Q: When did Miss Milly start up? What was the reason for setting up the business? What is your background?
A: We are now in our eighth year having launched Miss Milly in Autumn 2012. I have been in the industry for 15 years and had previously set up and run another accessories wholesale and retail company. When that business partnership reached a natural conclusion, I took the wholesale division and rebranded to Miss Milly. My prior career background is marketing and PR, and I jumped at the chance to create a brand rather than a company and am loving the continuous evolution of Miss Milly.
Q: What is the background behind the name Miss Milly?
My Nanna was called Millicent and my daughter is Milly. One day when she was a baby, I lifted her out of the bath saying ‘Come on Miss Milly’, and it was a real lightbulb ‘ding’ moment. That was about two years before the brand was established, so it really did stick with me. When it came to starting out again, I had zero doubts about the name. It is feminine, British and friendly, perfect for what I want the brand to encompass. My starting point was ‘a brand that would look great on the high street in its own right’. Not because we wanted to have our own stores but because we wanted our customers to be able to visualise Miss Milly in their own outlets, and I think we achieved that early on.
Q: Where is the company based and how is this location important for the business?
We are in rural Worcestershire; a 10 minute walk down the road and you’re in beautiful countryside. Location isn’t so important for a wholesale business without premises open to customers but it is helpful being close to the NEC for the Spring and Autumn Fairs; I get to go home at night. Saying that, I love exhibiting at Home & Gift and staying away in Harrogate, it is like a mini break! Our customers are gift shops, clothing stores, garden centres, department stores and visitor attractions based all over the UK so we are fairly centrally based when we need to get further afield on visits.
Q: How has your journey trading been?
A: We have worked very hard at growing the brand whilst keeping control of the overheads. Even now as a much more established, successful business it is just as important to cost control as it is for a fledgling start-up. The business has grown steadily and continuously, and we are delighted to have so many loyal customers still ordering regularly now who took a punt on us in the first couple of years. And we have a great rate of referrals from existing customers to other retailers. The product ranges have evolved over the years, using customer feedback as one of our key inspirations. Scarves and packaging are both developments that came about after listening to our customers. The journey has been hard work but enjoyable. I can quite easily say I have two babies, both of whom are called Milly!
Q: What challenges have you overcome?
A: Miss Milly was not started under the easiest of circumstances. Firstly, it was mid recession and there was also a lot of emotional upheaval and legal wrangles separating the previous business and moving on. I was due to launch at Autumn Fair but the business separation agreement wasn’t signed until the day before so I didn’t know if I would even have any legacy stock available. I lived, breathed and dreamed Miss Milly, my curtain poles had jewellery hanging off them, and I was getting used to my daughter being at school and curtailing the work day at 3pm with the school run. Life was chaotic! The first year was definitely the hardest and most certainly an adventure but luckily, I had the foundations to build on. Outside of my marketing background, I had developed my other business skills through necessity; how to import, building websites, working with couriers and payment process providers and book-keeping, amongst so many more.
Q: Do you use factories abroad and if so what are the pros and cons?
A: Yes, all our stock is manufactured abroad to our design specifications. Cost is our primary reason for manufacturing abroad. Our style of accessories would not be achievable at suitable price points in the UK. The factories we work with overseas are well established and specialists in their field, and they also look to continually update processes and styles, helping us stay ahead. The main disadvantage is that if there is an issue it can be much harder resolving it over email and Facetime than it would if we could hop in the car and drive a few hours to work it out in person with samples in front of us. We have visited all of our factories and carried out our own inspections. Miss Milly is run on an ethical basis; we pay our suppliers a 30% deposit to cover their material costs with the balance paid on completion of production. Our relationships are strong and reliable, and we don’t feel the need to withhold funds until delivery for any of our current partners.
Q: Describe your product offering. (What is your ‘look’?)
A: Miss Milly is principally known for colourful, reasonably priced jewellery in resin and paint. “We are looking to add more colour to our ranges” is something that we hear repeatedly at trade shows from new and potential customers. And we work hard to get our seasonal palettes just right. There is a big difference between using a standard red offered by a manufacturer and selecting your own subtly different shade that will sell far better. This Autumn we had a raging success with orange, a very tricky colour to use in jewellery. Whilst we keep up with the trends, we are not a fashion first brand and our products are more timeless than trendy. We back-up the jewellery with accessory ranges, including scarves, purses and keyrings, helping customers create in-store displays and increasing transaction values.
Q: What are your most popular products? (or themes)
A: Our flagship range is the Floria Collection, the aforementioned colourful resin, paint and enamelled jewellery. We have experimented with all sorts of other styles but this is our mainstay. It encompasses all forms of jewellery, from necklaces, earrings and bracelets to rings, brooches and, more recently, scarf pins, which will be launching at Spring Fair. We are also working on a range of resin cufflinks, our first products for men, which we hope to introduce in 2020.
Q: Have any products taken you by surprise with their popularity?
A: Yes, the Starburst Necklace, a multicolour flower pendant, was one of our first designs and sold continuously well for a few years. Then it slowed down a bit and we stopped it as it really wasn’t in keeping with the brand style any longer. But we had so many requests for it that we brought it back, three times in fact. It’s not in the catalogue for 2020 but you never know… It’s very hard to juggle updating the colours of good sellers with introducing enough new designs. We invariably disappoint somebody with a discontinued line or two each season but we can’t possibly carry everything. Our animal keyrings and bag charms have been a great hit over the last couple of seasons, and we are looking to update the range for 2020 but sausage dogs will most definitely remain!
Q: How do you keep your designs fresh and current? How often do you launch new lines?
