The founder of eponymous childrenswear independent Ruth, Ruth Wood, tells Drapers how she has tackled the technology evolution and survived six decades of high street headwinds and rising rents.
Every morning, Ruth Wood wakes up at 7:30am, gets dressed, combs her hair, and heads to her independent childrenswear store in Whetstone, north London. By 9:15am she is ready with a cup of breakfast tea in hand, waiting eagerly for customers to arrive.
It is a routine she has been practising for a long time – Wood is 80 years old and her eponymous store, Ruth, celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
“She is the heart of Whetstone, everyone in the area knows her”, says Lorraine Herman, manager of Ruth. “This shop is her passion, and she thrives working here.”
Wood took over the store – originally a childrenswear independent called Maison d’Elizabeth – in 1959 at the age of 21. Using money from her father and her inheritance from her grandmother, she paid £1,750 and rebranded the shop as Ruth. Then, it cost her around £350 a year in rent for the whole building, including the two flats above, which she lived in with her husband and two children.
“I left school when I was 15 and went straight into the fashion business, learning how to do window dressing and running a womenswear shop on Baker Street in London”, Wood explains. “At 20, when I got engaged to my husband, Geoffrey, my dad said, ‘Do you want a wedding, or do you want your own business?’ The answer was easy for me: a business. I had always wanted to own my shop.”
Her appetite for the business has never diminished. The vibrant, sharp-witted veteran jokes: “If my parents thought that I was still working in Whetstone high street 60 years after we bought the shop, they would think I was off my trolley.”
I never, ever want to retire
David Graff, managing director of childrenswear brand David Charles, which has been supplying Ruth for around 48 years, says: “It is a real landmark anniversary, especially as the small independent shops on our high streets have almost disappeared. Ruth has always been the most professional of business women and really nice to deal with. Her shop has always been a focal point for some of the best in children’s clothes and she is still going strong.”
For Wood, running the store is a labour of love, and she shows no signs of slowing down.
“I never, ever want to retire”, the mother of two says. “This keeps me young. If you build something from scratch and you’ve put your all into it, then you want to carry on till the end.”
However, it has not all been plain sailing. Since she opened the store there have been big changes that the business has had to contend with.
Wood explains: “Fifteen years ago we had to hand back the two flats that we lived in because the rent had become astronomical. It had reached £28,000 per year. Even now, we pay £18,000 a year for just the store space.”
Another challenge was keeping up with changes in technology: “I’ve had to adapt to it, but I’m not very good at it. We try to do a lot of promotion on social media, like Facebook and Instagram, but we don’t have our own [transactional] website. I don’t think we can effectively invest in it in the way it should be done. When you buy select pieces, it’s also difficult to control your stock situation online – what’s going out to the customer and how it’s going to come back. Most importantly, it takes that personal service element away, which is our USP.
“I don’t bank online either. My husband still does all our accounts.”
Ruth stocks designer clothing for children from birth up to 16 years old. It comprises 20 brands, including Levi’s, Absorba and David Charles, among others. It purchases its partywear from a mix of manufacturers in the US.
Over the years, childrenswear brands that were once big sellers have either disappeared from the marketplace or become less popular because of changing trends. Wood recognised that she had to drop them and quickly implement new ones. She says she has always purchased high-quality brands at higher price points, and still does.
Wood says competition on the high street has also changed throughout the years, providing further challenges: “Back when I set up the business, the only shops that were any competition to us were C&A and Marks & Spencer. You didn’t have the likes of Zara and H&M to compete with.
“There aren’t a lot of independent kidswear stores now. In days gone by, I used to do a Sale and there would be queues down to the end of the road. These days there aren’t very many customers that are loyal. It’s worrying for us because they now go online and look to see where they can buy products the cheapest.
“Brexit has also made people very nervous to spend their money.”
Drapers independents awards 2019
Are you a champion of independent retail?
Drapers Independents Awards are open for entry. There are 18 categories for brands and retailers to shine a spotlight on their achievements. As well as the best retailer and brand categories, new for 2019 are Bridal Retailer of the Year, Bridal Brand of the Year and Rising Star in the Independent Sector.
The winners will be announced at an inspirational lunchtime ceremony on 11 September at the Brewery in London.
To keep up with the changes, Wood now buys “a lot less” stock than she used to. The logo and store-front were also refreshed seven years ago to “modernise” the brand image.
Wood warned other retailers to be cautious if looking to launch a new retail business: “My advice to someone opening an independent shop would be to be very careful because times have changed. I’d say be very cautious.”
Nonetheless, she has defied the odds by keeping her store alive for six decades.
“Despite the retail scene changing dramatically throughout the years, the store has survived because Ruth has constantly, and quickly, adapted the shop’s image and products to account for those changes”, Wood’s son, Richard, says. “Even though she is 80, she has a very youthful outlook, and has always evolved the business to try and appeal to ‘today’s’ audience.”
“She has a remarkable rapport with customers, and can remember what someone bought 20 years ago. Her customer service is outstanding. She’d take a dress to pieces and put it back together to help the customer. She knows her stuff and has an eye for fashion.”
Wood has shown herself able to adapt to the changing market, and she will need that ability in the current turbulent conditions. But by staying true to its original store values and offering “customer satisfaction on a one-to-one basis”, Ruth provides a personal shopping experience that is hard to replicate online. It is perhaps one other retailers could learn from.
Ruth at a glance
Location: 1388 High Road, Whetstone
Staff: Ruth Wood and four part-time employees, including a seamstress
Brands: 20, including Levi’s, IKKS, Monnalisa, Absorba and David Charles
Prices: From £7.95 for a pair of socks to £400 for party dresses
Age range: Birth to 16 years for girls and to 10 years for boys