Some people say that internet shopping is killing the retail sector on the High Street. But Shaftesbury businesswoman Amalia Pothecary is proving that’s not always the case.
Her Botanical Candle Company recently opened for business above Enchanted Plants and Amalia’s use of the internet has been responsible for the rapid growth and success of her venture. “We certainly would not be here without the internet,” she said. “People are wrong when they generalise and say that the High Street is dying.”
Amalia explained why she has been successful. “Traditional retailers might be dying. They are not diversifying. Perhaps they do not understand what customers want to see these days. It’s really clear to us that shoppers are much more conscious of where they spend their money. They want to know the story about the product. Where does it come from? How long will it last them? Was it made ethically? Have ‘little people’ been trampled on for it to be made?”
I climbed the stairs and turned right to enter Amalia’s light and airy loft space workshop and retail unit, overlooking The Commons. Wooden shelving lined an entire wall. It was laden with pots and jars containing her hand poured candles, enamel mugs and trailing houseplants. Stainless steel-topped tables filled the middle of the room and at the far end there were more metal shelves, worktops and cabinets supporting two tanks – 30 litre ‘Rita the wax heater’ and 70 litre ‘Peter’.
Amalia’s colleague Jemima Shaw smiled as she swiftly wrapped candles for a waiting courier to send customers. Also present was Paddy, Amalia’s black and white collie cross,and seemingly the company’s third member of staff. “He’s a huge part of the business,” smiled Amalia.
The building has had plenty of uses in recent times including a hairdresser and yoga space. For Amalia, this large, first floor unit offered her business the freedom to grow. It has allowed her to expand into retail and regain some work life balance. Until recently, Amalia had been making her candles in her three-storey Victoria Street home. “We were tripping over boxes. We needed to recruit more people. You need that separation between home and work,” she said.
So how did Amelia decide to start a candle making company? “It was a complete accident really,” she said. The UK candle market is said to be worth £90 million a year and, ironically, Amalia had her ‘lightbulb moment’ whilst burning one of her corporate competitor’s expensive beeswax candles.
“It was a very well-known brand. It sooted. It released black soot up the side of the mantelpiece. I tried to wipe it off and it left an oily black mark, which ruined the paint. I was furious because it was a really expensive candle. I went online and found a Mumsnet forum about paraffin candles and the chemicals they release. I was concerned that I had been burning these, thinking that they were nice. You’re breathing those chemicals in,” Amalia exclaimed.
“It led to a link about soy wax. It’s not been on the market a huge amount of time but I love to make things and enjoy crafts so I ordered a few kilograms of the soya wax flakes. It’s almost like white chocolate – pale and milky. I made some candles and they blew my partner, James, away. He pushed me on to make some more. I gave them as gifts to friends and family at Christmas and they went down really well. James was my cheerleader,” Amalia said. “He saw the potential and it snowballed from there.”
“Soy wax is a plant-based wax which is completely natural,” Amalia continued. “Our wax comes from crops grown in the United States. It you get it on your skin it doesn’t hurt you. It melts at a really low temperature, so it is safe to work with and it dissolves with warm soapy water. Once you finish your candle you can just wash it out with washing-up liquid.”
There’s another advantage – soy candles are suitable for strict vegan households. “There’s no beeswax blended with ours,” Amalia confirmed. “It’s a carbon neutral product. The carbon absorbed when the crop is growing outweighs the carbon used in the manufacturing processes. We sell it with a clear conscience because we know it is not doing harm.”
It’s interesting that Amalia is importing American soy wax and sometimes she exports her finished product back to the States. Americans have found her distinctive and stylish product presentation highly appealing. Amalia handpicks all of the candle containers. The vessels are interesting in themselves. You can buy a candle in an old teacup, vintage jar or a stoneware crock.
“Americans are very into our older vessels that we put the candles into. We might use a Victorian marmalade jar or something like that. It’s so rare in America, so we have a big market there. We sent candles to Australia recently too and they go all over Europe. It’s nice that we have some international representation,” said Amalia.
As we chatted, Jemima continued working away, writing address labels with destinations as exotic as an airport departure board. From street level, you’d never imagine that there was an international retailer on the first floor, overlooking Woolley and Wallis.
The candles are beautifully presented and they also smell wonderful. “We have nine scents at the moment. As we come into the autumn we will discontinue a couple of lines and make way for autumn scents,” said Amalia. “And then Christmas will roll around and it’ll go mad. We’re just working on Christmas scents now, but they are secret,” Amalia laughed.
Two key things happened to encourage Amalia to devote herself to her candle business full time. She was developing a following on Instagram amongst people who liked her eye for style, design and interiors. “We could bring those customers over and say ‘look at these beautiful candles that we’re making’. We did it softly and gently because I’m not a hard sell person,” Amalia said.
