High streets may be tough, but Sarah-Jane Worboys is tougher. Bryony Firth-Bernard met her to find out what it takes to have a successful business in the middle of a retail crisis.
Sarah-Jane Worboys is Super Woman in disguise. She runs two successful boutiques, one in Cheltenham and one in Worcester. She’s just been voted best womenswear retailer in Gloucestershire, she’s a mum of two and she’s jetting off to LA next Monday to go on the hunt for new shop stock.
To say she’s bossing it would be a slight understatement, but the world of Sarah-Jane hasn’t always been easy. In fact, before opening her first store in Worcester she hadn’t even worked behind a till.
She was a single mum working in recruitment, quit her job and then sold her house to set up her own agency. “I was looking after two kids and I didn’t really have a choice as far as I was concerned because I wanted to provide a good life for them,” she said. “I knew that working for somebody else I was only going to earn an hourly rate and the best way for me to earn money was to work for myself.”
And it worked – to an extent. Then the recession hit and just after Christmas her agency went bust and it all came crashing down. Then one day in 2010 she spotted a little store on The Tything in Worcester and decided to take up the lease. But Sarah-Jane was broke and a completely new to retail, so how did she do it?
“I’d always been a shopper and because I’d been in recruitment I had a lot of suits and sort of business wear that I didn’t really need and I didn’t have the money to stock the whole shop with new clothes. There was a bit that I’d brought down in London which was new and the rest of it was my second hand”, she said. “Probably 70-80% of it was my own wardrobe”. Her voice warms as she thinks back: “I remember selling my pair of Jimmy Choos for £300 on a Saturday then going down on a Sunday to East End to buy more stock.”
Against the odds, it worked. Within the first week she was providing for her family again. “I think people were a little intrigued and like ‘what is this?’”, she laughs. Then three years later she decided to open her second store in The Suffolks in Cheltenham and it was a hit. You’d think ‘ambitious’, ‘risk taker’ and maybe even ‘bonkers’, might be her middle name, because she then went and bought the shop next door and turned it into ‘Bodega Spa’.
Immediately, though, she was hit by another problem – as a water firm’s roadworks began around her.
“I refurbished the building then literally as I signed the lease Severn Trent came and said ‘we’re shutting the road’. They shut it for nine months then opened it for three then shut it again, it was over a year and I just couldn’t make it work and that business failed.”
Despite all the setbacks, she was determined to keep going.
“I think to be successful in business you’ve got to fail in things”, she says, “You’ve got to”.
However it’s clearly paid off, as she’s winning awards and recently even had her first ever appearance in a national newspaper. “We got nominated best womenswear store in Gloucestershire and then two weeks ago we were in the Sunday Times!”
“We were listed as ‘What else to do in Cheltenham when you’re visiting the Literature Festival’, it was the most incredible thing”.
Although she’s not at the heart of the town centre, Sarah-Jane feels this is partially the reason for her success.
“I think if you put yourself amongst all that competition, I mean there’s competition everywhere, but in an area like this it’s more about the experience coffee shop culture. People have got a little more time whereas when you’re in town people have often paid to park and are rushing around. It’s just not where I want to be.
“And we don’t put any pressure on people to buy stuff I just like it that they come in and have a good experience”.
While other retailers such as House of Fraser struggle in turbulent times on the high street, Sarah-Jane just carries on doing her own thing.
“I’m too busy”, she says. “There’s that thing about swimming in your own lane – I just keep going. “I think it’s good to look at your competition but I think some people in business spend too much time focusing on what other people are doing”.
The shop looks a mess as she packs away a big delivery – and yet somehow it still looks amazing. Her social media also plays a key part in helping the businesses reach a wider audience. She has 20,000 likes on her Facebook page, over 6,000 followers on Instagram and over 4,000 on Twitter, having had sales this week in Switzerland, Luxembourg and the States.
So what on earth is Bodega’s secret?
“Me! It’s a terrible thing to say”, she laughs. “You’ve got to work really hard. A lot of people sort of say ‘oh you’re really lucky to have your own shop’, but I don’t think luck is much to do with it. You’ve got to adapt and I think that’s my key strength.”
And her plans for the rest of the day?
“Working in the store, packing boxes, then I’ll drive with all the stock that’s for Worcester, then I’ll merchandise it then come back and then I’m taking my mum shopping”.
She’s still smiling. We told you she was Super Woman.
Bodega, Cheltenham, is open Monday – Sunday.