Why independent lifestyle group Iris and Violet is positively blooming

Opened just 10 months before the UK’s first national lockdown, Stamford-based lifestyle indie Iris and Violet has experienced a turbulent start. However, fast-forward to 18 months later and the store has not only survived the pandemic – it’s also expanded with a second bricks-and-mortar store. So, how did such a young independent retailer manage to overcome several government-enforced store closures, particularly as it wasn’t trading online prior to March 2020?

Its success is largely down to its savvy owner and her dedicated team. Founder Bethany Scott-Morris, who is a former fashion buyer, swiftly adapted the business at breakneck speed so it could continue to trade during the lockdowns: “My original plan was to launch online once we’d been trading for about a year, but the pandemic obviously meant we needed to fast-track that process,” she says. “So as soon as the first lockdown was announced, I began working 16-hour days to get all of our stock online and linked to our EPoS system. It was a really big undertaking, but by the end of the month (March 2020) we were up and running.”

Bethany chose Shopify to launch Iris and Violet’s e-commerce site. While she says there were initial some teething issues, it did enable her to create a multi-channel operation at speed – something she believes would have taken much longer without the time pressures of the pandemic: “I try and look at the lockdown as a blessing in disguise for the business,” she says. “Yes, it was tough – but it meant I had dedicated time to just get on with getting the e-commerce site up and running. It was quite stressful at the time, but I probably would have spent six to nine months planning and launching online otherwise. Sometimes you just need to be forced to just get on with it.”

Boutique of dreams

Iris and Violet’s founder Bethany Scott-Morris is a former fashion buyer who cut her teeth at River Island before moving to indie brand Lost Ink. While there she learned about the dynamics of launching and expanding a new brand, which gave her great insight into starting her own business. “It was great to go from an established high street brand to a start-up, where I had a lot more involvement in the decision process and gained lots of experience,” she says. “There was lots of travelling, which I loved, with regular inspirational trips to places like Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen. But I’d always dreamed of opening my own boutique one day and I was just waiting for the right time.”

Four years (and a wedding later), the would-be indie owner decided to hand her notice in as a buyer and pursue her ambition to go it alone: “I wanted to set up the business before we started a family, so it felt like it was ‘now or never,” she says. But while Bethany had factored in at least six months to find the right location, the perfect shop unit came onto the market in just six weeks. Based in the historical Lincolnshire town of Stamford, it was situated on St Mary’s Street, which is busy area that’s densely populated by other independent businesses: “It was really important for me to be surrounded by other independent retailers and the area attracts a lot of footfall,” she says. “The shop itself is beautiful too with a great frontage, exposed brick work and huge windows, which creates a beautiful light and airy interior. It needed renovating, but I just knew that if I couldn’t make it work there then I wouldn’t be able to make it work anywhere.”

Brand appeal

Opening its doors in summer 2019, Iris and Violet sells affordable fashion, homeware and accessories to suit all people and purses. Its products are merchandised together to create a visually pleasing space, with pretty dresses and tops sitting alongside cotton throws and tasselled cushions as well as hair accessories and delicate pieces of jewellery. “So many people told me that my target market was too vague and that I needed to hone in on a specific demographic, but it’s really worked well for us,” she says. “We have little girls coming in to buy hairclips for £6 all the way up to ladies in their 80s buying summer dresses. It was really important to me to create a shop that anyone could come to regardless of how much money they have to spend.”

With this in mind, Bethany began sourcing affordable brands with unique appeal that can’t be found elsewhere in Stamford. Its key womenswear brands include Y.A.S, Pieces, Grace and Mila and Parisian label, FRNCH. “We tend to stock Scandinavian and French brands,” says Bethany. “Pieces is one of our core entry point labels with dresses selling from £35, tops from £30 and jeans from £35. The quality is excellent for the price and its sells really well for us. Y.A.S is one of our more elevated brands with dresses selling from £60 and separates from £40. The fabrics are more expensive and the details are absolutely beautiful, so this is another great seller.”

