Utility is a chain of designer gift and furniture shops based in Liverpool and soon to be branching out in to Manchester. Established by three friends in 1999, it quickly blossomed into four shops and a website with international appeal. We caught up with Kate Cowie from Utility to learn more about the gift shop that turned into an empire.
What inspired you to open your own shop?
Two of my close friends and I moved to Liverpool in 1997 to set up a coffee business which quickly thrived.
We soon realised there was nowhere in the city to buy design-led gifts or home accessories and spotted an opportunity to set up a second business. With the help of our friendly landlord, who offered us a second unit on Liverpool's Bold Street, we opened the first Utility store in November 1999.
What do you sell?
18 years on and with four stores in Liverpool, as well as a busy website, we now stock a large range of furniture; lighting and home accessories; and an exciting mix of gifts including greetings cards, jewellery, watches, bathing accessories, and books.
Not only do we buy from national and international suppliers, we also champion smaller, local designers and manufacturers including stocking a great selection of "Liverpool" themed gifts.
How do you source your products?
We visit about 10 trade fairs a year across the UK and Europe. The whole team loves sourcing new products and are always on the lookout for interesting and exciting brands when on their travels.
How did your expansion come about?
We realised our first store was too small to showcase the larger pieces of furniture we wanted to stock. The same supportive landlord offered us a bigger unit across the road so we moved all "home" stock into the larger unit and kept the original store to expand the "gift" range. We have since moved both stores again into bigger units on Bold Street, which is now the heart of Independent Liverpool.
When Liverpool One opened we knew that we needed to be part of the new shopping district. We took a leap of faith and chose a large unit opposite John Lewis. The store opened in 2011 and is now our flagship; we are the only independent retailer in the whole scheme, something which we are really proud of!
You mentioned your online store, what’s involved in managing it?
We have a team of people to run the website and we treat it just like running a store. It has to be clean, tidy well merchandised and make people want to buy our products. We also have to provide excellent customer service and ensure people receive their orders quickly and efficiently.
Our website is now the biggest part of our business and we invest a lot to keep on top of technical developments.
Are there any unexpected challenges of running an online shop?
There is a lot of competition online and other retailers can be ruthless in terms of discounting which we sometimes feel obliged to match.
We also need to carefully package goods so there is no damage. This can sometimes be a challenge due to the nature of goods we sell.
What surprised you most about setting up a shop?
How much we would love it, as none of us had ever worked in retail before. Also, how loyal customers can be. We literally have customers that have shopped with us for 18 years and can remember products they bought when we first opened.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
Employ the very best team you can, people who have the same work ethic as you and love the products you sell as much as you do!
What advice would you give to people looking to open their own shop?
Research, research, research! Who are you customers, what do they want and what will make them come back time and time again? We all need repeat business.
Any plans for the future?
To continue to enjoy what we do every day. To open a new store in Manchester early next year and look for additional sites there over the next few years.
For more information on utility visit www.utilitydesign.co.uk
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