5 minutes with: Vanessa Stephenson
Last week Jesmond boutique Bumble Bee re-opened. We spoke to owner Vanessa about pre-opening nerves, how she’s kept a young business afloat in a pandemic and her tips for summer style.
By Jo Dunbar
How has the re-opening gone so far?
It’s good, we opened last Monday, tentatively at first, saying we’d do it by an appointments-only system to see if people would prefer to shop that way. But actually, people just wanted to come in. We’ve had a steady flow of people, it’s been great. Everyone is applying social distancing and doing all the things we are asking them to do. The day before we re-opened, I was in tears and massively nervous. We’ve only been around two years so Covid-19 hit us when we were still building. I felt sick coming back to the shop. It was a mixture of excitement and real nerves, thinking what if this doesn’t work and I lose everything? There were a few teary moments with customers too. Lots of virtual hugs. I almost feel more exhausted now than I did trying to wade through the last three months.
What are the social distancing measures you have put in place?
We are asking no more than two or three people in the shop at a time; everybody observes the distance. We haven’t got a one-way system in place, I don’t feel we are big enough for that and it hasn’t seemed necessary. We have a very nice hand sanitiser, amber and lemongrass by the front door and the till. And when people try things on, if they don’t want to buy, we ask that they are left in the fitting room then we quarantine them and steam them before they go back on the shop floor. So far, so good.
How did you manage to stay afloat in lockdown?
In some respects it was horrific and I wanted to give up but luckily for me what I had done from a very early stage was build up a very good website so we were able to build on that. We were continually busy. I discounted things in lockdown and I did that intentionally. That was my survival strategy because we’d just taken delivery of all our spring stock. We didn’t know how long we would be closed. My attitude was discount it so we can pay our suppliers and pay our bills, and that was the right thing to do because we could then open and place some orders. That’s far better than reopening and trying to convince everyone to buy spring stock from April and May. The money we have made through the website has meant we can stock up on some lovely summer newness.
Tell us about the brands you think will be popular…
Covid-19 and lockdown has made me think carefully about what we buy. We’ve always stocked interesting brands, and in the past, I have been a little bit nervous and also stocked safe things and I’m not doing that anymore. We are about being different, that’s what our customers want, and I need to be braver. That’s how you survive, you survive by being different. Mary Portas has been writing about that recently, saying the shops that survive will see lockdown and the Covid-19 situation as an opportunity. While it has been awful in many ways, it has also made us grow in a different direction. We’ve got a great new jewellery brand called Mishky, with a fantastic ethos, which is made by and supports Colombian women. Mos Mosh jeans – they are the best jeans you can buy and won womenswear brand of the year last year. A lovely British brand called Stardust and Fabienne Chapot is a Dutch label who make embroidered dresses and t-shirts, with quirky details.
During lockdown you built on your social media profile…
I had to take a massive leap of faith and let people see my face on social media! I recorded loads of videos, the first one needed 10 takes and I would swear, then fall about laughing and we would have to start again. The first one was horrific but now I can do stories and videos without even thinking about it which has been great for my personal development. We’ll continue with those because the response has been huge. From doing that we have built a customer base which has reached much further: we are getting orders from Japan and New Zealand and America, which is amazing. That’s been one good thing from lockdown, I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
Do you think Covid-19 has changed how we shop?
The message that I am getting from customers is that lockdown has made people realise how important their local high street is. And how much they want to support small businesses. I really hope people hang on to that and don’t forget about us. We need to come out and support local shops. Brentwood Avenue is a beautiful place and has this gorgeous atmosphere with cafes, gift shops, a florist and boutiques. I have visions of the street being really continental and beautiful. Lockdown has brought all the businesses along the street together and we’d love to make Brentwood more of a destination.