French labels Grace and Mila and FRNCH are extremely popular among the boutique’s shoppers, with summer dresses selling between £50 and £120. Bethany says she tries to buy just six to eight pieces of each style so stock turnover in the store is high. This means the store is constantly updated with new products, encouraging shoppers to visit regularly.

Elsewhere, homewares and accessories are popular at the store. Best-sellers include colourful throws and cushions from Scandi brands Bloomingville and Madam Stoltz alongside stone flowerpots, which it merchandises (and sells) with its own range of stylish indoor plants procured from a local wholesaler.

Time to adapt

During the pandemic when the boutique was closed, Iris and Violet offered click-and-collect alongside home deliveries – with some local customers receiving parcels by hand. Although pretty dresses remain as the store’s best-selling category, loungewear, homewares and knitwear became popular during the lockdowns as people stayed at home. “I think people were really trying to improve their home space in the first lockdown, especially if they had to set up a home office,” says Bethany. “Then in the second and third lockdown people wanted cosy pieces and warm knitwear as they were spending more time outside. It was a bit different from our usual sales but we managed to adapt our stock quickly.”

The team also worked hard on its online experience to try and replicate the same level of service as shoppers would receive in the store. This included wrapping products up in tissue paper and offering free gift wrapping as well as hand-written cards: “We did a lot of work on our packaging so customers received an element of the detail and finishing touches they’d receive in the shop,” says Bethany.

As with many indies during this time, social media was also a lifeline for the boutique. Bethany says the team work extremely hard during the lockdowns to create content that would show customers the store’s products online. And thanks to its daily posts, it saw its number of followers soar by 50 per cent. “Social media was our main tool to really boost sales,” she explains. “We were working harder than ever – wrapping gifts and packing orders, creating daily social media posts and just reminding people constantly that we were still there. We couldn’t have closed the shop in December and then opened again in April with the same stock, so it was important to keep on selling as much as possible.”

New horizons

Despite the pandemic and its challenges, Bethany began thinking about opening a second shop last year. Her perfect location for Iris and Violet number two? Only the world-famous university city of Cambridge. “In terms of distance from the Stamford shop and where I live, Cambridge was really exciting,” she says. “The customer profile there is completely different while no other retailer was already stocking our brands, so there was a definite gap in the market.”

The business owner began “putting the feelers out” last October to try and find premises. Then in January, at the beginning of the third lockdown, she received a call to say that a unit fitting her criteria had become available. “It was so scary because everything was so uncertain at that time,” she says. “But as soon as I saw the unit, I knew it was the perfect location. There were many similarities to the Stamford store and it’s a really beautiful space. Once you find a good location, businesses often stay for 15-20 years. So again, I found myself feeling like it was ‘now or never’ and that I needed to take the risk.”

Iris and Violet in Cambridge is slightly bigger than the first store with a huge skylight that floods it with natural light. Bethany signed on the dotted line in the spring and opened its doors in June, selling the same brands at the Stamford shop but with some new additions too. It’s been a difficult time to open a new shop, but the owner says its takings have been steady so far when taking all the challenges into consideration: “Cambridge is missing international tourists at the moment so I’m hoping it will become busier over summer once travel opens up again,” she says. “Weekends are strong, but weekdays are still fairly quiet. Students will be coming back soon and so will their visiting parents. I also think people will be looking forward to Christmas this year as we missed out on so much in 2020. I’m really hoping the city will really come alive again from September onwards.”

Clearly one of Bethany’s biggest objectives now is to establish a strong customer base in Cambridge to replicate the success of its first store. She says that much of this will be down to the determination of her “amazing team,” which has helped her steer the business through the challenging tides of the past 18 months. “I feel optimistic about what’s ahead,” she says. “I try to cultivate a place that’s great to work at and I think that transpires when shoppers visit the stores. It’s also a great time to be an independent as the pandemic has really highlighted how important it is to support local businesses. There’s been far too much pessimism for far too long, so things just have to get better for retailers from here.”