challenges was the pandemic. One best-selling brand she doesn’t want to name went into administration – leaving a huge gap in the store’s product offer and revenue. So, while Gemini Woman was set up to sell online and had been operating successfully for 12 years, it was still left in a dangerous position. “I decided to be very cautious from the first lockdown and pulled everything back, really going right back to basics,” she explains. “The loss of that brand did throw us backwards, but it meant I was able to consider other suppliers and we actually adopted some new ways of working.”
In-season ordering has subsequently become more important for the business. Pre-pandemic, Claire says she only held back 10 per cent budget for short orders. Today she dedicates closer to 30 per cent for “lower risk brands.” She explains: “Since the pandemic I haven’t panicked as much about not having stock in the order book. I’m comfortable with having extra budget to spend in-season because I’m more confident we can fill the gaps.”
Lifestyle brand Chalk UK has become a key seller, with Gemini placing orders every three to four days at its peak during the lockdowns. “We had such a brilliant reaction to the brand and worked with them to create exclusives, which our customers loved,” Claire says. “We probably went from selling £1,000 worth of stock each week to £20,000 – it was quite incredible.”
The owner is also working closely alongside UK-based brand Amazing Woman, taking part in product selection, sampling and factory visits. “We sell the brand on our site but it’s delivered directly from their own warehouse, so it’s almost like a marketplace arrangement,” she says. “This is working really well for both of us and sales from the brand now make up around 15 per cent of our overall revenue.”
While SS22 proved to be a successful season for the retailer, Claire does have concerns about AW22. “Last year goods came in late because of shipment delays so we had quite a poor September followed by an amazing October and November,” she says. “But compared to pre-covid figures, it’s only where we should have been anyway. “We don’t expect delays this time so September 2022 should be stronger, but it’s a short selling season so we’ll need to peak within the first three months. By December we’ll probably need to start doing mark downs without going into sale, which we’ll hold out on as long as we can.”
Claire’s main focus continues to be firmly on covid recovery – only now she has to do so in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. “I think it would be wrong to say we aren’t worried about rising energy prices, but we will try our best to get through this winter,” she says. “We’ll be encouraging customers to buy more layers and heavier pieces to keep warm. We’ll also be supporting our staff and paying the living wage.”
Moving forward, Gemini Woman has a five-year plan in place and will continue developing its online business, focusing on profitability and rebuilding its brands. “I will be focusing on my core business, working with brands and creating really good relationships,” she says. “I want to make sure I’m staying true to our original values and not diluting the brand as we get through these tough few months ahead.”