Katie Diment and Jo Nicholson, childhood friends and co-founders of the Drapers Independents Awards’ Womenswear Retailer of the Year, Katie & Jo, talk to Drapers about the customer focus behind their effortlessly chic London boutique.
“We socialise together outside of work as well. Everyone always wonders that,” grins Jo Nicholson, one half of the duo behind premium womenswear independent Katie & Jo. “Actually, we were out together last night, celebrating the shop’s seventh anniversary,” adds Katie Diment, co-founder of the eponymously named boutique. “And our children are friends, too.”
Diment and Nicholson are quite the power pairing. The childhood friends met at school in York aged 12 and went on to start Katie & Jo in 2009 from their flat in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, abandoning their careers in the process to plough their time, energies and funds into the store.
In seven years the duo have gone from strength to strength, expanding from their original Parsons Green store to launch an ecommerce site in 2011 and a second store, in Wandsworth, in 2013.
Last year Katie & Jo was named Womenswear Independent of the Year at the Drapers Independents Awards. Judges praised the “beautiful” store, saying it felt “fresh and contemporary, with a design punctuated by colour and engaging merchandise”, and concluded “it is the type of business others can take inspiration from”.
Katie & Jo was initially dreamed up the night the pair moved into their new flat together in London. At the time, Diment was working in banking and Nicholson at an estate agency.
“We were both feeling a little bit disillusioned with our jobs and we went out for dinner together on that first night,” recalls Nicholson. “I told Katie that I had this crazy idea for a shop, and she said she thought it was brilliant.”
“I quit my job the next day,” says Diment. “I remember my boss saying ‘You can do your job at the same time, you can carry on working,’ but I said no.”
It took seven months to secure their space in Parsons Green and the doors to Katie & Jo opened in March 2010.
“We both lived locally and felt there was nowhere to shop, but there were lots of young women who wanted to be shopping,” says Nicholson. “We had our heart set on this space. Other shops kept coming up, but we wanted to wait. At one point we had boxes of stock piled up in our sitting room. It was absolutely terrifying.”
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Initial funds came from their savings, which had been intended for buying houses, but were swiftly diverted into fuelling the business.
“There was a point when we literally thought we were going to have to live in the basement of the shop,” says Diment. “It didn’t seem that big a risk at the time, but looking back on it, it really was.”
The risk, however, paid off. The Parsons Green space on New King’s Road is bright and refreshing. Pops of colour give a sense of sophisticated playfulness, while a wooden table features a bouquet of flowers alongside a vibrantly pink jumper from Chinti & Parker and leather-look trousers from AG Jeans.
It’s really important to do the buying together and try everything on
A tabletop birch tree is decorated with tassel necklaces, and a branch heavy with roses arches across the stairway by the door. In their initial business plan, Diment and Nicholson described the shop as an “Aladdin’s cave” and the space delivers as a chic treasure trove of premium labels.
The store perches on the corner of Parsons Green itself. Despite being relatively central in London and the glass towers of the City being just visible across the slate rooftops of local houses, the area has the feel of a country village. Victorian houses with broad bay windows line streets filled with shiny BMWs, populated by women pushing expensive prams and brandishing designer handbags, pedigree dogs trotting at their heels.
This is the woman Katie & Jo targets. Diment describes their typical customer as “feminine, but someone that likes to follow the trends, be individual and stand out from the crowd”. Prices for dresses in the store start at £80 and go up to around £400.
“A lot of our customers are mothers, and they want to be stylish but comfortable,” she says. “We’re both mothers now, so we know it’s impossible to do the school run in sky-high heels, but we still want to look good and feel good.”
The store’s premium positioning and understanding of its customer has made it an appealing destination for brands. Those stocked include Pyrus, Wyse, Paige and Rebecca Taylor.
“It’s a beautiful store in a great location and they offer excellent customer service,” says Jessie Brewin, UK brand director for Rebecca Taylor, which has been stocked in the store since 2011. “The brand mix is perfect for us, all working well together. The girls have a great sense of style and understand their customer well, meaning they know what to look for within the collections to suit their customers’ needs.”
