Mary Portas & The Spring Fair

We may be a small family shop, but we have a big heart and ideas.

Part of our mission is continuously working to find products we believe in and know you will love too.  Whether it is LetterJoy, Black Acres Soap Pantry and Deckled Edge (local and British made gifts and cards), or inspiring young British Entrepreneurs such as Marc from Sporting Hares.

Therefore, we find ourselves at numerous times of the year traipsing off to trade shows with the aim of tracking down the next new thing, and understanding what will be trending this coming year.


Don’t tell the husband but I made him “n/a” on the tickets – oops

Monday 6 February saw the hubby and I spending our day off at the Birmingham NEC attending the annual Spring Fair.  This is no jolly day out, this is serious hard work.


20! 20 Halls to get round!

We have one day to go round all 20 halls of the NEC, which are jam packed with products and trends for us to wade through – in ONE day!!! We have friends who spend 3 days there, but we don’t have that luxury (not entirely sure I want it either).


Our master plan

Homework done, we had a vague plan of what we wanted to achieve and set off to Birmingham after dropping little man at school.  This would be our first time without him (& I noticed we got far fewer freebies – dam it).  First port of call was to drop the coats and grab a coffee.



Ooh can’t wait

We checked our watches, and as we wanted to be there for Mary Portas giving a guest talk, began the countdown of two hours trekking to find our targets.  This is no gentle meander, more like an army yomp.  As you make your way through the aisles, you cannot afford to be blind, but have to take in all the details as you speed walk past, looking for what is everywhere (last year it was Flamingos!), plus those little things that make you stop and take notice.  If you stop and look, there’s a good chance your customers will too.  Anyway, before long you start to feel like something out of The Exorcist with your head constantly spinning (or at the very least a deranged owl).  Your head begins to feel mashed.

The very first time we went we had no idea, no plan and no way of filtering through everything and everyone.  I can clearly remember the piles of catalogs and literature we brought back from so, so many stalls, unable to say no for fear of missing something. Gosh the weight of those things, (and the first year we didn’t take a rucksack – the pain!). Now we have a clear understanding of what works for our shop and what products we want to introduce. Admittedly, I have to be strict with myself as sometimes I can get a little over excited, bit like a big Labrador puppy (what you? never I hear you say!!???).  The rules are simple, 1) No buying on the day (no matter how good a deal they offer), and 2) Does it fit the criteria we came with?  These rules we have developed after previous visits.

We headed to Hall 6 – Retail Solutions.  This was purely a recce visit, we wanted to see what was out there, talk to lots of people and get a feel for some of the changes we are debating making. Plus, it wasn’t too far from where we wanted to be for when Mary Portas took to the stage.  In all fairness I’m not sure how tuned in I was to the information being pushed at us, my mind was already on Mary Portas.

In no time at all the hubby and I were making our way to the stage area, we were half an hour early and managed to grab a spot.  Within ten minutes, all seats were taken, people were finding spaces to stand or sit on the floor at the front.  It was all rather British, I observed, us Brits are great a queuing.  I was getting excited at seeing my icon in the flesh, I was starting to get a little giddy and had my notebook and pencil at the ready.  Judging by the wry smile on hubby’s face he was amused by my excitement and kindly held me down when I started to bounce (it’s that Labrador puppy thing again!). However, you could feel the excitement of the audience building.

An introduction was made as to who Mary Portas is (really didn’t think she needed introducing) and a round of applause went up with the expectation to see the lady herself that second.  However, there was a slight delay until Mary Portas appeared on stage. It was a moment that for me at least made us hold our breath slightly, would she be the person we thought she was? Our fears were quelled as Mary appeared on stage and her first step was to apologise for the tiny delay as they were too busy “gassing back stage”.  The lady was up front, honest and engaging from the on set.  I wish I had half her energy, Mary Portas quite simply does not know how to sit still, or talk without her hands. By heck tho she engaged with the audience, making sure even those sat slightly behind the stage were not left out.

I could wax lyrical about Mary Portas and report every word she said. Here are what for me were the highlights:

A lady wearing the best hat ever was there with her baby, who with impeccable timing started to do what babies do, make noise.  Mary turned to look at the cutie and the mum apologised, Mary’s response “no need, it’s not a bother”.  During a discussion about online presence, a gentleman with a decorating shop said he didn’t need one, Mary’s response “You’re wrong” said without malice and clearly demonstrated to him why he/we/all independents need it. Lesson learnt.  During a discussion about community, a young lady expressed her frustration at other businesses in her town not getting involved in projects.  Mary was honest about this, that there are always people who do and others who prefer to sit back and watch.  However, not to be defeated Mary offered to have a pic taken with the lady saying “come on ***** get your act together” .  As much as the interviewer tried to guide the conversation, there was little he could do in the presence of such energy and candor, stories were told, advice was given and questions answered. We hung on every word.

