Right royal birthday buddies

11 years on Austin & Co and No14 Ampthill celebrate with Her Majesty

 

There were right royal celebrations for retail birthday buddies Jo Barber and Sean Austin yesterday as the pair marked the joint 11th anniversaries of their independent greetings and gift stores on the same day Her Majesty The Queen turned 96.

With the pandemic stopping the pair of 2021 Retas winners partying for the more traditional decade in business last year, the good pals finally got to break out the balloons and bubbly at No14 Ampthill and Austin & Co of Malvern, while The Queen also marked her actual birthday on April 21, ahead of the official big day as part of June’s Platinum Jubilee festivities.

Above: Standing proud – Sean Austin in his current shop
Above: Standing proud – Sean Austin in his current shop

As Sean told PG Buzz: “Four quarterly turndowns, Brexit, global pandemic, three national lockdowns, high inflation, growth of online, rising fuel and raw material costs – but we’re still here!”

And Jo explained how their friendship came about despite being in towns five counties apart: “In the early days I set up a Facebook page and found a shop a few hundred miles away that I really connected with, they seemed to be new to the world of greetings and stationery too and we started messaging each other.

“It transpired we’d opened our shops on the same day– also the Queen’s birthday– and had very similar tastes in both cards and stationery. And 11 years later we’re firm friends, we meet at trade shows, share ideas and generally support each other, it really works.

“It can be lonely when you start a new business, and I couldn’t imagine not having the award-winning Sean Austin from Austin & Co as my sounding board, mentor and friend!”

Read on for Jo and Sean’s retail stories in their own words…

Above: Team work – the lovely ladies helping Jo at No14
Above: Team work – the lovely ladies helping Jo at No14

Jo Barber, No14 Ampthill

Having spent over 20 years working my way up the corporate ladder and securing one of the best jobs I could have hoped for, I always hankered after my own shop, selling the things I loved.

After meeting up with a good friend in early 2011 and being told she’d received a life-changing diagnosis, I knew I had to make that leap, it meant leaving behind a good salary, a company car and all the perks but, sometimes, these things aren’t enough, I suddenly realised life was too short – I had to open my shop!

I remember attending Spring Fair before I’d even secured any premises, walking around in utter amazement, so much to take in and, while I think I have a pretty good head for business, it was a completely different world for me, I didn’t have a clue. I loitered around stands, listening to conversations, trying to pick up buzz words and was back in my car a few hours later. What a waste of an opportunity, I now spend at least two full days at Spring Fair – I’m learning!

Above: Then and now – Jo’s first tiny window and opening day at her new premises
Above: Then and now – Jo’s first tiny window and opening day at her new premises

We were in the depths of a recession so it wasn’t too tricky finding an empty shop and I managed to secure the perfect lease, strong enough to protect me but flexible enough should I find myself needing larger premises. I still remember the awful feeling in the pit of my stomach the day I opened as The Stationery Boutique, it was a glorious sunny Spring Day and I was shivering with nerves. What if nobody came, what if nobody liked what I sold, what if the shop had burnt down overnight? Secretly I hoped it had burnt down overnight, so I could say I did at least try, and go back to a proper job!

Strangely there wasn’t a queue forming outside, surely those A4 printed signs in the window saying ‘opening soon’ should’ve meant a stampede? Thankfully though, people did start to come in and, when I shut up shop that evening having taken £55.20, I was the happiest I could have been, it’s a good job my overheads were low!

Above: Good stock – Jo has stuck with Caroline Gardner among her top sellers
Above: Good stock – Jo has (from left) Caroline Gardner, Molly Mae, Megan Claire, and Dandelion Stationery among her top sellers

When I started out, there were many big names but I decided to go with just one, Caroline Gardner, and we still stock them today. I didn’t want to be the run-of-the-mill card shop, I wanted to be different, so I chose smaller publishers to complement my personality.

Shortly after opening I was reading a copy of PG mag and saw an ad by Megan Claire, I got in touch, and we’ve been stockists ever since. Similarly, Dandelion Stationery send an intro email, it was late at night, and I was just closing my laptop but thought I’d take a quick look. How pleased am I that I did!

I sent a message back and owner Jo Wilson instantly replied. We were putting together an order at 11pm – that’s what I like about ordering from independents and it’s great watching their businesses grow too.

Above: Great recognition – Jo at the 2021 Retas Awards
Above: Great recognition – Jo at the 2021 Retas Awards

These are the only three brands we still stock from the early days, but have since welcomed Molly Mae (the quickest order turnaround on the planet), Redback Cards (customers crowd the spinner for a good belly laugh), Toasted Crumpet (its new mini cards literally fly out), Janie Wilson (sometimes only luxury will do), Urban Graphic (who doesn’t love a gorilla sticking up his middle finger?) and Brainbox Candy (when only the F Word will suffice). We’re also proud to stock lots of smaller brands to, to complement our offering.

