Frances Bishop failed to win Lord Sugar’s backing for her discount kidswear concept The Pud Store but three years on, she is doing just fine on her own.
Although she is not 29 until March, Frances Bishop has a positively old-fashioned attitude to retailing. It is all about providing her customers with keen prices and great service in the right locations.
In barely five years, Bishop has developed her kidswear concept, The Pud Store – its slogan is “Little prices for little puddin’s” – from a Facebook page to four shops and a website that collectively should produce sales of £1.2m in the year to the end of March 2020.
She still sells discounted baby- and childrenswear up to the age 14 years to the 20,000 members of her private Facebook group, although she does not break down her social media sales precisely as often an enquiry online is completed with a store visit.
We love being in secondary locations in secondary towns. The people really appreciate you being there. They want you to succeed
“I might chuck in one more shop this year – I am looking at Hull – but I want to see how the website performs first,” says Bishop. “I am not the sort to make wild predictions on growth that look good in print. I feel like just taking a bit of time to stand back and enjoy what I’ve achieved. I think I’ve done all right.”
Bishop has good reason to be pleased with her self-motivated performance. Bishop built the website on the Shopify platform herself, and launched it in October last year. It took 3,000 orders in the first eight weeks. In a typically budget-conscious approach, she opted not to hire a website designer.
“They are too expensive. It’s for the same reason we have simple slatted wall fixtures in our shops,” she explains. “And we don’t have branded carrier bags. I don’t want to spend on unnecessary things.
“I can’t give an accurate breakdown of online sales yet because I haven’t got a CRM system. Once we see how the website performs, we probably will build one ourselves.”
Once we see how the website performs, we probably will build one ourselves
Such an obsession with value for money underpins The Pud Store’s rationale. When she was a new mother – son Oscar turned seven in January – Bishop felt uncomfortable paying large sums for designer kidswear, even though her husband, Neal Bishop, is a professional footballer who has played for lower-league teams such as Notts County and Blackpool.
Her belief many other parents and grandparents did not want to pay, or could not afford to pay, over the odds for good-quality children’s clothes prompted her to start the business in January 2014.
Originally with a partner, but on her own after a year, Bishop began by selling suppliers’ excess stock via Facebook. It was labour intensive, but effective from the start.
She was a candidate on The Apprentice in 2016 and got through to the interview stage but failed to convince Lord Sugar The Pud Store could be scaled up.
Today’s enthusiastic entrepreneur wishes she had backed herself more in her early days: “People who meet me think I am very confident, but I wasn’t like that a few years ago, although I absolutely knew this was a good idea.”
Raised in Nottingham as one of two daughters of a lorry-driver father and mother who works in the NHS, Bishop had a working-class upbringing in which everything had to be earned. She got her first taste of customer service waitressing in a restaurant aged 14.
What did mark her out was her sharp brain. She was, she admits, “one of those terrible people who is good at everything at school”. She was so eager to learn that her school put her on a Japanese course. She can still speak and write the language.
Academic achievements dried up, however, when she went to study philosophy and economics at Durham University in 2009. She felt ill at ease with the many students from more privileged backgrounds and dropped out after two years, returning home to live with her parents.
If I can’t double my money even when something is in the Sale, I won’t buy it
One of the bar jobs she found was at Notts County Football Club, where she met her husband-to-be and soon became pregnant.
“I was doing really well: a university drop-out and unmarried mother at 21,” she jokes. “But we did get married when I was 22.”
From the start, The Pud Store has been targeted at young mums and their relatives from low-income groups. From its online roots, it has grown into a mini-chain. Doncaster (opened in March 2015) and Newark (May 2015) are on high streets. Mansfield (September 2018) and Sheffield (May 2019) are in shopping centres.
Despite starting on Facebook and adding her transactional website, she is a passionate believer in the potency of bricks and mortar: “Businesses with four to 10 shops will be the future of retail. We love being in secondary locations in secondary towns. Of course, the units are cheaper to run, but people really appreciate you being there. They want you to succeed. Ours are real community stores.”
Kidswear agent Guy Ingram of GI Agencies is impressed: “Frances is unusual in having four shops as most childrenswear retailers have only one, or at most two. From the start, she has known exactly who she is aiming at and buys accordingly. She is like a TK Maxx for kidswear. How she promotes herself on social media is amazing.”