The interviewer then for want of a better word announced there was only a few minutes of the session left.  To which Mary exclaimed “But I haven’t said everything I need to yet – right you be quiet” (pointing to the interviewer and smiling mischievously) and to the audience “now listen up this is what you need to know” and all pens & pencils scribbled fiercely.  Inevitably the  session ran slightly over, but Mary kept her word and had her pic taken with the young lady and met with people from the audience.

Thank you Mary Portas for being our champion, inspiration and for making us not feel alone as independent retailers.







An Unexpected Valentine’s Day

Imagine the typical Valentine’s Day. Candle-lit dinner in a cosy, warm place and a nice relaxed dinner with your loved one, yes?

Mine was the exact opposite.

I’ve always wanted to go hunting, but with Rupert always being almost uncontrollably strong jumping in the school, I thought I ought to give it a miss if I wanted to live! But when Zoe, a lady on my yard, asked if I’d like to go to the Quorn Hunt Meet that were meeting at Grace Dieu Priory (meaning that we could hack to it) and I was on my half term holiday, it seemed silly to miss the opportunity!

Then when I decided to go, it seemed silly to go. I only had one day notice as it was a very last minute decision for us to go, which became problematic when I realised that 1) I had a very hairy horse as his clip had grown out 2) I can’t clip (well). Thankfully, Haylie managed to find time to clip the hairy beast so he looked a bit more presentable than bog pony!


Clipped and looking much smarter

My second problem was how strong Rupert is, making the idea of galloping and jumping in open spaces in a pack of fit, enthusiastic horses that know their job slightly daunting. As he is usually ridden in a Pelham with roundings (that doesn’t really offer much brakes!), I decided to opt for the shock tactic and change his bit the day before back to the Cheltenham Gag (which, when I previously tried it to jump in, made very minimal difference) as a last resort.

With our tack cleaned, boots cleaned, horses’ legs washed, jackets on, girths tightened and hip flasks full to the brim, we headed off. We were running a tad late which meant I didn’t have time to plait his mane (which I’m soooo gutted about- not! Let’s just say plaiting is not my forte) but I went with the mindset that although he didn’t look quite as smart, it was something extra to grab on to if necessary!


Very traditional for hunting- Jagermeister and a sparkly pink hip flask!

We arrived at Grace Dieu Priory and Bea (Zoe’s horse), a relatively experienced hunter, started prancing about. My newbie horse stood like a rock- instant brownie points to him. After a glass (or two) of port, we set off. Rupert and Bea both wore red ribbons in their tails as a precaution, and due to mine and Rupert’s inexperience, we stayed near the back of the pack. A fall at the first fence for a girl I know from my previous yard definitely didn’t help my confidence! Luckily, she and her horse were fine and we all continued.

I was expecting Rupert to be bolting, tanking and yanking my arms out of their sockets all day long. I was wrong. He was a total angel the entire day, I didn’t have to fight to pull him up once, yet he was as responsive to my leg as ever. He was very brave about everything and was especially clever when we had to turn round to find another route and we had to negotiate a gap in a wall followed immediately by a leafy drop into a ditch and back up a slope that was even more difficult due to the overhanging branches, particularly as he was the first horse to go through (bar the Field Masters). There were several questions that day and he didn’t question me once which is incredible for a horse that some times decides to run out at a 20cm cross pole! Very proud mummy moment.


Even though I was aching all over (we concluded I hadn’t quite drank enough sloe gin and jager!), I loved the entire day and I’m so grateful for Zoe accompanying us and for the Quorn Hunt being so welcoming. I think we’ve finally found Rupert’s niche in life, so we’ll try to get out to Hunt Meets as often as possible now and work on our fitness.

Next stop: Quorn Hunt Ball on Saturday!


P.S: the boyfriend did treat me that evening, didn’t hate me for choosing the horse over him and coped with my complains of aching by making sure my wine glass was never empty!


Valentines window display

I have had two conversations this week with other Mums, about how we got into our business, and each time it was assumed we came from a retail background – er no!!  We have had to learn double quick on the job, nearly five years later we are still here so we must have learnt something, somewhere (hopefully).

There are still times when I lack inspiration for our window displays, or even lack confidence in my own ability.  This time I was stumped with a Valentines display.  Shoppers expect you to do something, but nothing was feeling right – all just a bit too much.

Thankfully, Peter from Black Acres Soap Pantry popped in with new stock (lovely new candles by the way), the kettle was boiled, the stock was sorted. Then while we hugged our mugs we brain stormed about the window display, and discussed the nuances of running a small business.  By the time he left I was wired on coffee and armed with a plan.

A quick meander round the shop and I had selected some lovely products to display using shades of red through to pink.  A little bit of grouping, matching Chocolate Thingy Me Jigs flavors to scented candles and remembering the height and odd number rules of display, resulted in the window display organically growing.

I know when it is right as passers by will stop to look at the display, gaining their interest in our products and increases our footfall.  Thanks again Pete for the inspiration.  I believe we have done our suppliers products justice and are so pleased to display our wares from local and British businesses.

A bonus is when people come in and say, “We love your window displays.  They always look so nice!” – bingo.