The Childrensalon chief executive operates an international etail empire – and a 64-year-old store in Tunbridge Wells
“It made me laugh recently when I went to a new hairdresser and she said, ‘Oh, you’re the lady from the children’s shop on the high street’,” admits Michele Harriman-Smith, chief executive of Childrensalon as we meet at its vast 150,000 sq ft headquarters on a business park on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.
Of course, the hairdresser is correct: Childrensalon has been providing premium and designer kidswear from its small shop in the upmarket Kent town since 1952. But what amuses Harriman-Smith is that many locals fail to appreciate the sheer scale of the business today. Childrensalon serves more than 130 countries around the world and provides customer services in 25 languages.
Childrensalon was named best multichannel retailer in the £25m-to-£200m category at this year’s Drapers Digital Awards, beating well-known names such as Jigsaw, Moss Bros, Oasis, Reiss and Bravissimo, in recognition of its staggering growth and entrepreneurialism.
The expansion has particularly intensified over the last three years, which Harriman-Smith attributes to a combination of the growth of the digital and marketing team, the development of the mobile site, and staying focused on customer service. Almost 40 people joined the business this year alone, taking its total headcount to more than 230.
Turnover grew 52% to £42.8m for the year to December 31, while pre-tax profit rose by 75% to £10.7m. Harriman-Smith forecasts turnover growth of around 35% for the year ahead and says the team is expanding at such a pace that it is becoming a struggle to remember everyone’s names – although she desperately tries to.
She took over the business at 25, returning from a stint growing organic vegetables in the Western Isles of Scotland, to help her mother when her father became ill. Her mother, consumed by a desire to “dress children beautifully”, opened the store in the year Harriman-Smith herself was born. She recalls being paid a penny an hour when she was younger to pick up pins with magnets from the floor of the workroom where seamstresses sewed children’s dresses. It is a far cry from the international business she runs with her “crazy creative” husband, George, today, although the shop retains its place on the high street.
So is it important for her customers around the world to understand the heritage of the company as a bricks-and-mortar retailer?
“It’s not important if you are talking about financials – it’s less than 1% of our sales – and it’s not important if you were talking about us. This is us,” she says, taking in the office space, which is lined with brightly coloured, intricately patterned wallpaper designed by George and printed on his own printer, to disguise the slightly drab yet functional industrial estate backdrop.
“We are an ecommerce company. We all love and are pushing the boundaries of technology. We also love the big brands, as well as the niche brands. Tunbridge Wells doesn’t. [The shop is] there because we haven’t got time to do anything else with it. We own the property, so it’s OK.”
There have been occasions where customers have flown in from somewhere like Abu Dhabi and taken a taxi round from Gatwick or Heathrow to arrive at the store, puzzled, at its size and lack of stock compared with the 278 brands offered online, she explains. The store is perfectly nice – more of George’s creations decorate the walls and till, and an electric train runs close to the ceiling to entertain children – but it is clear the head office is where Harriman-Smith feels most alive.
When she first took over the store, she loved the product and meeting customers because she is a real people person. But it was when George suggested they start a website that she really came into her own. She was sceptical at first that people would buy clothes online – Childrensalon launched its first website in 1999 – but trusted George “because he’s always right about things like that”.
They bought a book on coding and Harriman-Smith discovered she loved it: “It was right up my street. There was no emotion in it – to make something work, you just had to write a particular symbol and it’s done, nice and easy,” she says, her face lighting up. “I coded it until a certain point but then George said the design wasn’t good enough because he’s a real stickler for things like that, so I looked for someone to help me. He still works here actually, I found him in a PHP [computer programming] chatroom.”
Once the website was up and running, Harriman-Smith began to chat to people in the Middle East, Asia and North America – people she would have never come into contact with in Royal Tunbridge Wells.
“We had MSN chat on the website in those days and this one Arabic girl Fatma was emailing all the time saying, ‘I love your clothes’. She was 17 and getting married. She found us online and we created a really interesting relationship, I still talk to her most mornings actually.
“There were very friendly customers in Japan and Korea, and one customer from Canada came over and stayed with us, so that’s what I thought the internet was about. It was about making friends and that I had clothes to sell was a different thing. It was nice when I got an order, but it was all just about having fun.”
Harriman-Smith is still having fun now, keen to try new things and remain fluid. She gets up at 5am to chat to customers and reply to emails to make sure she hears what is happening in the business first hand. She hotdesks in various departments to stay on top of operations. Now the business has grown, and two-thirds of sales come from overseas, she has managed to bring some of that international flavour into the company through its multicultural workforce. With 13 family members working in various roles, the familial atmosphere is important, she says. There are posters for a company barbecue in the car park on the bank holiday Monday dotted around the space.
“We do a lot of things like that – it’s very social,” she confirms.
Lindsay Hoyes, show director at UK kidswear show Bubble, believes Childrensalon’s success and longevity is, in part, thanks to the company’s ability to adapt: “It has a clear understanding of who its customer is and the edit is very clearly based around their preferences.
“Its [Tiny Times] blog is very successful,” she adds. “There is a strong editorial element to the site, too, which helps to sell products and also encourages people to regularly come back to the site.”
Kevin Thompson, chief commercial officer of luxury kidswear brand licensee CWF (Children Worldwide Fashion), says Childrensalon’s entrepreneurial spirit has not faded as it has grown: “It has a passion for childrenswear that drives excellence, it is willing to try new things and is always open minded to new ideas,” he says. “Its enthusiasm for the sector is contagious and it remains the leader in online kidswear.”
Harriman-Smith believes remaining privately owned has allowed the company the freedom to test new things and grow. The latest thing it is trialling is an outlet section, which is currently part of the main site, but may be a standalone site in future.
She is also toying with a physical outlet, testing the concept in the existing store and considering a separate store at a later date: “I like the idea that people can have access to beautiful product, which they might not be able to afford ordinarily.”
Childrensalon offers designer brands such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana up to an eyewatering £3,150-plus price tag, but there are also pieces at a more everyday price of £14 for a newborn dress from brands such as Mayoral and Levi’s.
“People were saying: ‘It’s too expensive. Can’t you open an outlet?’ So one day I just said ‘yes’ and we put it into action. We are still working on it but it is definitely an area that is growing for us.”
As for the future, Harriman-Smith is adamant she will not sell.
“An exit plan?” she asks, horrified. “What’s that? My mother was working until she died – well, she scaled back, but you know what I mean. No, I’m happy and I love what I do.”
Michele Harriman-Smith on …
I love technology. It’s so exciting. It’s shot past me a bit now, so I’m always ringing my daughter to check things, but I love it.
Choosing new brands
It has to be beautiful and for me, the feel is very important. Our customers trust us to get the right feel, so we won’t have anything scratchy or with the seams in the wrong places.
People joke that I never go on holiday because I never switch off. I’m happy here, I love it. If I am away, I wake up at the same time and I work.
On staying entrepreneurial
We’re not very good at corporate, the structure is very flat. I don’t like this ‘not talking in the lift’ business and we don’t have any barriers. It has to stay fluid and people can always come with ideas.
Retailers I admire
Mr Porter, Selfridges, Liberty, Browns and Harrods.