How We Started an Independent
Gift Shop in the UK’s Second Biggest City
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! We are Sam and Jen, and we opened ‘Quietude’ in late 2018. Quietude is a small independent gift shop in Birmingham. Opening a shop has come with its challenges, but overall it allows us to achieve a better work/life balance.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Jen: Well, opening a shop has always been a bit of a dream of mine. I worked in a few independent shops and cafes while studying in Edinburgh. I’d always appreciated the unique offerings and character that they brought to the city. Sam and I met in Birmingham after I moved here for work in 2008. Back then, we both worked in very different industries, although we worked together on other small-scale projects. This gave us some exposure to running a business and the confidence to look for something bigger.
Sam: I couldn’t see myself continuing my job in IT forever, and I wanted a career change. I wanted something with more flexibility and ultimately to do something that felt more meaningful.
The area in Birmingham where we live has undergone a lot of positive change over the past decade. It was once quite run down but recently more and more businesses have come to the area and thrived. We saw this as the perfect opportunity to be a part of improving our local high street in making it an attractive place for people to visit.
We both share an interest in health and wellbeing and we want this to be the focus of what we offer. Many of the items we sell are chosen to have a positive impact on wellbeing. We wanted to share this particular aspect with our community.
Jen: We chose the name ‘Quietude’ as we felt it sums us up perfectly. We’re both quiet by nature (me more so), and the name evokes peacefulness – a sense of calm which many of us crave in our busy lives.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Sam: Neither of us have any formal qualifications in business. We did the best we could to draw from our own experiences from running a small business and seeking advice from other business owners in the area. This in itself was a challenge as it felt as though we were starting from scratch. We sought some support from the business advice centre at the Birmingham Library which was a useful resource.
Jen: All of the research we did urged us to do market research and start with a business plan. We followed this loosely and it did help us to solidify the vision that we had. Over time, our vision and plan has really evolved based on the feedback and opportunities that presented themselves, so we haven’t really followed this too closely.
Jen: We set up on a shoestring budget. The shop unit needed a lot of work and we did as much as we could ourselves to keep the costs down. It was a very small operation when we first opened. All of our profits in the first year have been reinvested back into the shop, to purchase more stock, make general improvements to the shop fittings and repairs etc.
Jen: I’m mostly in charge of sourcing products to sell which fit our ethos. It’s always really exciting finding something new that we like and reaching out to the artist or maker to ask if they might like to supply products for our shop. I love being able to celebrate the creative abilities of others to bring their items to our customers and support small businesses at the same time.
Sam: In terms of competition, we were confident that we were bringing something new to the area. We didn’t feel we had direct competition. More so, we complemented the shops and cafes which are on the high street.
Jen: Of the similar gift shops there are out there in Birmingham, I’m very careful to avoid repetition of items so it works out best for everyone. We also have some very talented family members who produce items which we sell. In that respect, these items are totally unique.
Who is your target market?
Jen: We are purely a ‘bricks and mortar’ store and we don’t currently sell online. Our target market is limited to people who visit from the close surrounding area. It’s fair to say that our target market tends to be women, aged between 18-40.
Many of our customers are likely to seek natural products, have an appreciation for locally made items and have an interest in health and wellbeing. We expect that our customers might be earning a moderate income, but we do try to stock a range of items to suit different levels of income.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
Sam: Marketing our business is something we admit we could be better at. As we don’t sell online, we’ve never considered paid advertising as we don’t feel we need to reach people far and wide. We find most of our customers are either local and know we exist, or they’ve stumbled across us in passing and will come in to take a look.
Jen: Something that helped us out to spread the word was signing up to Independent Birmingham. They do a great job of promoting independent businesses in Birmingham. Members who sign up can get 10% off their purchases in-store.
Jen: Of the two of us, I’d say I’m a bit more familiar with social media than Sam. I still work full time in my ‘other’ job, and honestly, I don’t have a lot of motivation to constantly post on social media. Our lack of marketing may end up being our downfall, but it’s just the way we operate!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Jen: I think this is really where Sam comes in. He is the one who people see when they walk in the door! He does such a great job at getting to know the customers and this helps to create customer loyalty. I love popping into the shop and seeing Sam deep in conversation with one of the locals. I find those connections are one of the most rewarding parts of the business.