In some ways the whole thing makes so much more sense after having children
Nurturing and engaging customers is one factor Diment and Nicholson believe has fuelled their success. Part of this comes down to attention to detail in their buying.
“It’s really important to do the buying together and try everything on, so that we are both really passionate about our stock,” says Nicholson. “Our technique has changed slightly as we’ve got older, but we always have the customer in mind.”
“We have a much stronger vision now,” explains Diment. “We know what sells and who our customer is, so our buying appointments are much shorter. Our first Maison Scotch buying appointment was about six hours long, because we literally tried on everything to make sure it was perfect. Now we can go in and pick things much faster.”
Since the first store opened, both women have become mothers, and see themselves as more aligned than ever with their customer.
“In some ways the whole thing makes so much more sense after having children,” says Nicholson. “We’re so lucky to have what we have, and it gives us a better understanding of our customers, because we’re in their position.”
The store also runs a loyalty scheme, whereby customers get a £20 voucher for every 500 reward points they accumulate, and runs exclusive in-store events when customers receive one-off discounts. Past events have included coffee mornings and talks from J Brand on finding the perfect jeans.
Claire Spencer Churchill, co-founder of fashion agency Claret showroom, which has worked with Katie & Jo since it opened, praises the pair for this customer focus: “They have a really loyal customer and know exactly what they will want so they are quick and efficient buyers. They always buy for their customer, which is why the stores do so well.
“They constantly offer newness and encourage their customers to try new styles in an unthreatening manner.”
Kam Harris, founder of agency Brand National, who have also worked with Katie & Jo since its opening, agrees: “They have created a lovely destination store, which reflects their tastes,” she says. “They know who their customer is and they are really focused on delivering the right look. They have both got such great personalities and that is reflected in the inviting feel of the store.”
Alongside the main store, Katie & Jo has the second store in Wandsworth, managed by Katie Gibbs, who joined the company in 2012. After an initial pop-up, a permanent shop is now open on Bellevue Road.
“It’s a nice, fun, relaxed environment,” says Gibbs. “It’s not a stuffy shop where people feel intimidated coming in. Bellevue is a bit more relaxed: people will walk the dog on the common and then come into the shop. It’s very much a community set-up here, whereas on New King’s Road you get a few more passers-by and unfamiliar faces.”
However, the new store is not simply a replication of the first: Rixo and Mercy Delta, for example, are sold only in the Wandsworth store andt not in Parsons Green, where other local boutiques were already stocking them.
“For customers it’s quite exciting to go to one store and then the other because they know they’ll find something different,” explains Nicholson.
Katie & Jo’s transactional website launched in 2011, two years after the first store opened. While online sales have grown to make up 20% of the business’s total sales, there are no imminent plans to develop ecommerce further.
“It would require a lot of money to grow it further,” explains Nicholson. “We don’t want to over invest into that side of the business. We both feel that the boutique experience, and what we have here, is really important.
“We have to be innovative and we know we can’t rest on our laurels. But that’s OK, because it’s fun and exciting to do that. It’s a challenge and we’ll rise to that challenge.”
For now, that innovation is focused on the brand’s social profile, on Instagram and on the website. Despite the store’s name, Diment and Nicholson have previously shied away from being visible faces of the brand, but they are now stepping into the limelight to encourage customer engagement on social media.
“The people we follow on Instagram are inspirations in terms of fashion and style, and that’s what we want people to feel about our Instagram page,” explains Diment. The brand is also launching a video channel, where the pair will showcase new arrivals and offer styling advice.
“For all we were on the shop floor every day talking to the customers, we weren’t marketing ourselves,” says Katie. “But now we’ve realised that we are the brand and the brand is us.”
In person, Diment and Nicholson embody the personality and aesthetic of the store. Impeccably dressed in the elegantly casual, subtly quirky clothes that populate the rails, both are chatty and friendly, with an intricate knowledge and excitable passion for their business, sharing the kind of easy rapport only built through years of close friendship. “It’s been amazing that we’ve come so far,” smiles Diment. “A lot of partnerships don’t work out, but we’re stronger than ever.”