The next big decision for Amalia was leaving her full-time customer relationship and marketing assistant role at Virginia Hayward. “If it’s your only source of income I think you’re more driven to really make it work,” she explained. “We were also very honest with customers about that. People knew when I gave up my job. Customers supported us from the beginning. They’d seen us at markets or online. That transparency and being honest with customers really helped. People could see that we were really genuine.”
When Amalia announced that she was leaving her paid employment, at 24 years of age, to branch out on her own, she met a typically British response. “People said ‘gosh you’re so brave.’ The next thing they would say was ‘the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll get another job’. I think it’s really important to tell young people that there are options. You don’t have to be in a job you are not happy with, just to pay the bills and save for your two-week holiday when you can escape. You can do things, if you have the drive. It is scary. I was fearful at the time but if you throw yourself into it, turn that fear into drive.”
Amalia is clearly passionate about encouraging other young Shaftesbury people to realise their potential. You can understand why. She’s living proof that, with hard work and vision, you can make your dream business become reality.
I asked Amalia for the best advice she’d offer a new business. She suggested that entrepreneurs should undertake their own research. “If you don’t know something, don’t feel that you have to pay somebody to find it out for you. Go online, read, absorb as much information as you can. The internet is a wonderful thing and I wouldn’t be where I am without it. Tax affairs seemed really overwhelming but the information is out there.”
Another problem that affects start-up retailers is the long length of the lease offered by landlords. Amalia says it’s worth contacting the property owners and negotiating. “You’re faced with a 5, 10 or 15 year lease. Who knows where you are going to be in 15 years? It’s crazy. The rental market, both private and commercial, is quite mad at the moment. A landlord would rather have an exciting, new, young business in their property. Speak to them. If they can’t get somebody to sign for 5 years they might want somebody for 2. It’s just having a dialogue and chancing your arm. The worst things is that they can say no,” Amalia suggests.
Amalia also advocates independents working together. “Finding like-minded small businesses in the area, clubbing together, just going for a coffee and having a discussion. See where it leads. You might come up with a good idea or a workshop plan. You might come up with a joint promotion. You might be able to spread the word for each other. Competitiveness doesn’t have a place in the High Street any more, not amongst independent businesses. There is room for everybody,” she says.
Now Amalia’s business has become a success, she appears keen to maintain the principles on which it is founded. She has a strong sense of the importance of transparency and fairness. That extends to her product pricing. “Our pricing motto is to always make sure our products are affordable for a mum on a single parent income or a student who hasn’t got a lot of money but who just wants a little treat for themselves. We are never going to become greedy with prices. It’s just not what we are about.”
Amalia has no wish to grow into a high street chain – unlike the retailer whose sooty candle inspired her business in the first place. “One of my least favourite things would be to become a household name. I’m probably not going to open other retail shops. We will continue online and will just maintain our presence in this place. What’s nice is that we have stockists around the UK. We have about 75 at the moment and they are mostly independent, boutique stores, delis and farm shops. We are in places from Edinburgh to Jersey. We can supply them with a lovely product to sell in their shop.”
So we’d reached the point where we began our chat, discussing the supposed death of the High Street. As a town centre trader, Amalia’s convinced that Shaftesbury’s retail offer could remain vibrant and even grow.
“If you look at a town like Frome, just over the hills, 50 years ago it wasn’t somewhere that you would go for a day. You wouldn’t go there to buy a present or on a Sunday to wander around. Look at how the council has encouraged independent businesses into those vacant shops on Katherine’s Hill. It is a success story. There’s a real buzz. You go on any day of the week and it is busy. The shop owners are positive and enthusiastic and the shops are unique. Shaftesbury should try and encourage that.”
But Amalia doesn’t think that Shaftesbury should copy Frome. “The people who live in Shaftesbury are not the people who live in Frome and Frome shops may not succeed in Shaftesbury’s High Street. We have a completely different demographic.”
Amalia hopes that, if new businesses have an alternative income stream, they could open in town and encourage more similar retailers. “I’m not going to lie. I would not have taken this place on if we had been just relying on footfall. It can be tough going. There can be quiet days. Having an online element or any other income stream can really support the business. I hope that people who might be thinking about taking premises on the High Street would take encouragement from the fact that we are here.”
After burning the candle at both ends, Amalia has established a successful online business that’s also great for Shaftesbury’s High Street. And she’s an inspiring role model for any young person who has a dream, but also has doubts on how to deliver it.
If you’re not coming into town soon, do what people all over the world do and view Amalia’s range at TheBotanicalCandleCo.co.uk.