Sam: As most of our business is based on face-to-face interactions, rather than online sales, we often invite people to let us know how they get on with a particular product through verbal feedback. This is really helpful as it helps us to gauge what is selling well, and what people want to see in the shop.
Jen: We do pride ourselves in having quite strict criteria for choosing products. This includes sourcing unique products, in that we look for items which aren’t sold elsewhere (within the local area). We aim to support small independent UK creatives who make items such as pottery, jewellery, candles and natural skincare. It’s always rewarding when people come back to buy something that they’ve bought from us before because they liked it.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
Sam: Being a very small operation, we don’t have a team … it’s just me! That said, life in the shop is very relaxed and laid back. Any normal day can be very quiet at times, so there are lots of cups of tea and reading between customers and jobs!
Sam: We have naturally divided the workload so I manage the day to day tasks in running and maintaining the shop, paying invoices and re-ordering stock, whereas Jen will source new stock and is in charge of social media. We feel this helps to maintain a more consistent ‘voice’ in our social media platforms.
Jen: I think the shared workload works well – it helps to prevent disagreements!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Sam: We’re very low tech. We use an iPad and an iZettle for card payments, and that’s it. The iZettle has helpful features for pulling reports so we can review our takings, look at trends in sales, what is selling and what isn’t for example.
An independent accountant takes care of our accounts. I know there is software out there, but it gives me peace of mind knowing that it gets done accurately.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Jen: There are lots of things that we didn’t anticipate when we started the business that we’ve learned from. I think we’re quite good at taking it all in our stride, we don’t get too hung up on the challenges and quickly move forward.
Sam: In the early planning stages, I think I may have underestimated our outgoings! It’s not a big deal, and I think a lot of it comes down to the type of products that we stock. We don’t buy in cheap wholesale stock with a generous markup and rather work with creative independents who are also trying to make a profit.
It’s important to us that everyone gets a fair deal. We, therefore, have quite low-profit margins on some items, especially those which are made locally, on a small scale.
Jen: An interesting challenge has been new independent shops setting up in the area who sell some items which are similar. It isn’t really a big issue, but it didn’t occur to me when we were setting up that we would become someone else’s competition!
Jen: I think on a personal level I underestimated the time commitment of running the shop. As we don’t employ any staff, we have to show up to open up each day, and that means we miss out on spending weekends together. It is a small sacrifice, as having the shop has brought us numerous benefits which far outweigh the challenges.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Jen: I don’t think either of us really thinks of ourselves as being entrepreneurs! But, I love that the shop is ‘ours’. We are the ones who get to make the decisions, and having the freedom to take the business in whichever direction we want is exciting. It’s been incredibly rewarding and it blows me away each time someone supports what we are doing.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Sam: Running your own business does offer flexibility in some regards, but in terms of the commitment to showing up every day – we have very little flexibility. We don’t employ any staff yet, so it’s up to us to open at the weekends.
There is, of course, less financial security. Starting out we’ve sacrificed a wage to invest in the business, which has been fine, as we hope it’ll be worth it in the long run.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Jen: Starting your own business fills you with so many emotions. After the initial excitement is over, you take a step back and evaluate where you are as a business and where you want to be.
One podcast episode I listened to a while back (it may have been ‘The One You Feed’, which is not specifically a business podcast) really flipped my view of business and ‘success’ upside down. It posed the question ‘how do you define success?’. For us, being successful might be creating a beautiful space that people love to visit and browse. It might be adding something new to our community. I often keep this in mind and it helps me to gain perspective and stay positive when times are tough!
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
Sam: Our motivation has never been about making big profits. For us, it’s been the opportunity to create something that we can both put our mark on. Indeed, which we hope brings benefits to others at the same time.
That said, there are things that we do aim to work on. We continue to develop our own natural soap range, sourcing new stock to keep things fresh! Improving our storefront appearance for more curb appeal is also an imminent priority.