It might be 11 years on, but I still consider myself a relative newbie to the industry however, having moved to new premises quadruple the size of the original shop, changed the name to No14 Ampthill, employing four full time and six part-time members of staff, having a fully operational website (thanks lockdown) and picking up two Retas awards, I think we’ve crammed a lot into that time.

I definitely agree with Mark Twain, who famously said: “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

Above: Special night – Sean collects his 2021 Retas Award
Above: Special night – Sean collects his 2021 Retas Award

Sean Austin, Austin & Co, Malvern

As one person working in one shop in a quiet part of the country, it took a while to realise that there were many others in the same boat who sold the same stuff, had the same issues, and wanted the same answers to a gazillion questions. I guess that’s what makes each independent store unique but it’s only in the past few years I’ve really begun to embrace the industry at large – wish I’d started that journey earlier.

I was a corporate librarian and business researcher for a number of Top 30 UK law firms and also FMCG companies including Mars Confectionery and a stint at WHSmith Head Office in Swindon. The credit crunch of 2008/9 hit the law sector hard and, through consolidation of research services, opportunities became less and to make up the difference in income, I began to sell greeting cards on markets and car boots.

Above: Old and new – the original Austin & Co and today’s store
Above: Old and new – the original Austin & Co and today’s store

I was always told to sell what I love, because you’d love what you sell. Stationery has always been a major purchase for me from an early age and I was also able to bring a high level of knowledge to what I sold.

I think we stand out for our USP and tagline – Cards. Stationery. Dog. I know many card shops go down the route of candles, jewellery, and scarves as their gift offer but, frankly, I know nothing about any of those sectors, even at home! Dog I know and that’s what customers know me for, even those customers who insist I should stock more cat items, but then I lose my USP!

We’ve always been known as a dog-friendly shop. But accidents can happen so, just in case, a mop and bucket is kept close by. In 11 years, I’ve had to use it twice – for children.

Greeting cards have always been my mainstay and always will be. James Ellis have been with me since the very beginning, as have Quotable Cards. Urban Graphic (now U Studio) continue to be among my top sellers, as well as Ohh Deer, The Art File, U Studio, Dandelion, and Poet And Painter.

Above: Taking a punt – designs from The Grey Earl, Poet And Painter, and Alphablots
Above: Taking a punt – designs from The Grey Earl, Poet And Painter, and Alphablots

I wanted to be edgy. But Malvern wasn’t quite ready. I had to rein it in a little and have a more conservative offer. But as customers got to know me, I was able to reintroduce the edgy stuff little by little to curate the successful collection I’m known for now.

I do love to take a punt on the up-and-coming, Springboard at PG Live is always the go-to area, and I love it when they make it big – I like I feel I played a tiny part in their success. I’m currently loving the work from Alphablots, The Grey Earl, and Hunter Press.

I’ve moved three times in 11 years. Fortunately, Malvern is small enough that you’ll always be found and it’s never a great distance between the old shop and the new. Moves are determined by merely outgrowing previous premises. The area of my current shop window display is bigger than my first shop. I have no plans to move again though, the new shop has a refurbished basement for me to expand on my online offer, and any physical expansion will probably be an additional shop.

Above: Good sellers – Paper Parade, Bewilderbeest, and Quotable
Above: Good sellers – Paper Parade, Bewilderbeest, and Quotable

Building a website a week into the first lockdown saved us. It was never going to achieve the turnover from a physical shop but it was enough to keep my name out there, and sleep at night. Lockdown 3 perversely helped with the planned relocation to the current shop as that it gave me the time to plan and build the shop I’d always wanted.

The lockdowns put the Shop Local movement at the fore. It was a hot topic especially as many local independents were able to react quickly to the pandemic and customers appreciated that we were able to offer a service that more than matched the online giants – my record for fulfilling an order from receipt to delivery stands at 17 minutes. Customers see value in having a vibrant town centre.

Winning a Reta has helped enormously, you really can’t measure its impact. Since winning in November in 2021, I’ve taken every opportunity to let people know just how big this award is. There are a few sceptics out there who think I’ve made the whole thing up but their views soon change when they see the trophy and the fact it’s a bona fide award.

I’d tell would-be or new retailers to live within your limits. Start small and build a unique offer, even if you do have to relocate three times! And pay your suppliers on time – they’ll love you forever.”

Top: Winning formula – No14 Ampthill and Austin & Co are still going strong

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