Traditionally, the sound of ringing tills was considered to be music to a retailer’s ears. In 2019, it is the attention-diverting burst of an iPhone message alert that makes the owners of Shaftesbury’s Botanical Candle Co happy.
Amalia Pothecary and James Osborn started as online retailers creating, packaging and posting candles from their home. Their beautifully presented soy wax candles burn cleanly and evenly. Many are fragranced by 100% essential oils, so they smell wonderful too.
For the past year Amalia has traded from a first floor workshop and retail space on The Commons. “It is a success and I feel proud that we were able to make it a success at the top of a flight of stairs,” said Amalia
This weekend marked a milestone in the business’ four-year journey. They have expanded downstairs, adding a street-level shop front. It’s a game changer. On Saturday morning, Shaftesbury shoppers and thousands of online fans got their first glimpse of the new retail space.
As I chatted with Amalia at midday, the message notifications continued. “That was our stockist in Stornaway. They were saying how lovely the shop looked on Instagram. Sorry for the constant barrage of messages!” said Amalia, with no reason to apologise. “When we posted that we were doing the shop up on social media, we didn’t reveal too much about it until it was finished. I have put up some posts today and people all over the world are loving it.”
Straight after the commendation from Scotland’s Western Isles, an American resident pinged her praise. She is either an early-riser or an insomniac. It was 4 o’clock in the morning their time. “We’ve had a message from California. There is a lady who keenly follows us and she messaged to say how lovely it was. And we’ve had lots of followers in the UK too. We are thrilled that everybody loves this so much,” Amalia smiled.
It might seem odd that people from far-flung places were congratulating the couple on the appearance of their new store. It’s because Amalia has mastered the art of social media conversation. She understands that consumers want to know the people who are making them the products that they trust. They are not shoppers – they are supporters. And they are part of this success story. They want Amalia and James to do well.
In this period of national high street flux, it seems that many successful retailers combine a ‘bricks and mortar’ store with an online presence, for the best of both worlds. “There are days when Shaftesbury is quiet. You don’t see many people. And there are times when you know that you are not going to have a rip-roaring month,” Amalia explained.
“We have the online business to back us up. We are diversifying our income by having a physical shop. You can guarantee that when you have a quiet day on the website, the shop will probably be all right. Or you have a good trade order.”
Those trade orders are also important to the business. “We are able to sell to the trade because we make our products from scratch. It was never a conscious decision. Shops approached us and we realised that we could offer our product if we had a good think about our wholesale pricing.”
Amalia says selling on the high street is ‘tricky’, but adds, “If you are keen to do business and you are really careful and you observe trends then it is doable.” And whilst online statistics are important, Amalia carefully observed Shaftesbury shopping trends when customers visited her former first floor shop. She has been able to make informed decisions about the new street-level store.
“We’ve seen what they spend on and their reaction to prices. We know what they look for and it has allowed us to tailor the shop to them. We know there’s no point in bringing in really high-value items. People who breeze in off the street are not normally spending that way. But nice greetings cards and lovely gift solutions for birthdays are bought by people who come in. We are careful to tailor what we offer to those customers and we’re quite realistic about it,” said Amalia.
The shop’s stylish design was attracting attention on Saturday lunchtime. The couple have transformed the space themselves, rather than bringing in expensive professionals. “We haven’t had shopfitters. James, thankfully, is incredibly handy with most tools so he’s done everything – from the slate on the counter, which looks like a roofing, to decorating.”
Just over a year ago the couple were still operating from their Victoria Street home. Amalia had told ThisIsAlfred how James had pushed for a separate work unit because he was fed up of tripping over boxes in every corner of their house. “I think we also needed a separation. We needed to take it out of the house,” James explained.
But he admits that, when you’re running your own business, thoughts about work are never far from your mind even if you are relaxing at home. “We never truly switch off, but we now have a degree of separation, which is quite nice,” James added.
Daytime separation is set to end in May. James will be joining the business on a full-time basis. It is a big move for the company and for him personally. “Leaving my job of twenty years was a bit scary but we have talked about this opportunity for a long time. We always said that one day in the future we would be able to work together on our own business. It’s happened quicker than we expected. It’s definitely the right time, with the way that the business has been growing and with the added shop downstairs,” said James.
“It’s also nice to help Amalia out with some of the key decision-making. At the moment she takes all the responsibility, orders all the stock and does the accounting. To be able to share that load will help us keep our sanity. We know we get on reasonably well together when we work together. I’m really looking forward to it,” said James.
At that point, the couple turned to face each other and beamed. They are clearly excited about their future. Some people advise against working in business with your life partner but the pair worked together previously at Virginia Hayward. It was where they met.
“We have been working together, in a fashion, on this business for the whole time it has been running although I have not been literally here for every waking second,” said James. “We are always working in the background together and we do complement each other really well. Amalia will think of certain things and I can bring another element in and vice versa. Between us we do cover pretty much everything,” said James.
Amalia has also worked closely with Jemma Ricketts. Until recently, Jemma operated ‘Enchanted Plants’ from the downstairs shop unit that Botanical Candle Co now occupies. Jemma’s business is doing well but she’s changed her working arrangements, partially because her family is set to get bigger.
“Jemma announced that she was expecting a baby and she has a toddler already. She saw a huge increase in the amount of mail-order that she had last year, so she approached us to see whether we would be happy to take on the shop space so she can concentrate on making her products in her workshop and looking after her young family,” said Amalia.
James and Amalia will be busy enough as they settle into the new shop unit. And they’ve also received a huge promotional boost with an extensive feature in a popular magazine. “We’ve been featured in Country Homes and Interiors this month. They’ve done a six-page feature on us in the ‘My Country Business’ section of the May issue,“ said Amalia. “We’ve already had referrals come through from that magazine. You never know who might see that and whose desk it might land on.”
The couple do have some plans for the future, when it’s all settled down, after their expansion. “I want to introduce including special limited edition candles for particular events,” said Amalia.
As I left the shop, it was full of Saturday lunchtime shoppers. “I think it’s going to be even stronger now having that lovely shop front, looking so fresh and inviting. I think it’s going to go from strength to strength,” Amalia said.