Sheila Wilson, Sugar and Spice lingerie shops, Newport & Ryde
“Specialise!” Sheila Wilson is the owner of the Sugar and Spice lingerie shops in Ryde and Newport, and also offers an online shopping service to many customers.
“When I took over the shop eight years ago, I carefully selected the range to offer good choice for all ladies to become more specialist. You can buy underwear in lots of places. But whether you get the right advice and the right product is the question.”
“Women are more conscious of their body shape these days. We are often working with the customer's dilemmas to help them arrive at the best result for them. In the larger chains, too often you have to guess alone and hope you're right.
“We offer individual attention along with detailed knowledge of product's performance and lifetime, to add to the fashion element of the choice. All my staff are fully trained bra fitters and aim to offer a friendly, helpful service.
“As specialists we make a clear point of difference. Customers know what to expect here and they become very loyal. They tell us they appreciate it.”
as published by IW County Press, Column by Dave Simon
Sex does not sell lingerie, surprisingly.
Commentary by Dave Simon
What guides choice is more about comfort. This is a combination of feeling at ease with the body shape, confident about colour and texture, reassured about VPLs etc. and on-trend with fashion. And physical comfort too, especially with the bra.
Shopping for underwear is a very personal thing for women.
Men may prefer the quick grab-the-right-size-and-colour approach. Actually, two-thirds of men get their pants chosen by mothers, wives and girlfriends, according to M&S.
The 'retail therapy' fun-with-girlfriends may be important for younger women. But good advice is what many prefer. Individual attention. Knowledgeable assistance. Reassurance.
New research shows 76% of women are wearing the wrong size bra and it could be making them ill. Headaches, sore shoulders, a stiff neck could all be results of this.
Supermarket self-service only works if you already know what you want. But of course, you can be wrong and not know it.
Where there are many choices, many prices and the worry of long-term discomfort, good old-fashioned personal service works best.
he interview with Sheila Wilson continued:
Be the Best
Sheila's ambition for her business has always been to be really good at what she does, rather than try to cover the whole area and risk suffering in quality.
“Our primary aim is to advise customers about the most suitable product for them. A 'Which?' survey some years ago found that independent retailers are much better at this. That doesn't surprise me – we have to be!”
Given that every style comes in a range of 40 sizes, she also has to be business-like about choosing stock. “I have to be careful in order to make a profit. Without profit, you have no business, and that would let everybody down.”
She is very aware of the balance between the fashion element and the function in each product. “Our range of customers includes mastectomy and surgery patients, as well as the first bra fitting with Mum. In these new situations, they need to learn about their choices. And pregnancy and other situations cause changes too. We discuss their situation and what they want to achieve.”
As an expert, Sheila is used to people trusting her advice. She used to work in the NHS, in nursing and management where she trained for an MBA. But she is clearly very practical about her customers. “By giving them what they really value – professional advice – they become very loyal and that helps my business.”
This also helps with her staff. “You need a simple vision that people can buy into. My staff understand my approach just like my customers do. Then they tend to stay with me for a long time and easily work to my standards.” Having the same vision for staff and customers simplifies everything.
Starting with Support
Even when you are taking over an existing business, having the right people around you is vital. You can get into deep trouble very quickly if you make mistakes early on because it then gets so difficult to correct them.
“For me, having a personal working relationships with my bank manager and my accountant were really helpful. Finance is my weakest area I think, so I was determined to ask for help. I would advise anyone starting up to search for good support – window-shopping if necessary. It's part of your job to make a judgement rather than accept who-ever turns up.” It's a bit like going to your GP: you have to be able to ask for help and they need to educate you about when you should ask for that help.
Sheila also found it worth taking advice from suppliers' sales reps. “I know they may be biased – but not for long, if their products don't sell! It is actually in their interest to give you good advice, so be willing to listen.”
And she has involved her staff in choosing product ranges. “In a small business, you have so much to get on with. If you can delegate important but time-consuming tasks, it helps everything. So here, I support them in learning about the new choices and they support me in sharing the workload.”
“I'm inspired by charismatic people in business. They inspire people – staff and customers. They create and live with controversy, knowing it is right for their business and not being put off by worries about what other people think.”
“You have to be brave to start a new business: it's not for everyone. But there is not much that scares me. I'm willing to take on challenges. Every problem has a solution: you just have to find it.”
“As a high street retailer, I feel that long-term strategic planning is a problem in the Island's town centres. And it is vital to our economy.
“On the Island, we are all dependent on tourism. Much of the money spent here stays here, circulating around the Island. The whole Island needs to work to attract tourists and to provide what they want.
“We should have a public strategy of encouraging businesses to provide for tourist consumers. We need the Island to have a reputation for being a really interesting place. It's not just hotels and beaches that people want – it's a whole week-long experience.
“So I want us to actively encourage diversity: really individual places for tourists to visit. That means the high street as much as rural attractions, and small businesses as much as large venues.
“And I want us to support the people who are brave enough to start these new businesses. We all gain from a flourishing commercial scene – so we should all support new ventures.
“I feel we need to pull together more with public consultations and publications to get us all working as a team on our own future. We need to be brave and work to develop the Island as 'an absorbing place to visit'. That would help our economy more than anything else I can think of.”