For our second Spotlight in May, we spoke to Ethel Loves Me! A firm favourite on the high street, we spoke about their origins and the challenges they face as a small business during the current trying times.
1. Could you describe your business to us?
We are a destination store specialising in work by local artists and makers.
2. When was Ethel Loves Me founded?
We opened our doors in 2017.
3. What's your story? How did you end up in this business?
We (Jason and Jo) had moved near Rye and so had Matthew and we literally met in the pub and came up with the idea of starting the business. We were inspired by a visit to the (then) Rye Studio School. The business was originally going to be focused on showcasing young creative talent but then the studio school sadly closed so our business model became broader to include creatives from in and around the area.
Opening the business was a complete change in direction for all of us really. Matthew’s background is retail PR and we both have a sales background – some time back!
4. What makes your business unique?
Undoubtedly, it’s the creatives that we represent, a lot of whom produce one off work that you can’t buy anywhere else.
Nothing we sell is mass produced or made in China. We’re the opposite of that – we want to sell items that are sustainable and ethical.
Most of our creatives are from Sussex and Kent – there is the odd exception, but in those instances it’s usually someone with a local connection. We scout for some of our artists and makers we work with, and some come to us to ask if we might stock their work. Increasingly people come to us because we are known. We generally ask artists to email us about their work and then all three of us consider whether it’s a good fit for Ethel or not.
About 10% of our makers sell exclusively with us, but all of the makers we work with certainly won’t be sold in any other retailer in Rye. We also won’t sell things that are too similar to the work of another maker - it’s an absolute must for us that we are a fair platform.
Customer-wise we appeal to a wide demographic and age range. We have collectors from further afield who come specially to purchase items from their favourite makers and artisans. Sometimes they are people who maybe found something they liked on a trip to Rye and become attached to that specific maker, so they return regularly to add to their collections. So, we have a loyal customer base.
It’s also a happy shop you often will hear laughter when you’re in here – we wanted it to be a fun place to be.
5. What are your business values?
Sustainability is very important to us. We are also cruelty free and try and to avoid animal products. We’re also very much about encouraging people to shop locally and to support local creatives and artists.
6. What are your business plans for 2023? What's your focus?
Potentially to open another shop! We’re also looking at our online presence and developing that – we’ve always sold online and of course that took on greater significance during the pandemic, but we’d like to grow it further. Also, we’d like to produce more of our own products. At the most we have our own range of candles in one-off reusable pots, there’s a capsule pottery range, and our collaboration with Watson & Wolfe is a gorgeous range of vegan leather wallets, card holders and key rings. We’d like to expand this side of our business further.
7. What challenges does your business face this year?
VAT is a real challenge for us – as a business dealing with suppliers who are mostly not VAT registered that means the burden of VAT is on us - we have few VAT inputs to offset against our VAT outputs, the standard rate of VAT kills our margin.
8. What are you most proud of in your business?
The fact that we’re still here, still trading and that we’ve moved to a bigger premises – we feel we’re now in a really strong position in the High Street.
It’s great to feel that we help some creatives become more established by selling their work and showcasing it.
Back in our first year of business, we held an end-of-term showcase for students from the Rye Studio School – it was wonderful to see the work they produced, we particularly remember a statement piece made by one of the makers which was all about Women’s Rights, and it was a coat made completely out of dusters. Some of those students have gone on to do really amazing things – one is now in the costume department at Glyndbourne.
9. If you had to give one piece of advice to someone starting a business, what would it be?
Location, Location Location! It really matters. When we were in our previous premises just around the corner, no one knew we were there. Our move to the High Street has made all the difference.
10. The biggest change you’ve seen in your business or your business sector since you started?
I think we didn’t realise to begin with just how slow it would be to start making money with our particular business model. We didn’t pay ourselves for the first five years, it wasn’t a livelihood. It was slow burn! As a consequence, we definitely have a mindset of ‘never lose a sale’ – that means we will deliver customer’s purchases if needed, we also have a set fee on postage – which, given the variety of sizes, shapes and weights of the range of the products we sell very often means we’re swallowing a chunk of the cost of postage ourselves. There was even one occasion when we drove to Sheffield to deliver a chair someone had bought on their trip to Rye!
The VAT issue has been a real challenge. And COVID of course.
A big thank you to Matthew, Jason and Jo from Ethel Loves Me for the chat! You can follow them on Instagram here and Facebook here. To check out their rapid-fire question reel, follow us on Instagram @ryechamberofcommerce!