Housed inside a beautiful Grade II listed building, The Women’s Society Boutique in Hertford has recently celebrated its fifteenth year in business. The indie stocks glamorous womenswear and accessories from high-end labels including Essentiel Antwerp, Fabienne Chapot and Pyrus. Here we speak to owner Victoria Rex-Lees to discover how she marked the store’s recent milestone and the challenges she’s facing as an independent business…
What is your career background?
I studied retail management at university before landing my first job at BHS head office. I was in the buying team for the Christmas department, which gave me a good solid grounding in retail. I learned a lot while I was there on everything from costing break downs to choosing the right products. While there I also met my would-be business partner Dave Willis. In 2006, we joined forces and opened The Women’s Society Boutique.
What’s the story behind The Women’s Society Boutique?
I had recently moved to New Hartford and a shop unit became available, so everything fell into place. We started off with a perfume counter where shoppers could create their own fragrances. Customers could buy everything in the shop, including the furniture. After a while we evolved the business and branched out into clothes, candles and other products. As time moved on it became clear that clothing was where the heart of the business was, so we took away the perfume counter and focused on fashion. We did open another store in 2008, but it closed because of the recession. It was a learning curve, so I don’t regret it.
How have things changed since you first started?
When I first opened the boutique at 25 years old, retail was a completely different kettle of fish. We had a website but there was no e-commerce at that time; we didn’t even have Facebook back then! I bought out my partner around 2014, so I’ve been on my own for about eight years. With everything online now, I never stop working – it’s constant. Our team players must be multi-skilled in every area. It’s a tough industry, but it’s incredibly rewarding.
What are your best-selling brands?
We sell premium to high-end labels at The Women’s Society Boutique, with a few lower priced brands too. There are some private schools in the area, so our target market is quite affluent. We brought Essentiel Antwerp into the store a few seasons ago and it’s well established now and is doing very well. French brand Fabienne Chapot is also a strong seller for us as well as Pyrus, which we’ve carried for 14 years. We do have some more affordable brands too such as Soaked in Luxury.
What kind of products are selling well in the boutique at the moment?
Sales of coats, winter boots and scarves have picked up now the weather has changed. There’s been more of an interest in outfits for weddings too, so occasionswear sales are picking up. We’re also selling lots of gifts for Christmas like accessories, scarves, hats and gloves; in fact, we’re already selling out of a lot of lines. British brand Sirens arrived recently and our customers are loving its bright colours and easy-fit flattering designs. We’re also doing more partywear this season such as sequinned pieces for Christmas.
How has the pandemic affected the business and how did you adapt?
We were already selling online and on Trouva before the pandemic, but e-commerce wasn’t a priority. When we went into the first lockdown I’d just had a baby, so I couldn’t dedicate as much time as other indies to growing our social media and online business. Really, during that time, I was treading water; all of my staff went onto furlough and I started delivering local orders with my newborn in the back of the car! I moved stock to my house and started doing social media from my home office, broadcasting live videos or recording content when I could fit it in. In some ways it was a great time as I didn’t have the day-to-day stress of managing the shop. It was also lovely to be able to spend so much time speaking to and delivering orders to our customers.
How did you celebrate your 15-year anniversary in September?
After spending our thirteenth birthday in lockdown it’s been great to be able to celebrate this one properly. We held two events: one for our gold customers and one open to the general public. Our first was a private shopping evening for our most loyal customers; they were given a first look at the AW21 collections and a discount. They also received a goody bag when they spent over £150. It was very popular and just really lovely to have everyone back in the shop. The changing rooms were packed and our customers loved being able to shop without wearing masks. We also held another event for all our other customers from Friday to Saturday, with 15 per cent off everything in store. The private event was definitely more of a success. September can be a tricky month depending on the weather. You also need to time your deliveries correctly and get cashflow right. But I really love September, it’s like the start of the year for us as it’s when we roll our new brands and everything feels really fresh.
What challenges are you facing as a business at the moment?
The petrol crisis was a challenge. We saw sales dip during that period and can only put it down to that. If there are any external influences, then we are getting hit. For instance, if prices of petrol go up and stay high, that will have an impact on us. It may mean that people stay at home and don’t go out shopping, or on the flipside some might shop local instead of visiting city centres. The supply chain issue seems to have evened out now and we have received lots of new deliveries. We’ve had the odd style cancelled from brands but no orders.
What are your plans for the Christmas period?
We’ll be hosting a private styling presentation evening with up to 30 guests, private shopping slots and a three-day shopping weekend with discounts. Our shopping event will tie in with the town’s Christmas shopping and light switch-on evening, so we can piggyback on their campaign to shop local. The local BID is putting money behind advertising the event, which will hopefully pull in footfall. It also falls at the same time as Black Friday so eliminates the need for us to do anything specific and works better for our business. Historically, we always ran an event that weekend. With Small Business Saturday, we’ll see how our own event goes and react accordingly – we may do something with particular brands. American Express is very good for cashback incentives on Small Business Saturday, so we usually get a lift in sales anyway through that.
What are your plans for next year?
We’ll see how things go before we finalise plans for 2022. If our customers are wary about mixing because of rising covid cases, then that will have an impact on what we do. I think we’ve learnt that we need to be a bit loose with our plans. I have bought in for a lot more events as I think they will be starting again for SS22. We will be bringing in more occasionwear pieces that can be dressed up or down. Locally, there’s a market for events as there’s races nearby and then our customers will be attending weddings and weddings abroad. I think there will be a real shift next year. We also have some lovely new occasionwear brands arriving next year and I can’t wait for them to come in.
What do you hope to achieve in the next 15 years?
I still want to grow the business and want to grow online. I wouldn’t rule out another bricks-and-mortar location too. I’m feeling optimist about next spring. Summer weather is always positive for people’s mindsets and there will be a lot more occasions next year. I feel quite lucky that we are situated in a relatively affluent area near London that has not been as hard hit as some. A lot more people are moving up here from the capital, so we have lots of new customers. Moving forward, we’ll be making sure we work on maintaining those and giving them the best possible experience.