If you have just finished your Law degree, served your articles and have been admitted to the Bar, and then suddenly you realise you don’t want to work for a law firm – don’t be discouraged. Just read on…
Bev Greenhill, owner of a gift and home deco business called Handmade by Bev in Sandton, went through exactly the same experience some 21 years ago. With much trepidation, the LLB graduate decided to leave the cushy offices of a law firm and decided to follow her true passion. A mother of two young children at the time, she started exhibiting her own handmade ceramics and paintings at the Rosebank Rooftop Market, something she had been doing part-time while still undergoing legal training. According to Bev, the feedback from the Rooftop customers was amazing, and this gave her the gutzpa she needed to go full-time into retail.
The ins & outs of being a retailer
Find the right shop space
15 years ago Bev opened her 1st retail store in Benmore Gardens, followed by Norwood Shopping Centre, then came Athol Square and then Morningside Shopping Centre. Bev is the first to admit that, over time, this just became too much of a stretch for one person. Sales were negatively affected in Norwood because of a change in the target market of the area, while Athol Square and Morningside opened up similar gift shops in the same centre. This confused customers and diluted Bev’s efforts. Benmore Gardens is now the only remaining store.
Know your customers
Handmade by Bev’s key to success has been Bev’s personal involvement in the business. She spends 70% of her time on the shop floor, getting a better sense daily of her customers’ preferences, and anticipating their needs. In the current economic climate, she understands that whether you have a R50.00 or R5000.00 budget, you can still find a decent gift for somebody special – all gift-wrapped with the same amount of care. She makes sure that the shopping experience itself is an amazing one: starting from the scent that wafts through your nose as you walk in, the trinkets and big-ticket deco items which have been hand-picked by Bev herself, as well as the warm and personalised service you get from her well-trained staff.
Having started her Rosebank Rooftop Market business with just R700.00 in her bank account, Bev knows how to make her rand stretch wider. Other than attending at least two trade shows per year, Bev sources during her own personal travels – be it while travelling on holiday with her family or specifically for business. This could be at places as near as Cape Town or as far away as Israel. She also sometimes asks her friends during their own travels to bring her beautiful pieces. Her only non-negotiable requirement when it comes to sourcing is that the goods must be luxurious and appealing to the eye, without breaking the bank. As she puts it: “I source from anywhere and everywhere. I don’t do mass appeal stuff. And definitely no knock-offs!”
Bev has also maintained good relationships over the years with a solid base of suppliers who have been loyal and supportive, extending favourable trading terms whenever she has needed them.
In this area, Bev’s legal background has come in handy. The biggest lesson for her has been that everything you agree with your landlord on has to be reduced to writing. A word of caution from Bev: “Long term leases and shop fittings can be costly, and the current trading environment is not always predictable. Triple-check every agreement you sign.”
Innovation vs Imitation
With the growth of the internet, many retailers have gone the on-line shopping route, which is something Bev takes into consideration all the time when deciding on a growth strategy. However, the walk-in, personalised shopping experience seems to be working like magic for Handmade by Bev. The challenges of pilferage, imitation by other stores, a few (luckily not too many) tricky customers and other risks associated with operating in the retail space, are just par for the course.
Bev regards herself as an innovator as opposed to an imitator. She believes in innovating, but without veering too much away from the original intent and the type of business that you understand. As an extension of her service, she recently completed decorating from scratch one of the apartments at the world-renowned Michelangelou Hotel in Sandton.
Leaving her office job helped Bev explore her creative flair and also gave her the necessary freedom to be available for her children, while her Law studies helped build her foundation as a business woman. Her charming mother often helps on the shop floor, while her sister (who is a full-time dentist), helps her with the books.
For Bev, shifting from Law to retail was a difficult decision to make, but it has proven to be a much more rewarding passion to have followed.