Why would I be like Mothercare and have loads of pram brands lined up? How can a customer trust what you recommend as the best if you show a big selection?
Bishop is still eager to learn. Having emailed James Timpson, chief executive of the Timpson chain of the keycutting to shoe-mending chain, in December 2018 Bishop spent a day with him as he visited some of his shops. She has adopted several of the company’s ideas, especially when it comes to rewarding staff for success.
“We pay the minimum wage, but like Timpsons, I have set up a monthly bonus scheme, and at Christmas everyone received a bonus of around £100.”
Timpson tells Drapers he likes to assist aspiring retailers who contact him, as he contacted inspiring retail leaders in his early days: “I know how much it helped me when I was keen to learn about business from people with lots of experience. Frances is a very talented businesswoman and I hope her shops continue to thrive.”
A totally hands-on operator, Bishop likes being on the shop floor best. She employs 14 staff but only one, her “right-hand woman”, Kirsty Fisher, who has been with her for four years, is full time.
“I am the helium and Kirsty is the balloon weight – she stops me getting too carried away with new ideas. I always have to have something in the pipeline,” Bishop says.
A recent addition to the offer is full-price prams by Dewsbury-based company Mee-go. Bishop likes the owner Paul Roberts and his products – she smoothly reels off their many benefits and reveals she sold seven prams in the first nine days of 2020.
“With a display pram in the shop, we are already selling them regularly at £750. Why would I be like Mothercare and have loads of pram brands lined up? How can a customer trust what you recommend as the best if you show a big selection?”
Trust is clearly very important to The Pud Store’s owner, but it works two ways. She still is critical of the response she received from some kidswear brands when she first visited trade shows five years ago.
“I looked even younger than I was and too many took the attitude of ‘what do you want, to buy a few samples from us?’. They were very condescending, but they are often the ones now contacting me about buying their surplus stock.
“Other people, however, were prepared to trust me. They are the sort I am now spending £70,000 a time with.”
When it comes to negotiating with suppliers, Bishop cheerfully admits she is “a nightmare”. For a baby’s dress she will sell at £22.99, she wants to pay £6. Shoes she buys at £2.50 a pair retail at £10-£12.95. Current season shoes at £24.99 cost her £9.50.
“If I can’t double my money even when something is in the Sale, I won’t buy it. I get a lot from Turkey now and Spain. Someone in London is making especially for us. People contact us all the time because of our reputation but I don’t deal with big brands because they don’t sell. I also specialise in traditional styles like romper suits and pretty dresses because I find so much modern childrenswear inappropriate.”
Like her buying, her trader’s approach to negotiating leases is uncompromising. Off the record, Bishop confides to Drapers some of the very advantageous deals she has secured, underlining how an in-demand retailer can call the shots in today’s market.
“I only do one-year deals in case I want to move on,” she says.
While her lease details are secret, this impressive young retailer is happy to reveal other figures, all gleaned promptly from her Epos Now system. Sales on babywear are split 50:50 between girls and boys, but from two years onward the figures move to 60:40. An ideal shop size is 1,200sq ft to 1,500sq ft (plus some storage space for her considerable footwear offer).
At any time, The Pud Store has £380,000 of stock. This year she wants to turn the stock in each shop in seven to 10 days to keep her customers coming back to check what is new.
Barclays is impressed because I did exactly what I said I’d do with the money: I opened my two most recent shops
The average transaction value in the shops is £64, while in the early months of online it has varied between £33 to £39. In its first couple of months, returns from website sales were only about 3% or 4%.
In the year to 31 March 2019, turnover at The Pud Store was £820,000, producing gross profit of £210,000. The current forecast for this year is for sales to hit £1.2m, but Bishop says this is dependent on website traffic and sales of prams.
Whatever the final figure, the performance suggests that Bishop’s confidence in her concept is well placed. She has achieved her success with remarkably little assistance. NatWest granted her a £10,000 overdraft in 2015, but when it would not extend this, Barclays approached her with a £50,000 unsecured loan and a £25,000 overdraft. The Pud Store’s experience is being used by the bank as a template for backing other small retailers.
“Barclays is impressed because I did exactly what I said I’d do with the money: I opened my two most recent shops.”
Looking ahead, Bishop can see the benefit of finding investors who can help her grow the business fast. She may find there is no shortage of backers who want to prove Lord Sugar made the wrong call about The Pud Store.