He and his partner run Grace and Albert in Highams Park.
How did Grace and Albert first come about in Highams Park?
Both my partner Verena and I had a background in working in retail for quite some time. I was a former publican and Verena had managed a successful shop in Islington.
We first got the idea about Highams Park when we visited two friends who had recently moved here about six years ago. We started talking about a small shop and whether the area would be right for it. The rents in Islington were prohibitive, but there wasn’t much retail in Highams Park at that time, mainly a bike shop and some takeaways.
Verena wasn’t convinced so I knew we were going to have to create a destination. Our friends persuaded us that if we came here, then people would support us. And they were so right! We have such a loyal customer base, it’s brilliant.
How would you describe Highams Park?
Well, I’ve been driving down Forest Road for the best part of 30 years and never really knew about it before. There’s such a great sense of community here, everyone knows each other. You don’t find that in some other places in London.
People weren’t really aware of Highams Park until a few years ago when it started to appear on the TfL map. People who have moved here recently say they have done so because there is so much potential here.
What makes the business stand out?
We were going to be a small kitchen shop originally and that idea expanded into being more of a gift shop when we got a feel for what our customers wanted.
Verena is brilliant at sourcing products for the shop and we take pride in the fact that if someone wants something, we will do all we can to get it for them.
The fact that people know about us through word-of mouth is another point. We did very little advertising, I’m not a fan of leafleting, all these pizza leaflets that get pushed through the door just end up getting thrown away, so it was really about just striking up those relationships with our customers so we could build trust with them.
We're now attracting people from all over the borough and beyond and I would say we have a great relationship with at our customer base.
The name Grace and Albert came about because we wanted to reflect a sort of vintage feel the shop has – that old-time focus on customer service that has unfortunately been lost quite a bit.
We sell toys – they’re all eco friendly, made from wood. We source them from Plan Toys, the first company to make a wooden bath toy.
We also have a lot of vintage products, 1950s plant stands and pots and a 50s French coffee filter. I love that, it looks like it came out of a lab! The most recent addition is plants. We get up at 4am to go and pick them – you have to see them before purchasing, that’s really important to us.
What’s the secret to your success?
We have three rules with our customers: be polite, engage and don’t cheat them – if you follow that, there’s a pretty good chance they will come back.
When I talk about trust I mean being completely honest with them. We have suppliers and if we can’t get a certain product, or we know they can get it cheaper elsewhere, then we’ll just tell them to buy it elsewhere.
It may sound silly from a business perspective, but when we’ve done that, it’s amazing to see that person back shopping for something else shortly after.
We’re always happy to research products we normally wouldn’t stock. It’s difficult to compete with online shopping but you’ll always get people who keep coming back.
We’ve got some lovely stories of how customers found us. There was a woman who was looking for some pot brushes and said she had gone all the way to Stratford to buy them for £6 and found them here for £4.95 afterwards. She’s a regular now.
There’s another older gent who recently lost his wife. He was missing having his kippers cooked by her, and he needed some “fat-traps” so he could cook them himself on his old-timley grill . We managed to source those for him and they were about a fiver each. He was so happy, it was absolutely amazing.
How else do you give back to the community?
We have a board with local traders in the window. So many more people have been looking at in the last year. Everyone needs a local plumber, or a roofer, or a chippy and it’s great we can support them and recommend people.
What have the challenges been since Covid-19 started and how have you overcome these?
I think, despite Covid, that my biggest challenge is that I’m an analogue man in a digital world. Verena’s brilliant at that stuff and we have a brilliant social media presence. But the amazing thing about the shop is that we have customers who do the social media marketing for us as well. People taking pictures of our products and putting it on Facebook or Instagram or wherever has really taken off.
Were there any unexpected opportunities that arose from Covid-19?
It enabled us to launch our website! It’s been a slow burn getting it up and running but we’re really pleased with it and hopefully it now reflects something of the shop. We’ve only had it up and running for a few weeks and it’s already making a big difference.
What are your plans for future growth?
Well about four or five weeks ago, we started doing deliveries. I’m looking to get a business account with Parcelforce so we can start delivering all over the country.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for your business in the new Covid-19 era?
During Covid, people’s concern for this business was absolutely palpable and that is just the best feeling. The number of people who popped their head through the door to ask how we were doing was amazing. The mutual concern and care we and our customers have for one another is our DNA, our lifeblood and part and parcel of making this business what it is.
What are the next steps for Grace and Albert?
To carry on building the website so we can start delivering nationwide. At the moment, we offer click and collect and delivery to three post codes, so we’re looking to expand that. Also, we hope to broaden our appeal to the increasing numbers of young families moving to the area.
There are challenging times ahead, no doubt. The full effects of this crisis won’t be known for a few years, but we are confident that we have every chance of surviving.
Why would you encourage people to shop local?
The more people who support local businesses, the more choice there is for consumers and the more it benefits everyone.
I think that message is spreading too. In the last month or so, I’ve had at least two or three people saying they’re going to make a point of shopping locally more. It’s really encouraging.
Where do you like to shop, eat and visit locally?
I shop in three areas: Winchester Road, Hale End Road and The Avenue.
My favourite place to eat is Good Friend Chinese restaurant. I’d highly recommend it. The Singapore noodles are amazing and they even have lobster noodles.
When it comes to food, I’m going to be totally immodest and say that I’m a pretty great cook. If you come to the shop, come and try my Masala tea – there’s nothing in there that’s not good for you and it tastes amazing!