A: Keeping up with fashion predictions and trends is a key part of pulling the collections together and as I said before, whilst we aren’t fast fashion, we do pay careful attention to what is happening and work with those that are relevant to our brand and market. Our main market is gifting and there is a slight lag in uptake here compared to the fashion stores. A few seasons ago we knew stars were going to be big news so made sure to include some in our designs but they didn’t start to sell through until a season later. We have two main seasonal launches a year: Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter. We have tried a high summer launch as well but it didn’t really pay dividends so now we stick to the two main periods although we might play around with some colours and styles in our restock orders.
Q: How do you predict trends?
A: It’s all about keeping an eye on what’s going on in fashion, homes and life in general. Social media is so much more key now to identifying trends and it’s hard to find time in the working week to do enough research. For colours, we look at the catwalks and forecasters, and for general trends we try to keep our eyes and ears open at all times.
Q: What sets you apart from your competitors?
A: Everything really boils down to the appeal of the products themselves and how they’re priced, topped off with service, and we strive to do our very best with all of these elements. We also like to keep embracing the relative ‘smallness’ of our business and the importance of the personal touch. When we started it was about creating a brand rather than a company, and that was quite new in the gift industry in the Noughties, certainly amongst the smaller businesses, but is now much more centre of mind and evident when you walk the halls at trade shows. We stick religiously to a brand profile and ‘is it Miss Milly?’ is a common thought process so that there is a look and style to what we do, which is recognisable to retailers and consumers. We also have a key focus on keeping prices as reasonable as we can for all customers at all times, whether they are a small independent buying in singles or a multiple retailer buying in several dozens. Our packaging policy is a key part of this and always provokes a discussion or two at trade shows. Roughly half of our customers like to create stories with a brand display in-store and use packaging. Other customers concentrate on their own brand development and will de-tag products and have their own packaging. Therefore, we decided that we would supply our packaging differently and we have three styles that we sell at cost price. This means that customers can choose the style and price point they like (from a cost-effective pillow pack to a gift bag or luxury gift box) and in the quantities they want. But if they don’t need it, they don’t have to pay for it (‘free’ packaging will always be accounted for somewhere in the costing process), pay for the delivery of it or dispose of needless waste.
Q: How are you finding the current economic climate in the UK? Is it affecting business?
A: Anyone that buys in foreign currency will understand how hard the Brexit years have been. Plummeting Sterling and the usual cost increases from suppliers have really squeezed margins. If the cost price is too high for a product, we work with our suppliers, looking at how to change the materials or the design to bring it down to a price that will be suitable for our market whilst retaining the integrity of the design. We’ve definitely done more of this in the last couple of years than previously. I think I’m far from alone in being sick to death of the political playground and its inhabitants, and happily from our point of view it has been business as usual with regards to sales and growth despite the Brexit excuse popping up regularly. I’m writing this at the start of December so by the time this article has been published who knows what will have happened…
Q: Are you active on social media? How is this important for the business?
A: Yes, we are active but not as consistently as we should be. We also struggle with the balance of using B2C messages to build the brand and help consumers recognise Miss Milly when they see it in a store, and communicating on a B2B basis with retailers. We do try and share a good mix of product specific posts alongside lifestyle pictures and commentary.
Q: Do you visit trade shows? What are you hoping to achieve when you exhibit?
A: We participate at three shows a year; Spring Fair, Autumn Fair and Home & Gift Harrogate. The latest edition of Spring Fair will be my 15th; cue wide-eyed gulp. We try and evolve the brand every year with tweaks to the exhibition stand, just visual touches to enhance the appeal and hopefully catch more eyes. Trade shows are hard work for exhibitors and visitors alike but they can be great fun and it is the perfect forum for getting feedback to what you are doing as a business. I love getting the products in front of customers and seeing what they think, and catching up with them face-to-face. And obviously, we also want to take as many orders as we possibly can and gain huge numbers of new customers!
Q: What other sales channels do you use?
A: Our website is the primary business tool and heart of the business as it is also our operating and customer management system. Orders come in online at all times of the day and night, alongside those from our sales agents and the customers that like to order over the phone. We currently have four self-employed sales agents covering Scotland, the North West, the South West and south of London and the South Coast. They have all really embraced Miss Milly and do a fantastic job representing the brand in their territories.
Q: Do you have any advice for new businesses starting out in the world of gift?
A: For suppliers, I would say research your market online and visit different kind of stores before you take an expensive plunge. If there is something similar on the market already, how is your offering going to be different and better? Think about the costs and methods of making, shipping, storing, marketing and dispatching your products. What is the bare minimum you can turnover to survive for the first six months to a year and is that feasible? For those starting out as a retailer with their first shop, make sure you understand all the costs from rent and rates to service charges. utilities, insurance, EPOS and payment providers. What hours will you be open and do you need staff? And really think through your product mix and how you will site and display it in-store. Something I always say to customers stocking Miss Milly for the first time is to buy in at least twos or threes of a SKU so that you can really tell if something is a good seller rather than a freak purchase.
Q: What can we expect in the future from Miss Milly?
A: More of the good stuff and keeping the jewellery designs fresh and relevant. We will keep trying out new accessory products like the magnetic brooches, keyrings, scarf pins and cufflinks to see what does and doesn’t work for the brand. And with the brand itself, we will keep tweaking and improving. This year we are introducing new POS and have enhanced our sales leaflet to make it more useful to retailers. We are also beavering away on a new website, which, as most readers will know, is like having a whole second job to contend with, but it should hopefully sort out some of the niggles and reliability issues with the current site. And we’d like to increase the number of agents we work with to better service more customers throughout the UK. Overall, it’s just carrying on with steady, consistent growth and the supply of great value, gorgeous products.
Tel: 01905 622509
Sarah Watmore (Director)