Charlotte never thought about owning a business when she opened Raffia Store in her early twenties. But when she nearly lost her business, she knew: this was her calling. Nearly losing the business has reignited her passion for what she does.
But from the age of 14, all Charlotte wanted to do was work in media or television.
Charlotte’s plan was never to own or run a shop. She wanted to work in television, her dream since the age of 14. It was all mapped out. Charlotte started out doing work experience in the industry, completed an English degree, and then studied a Masters in Television Studies.
At 23, she moved to London, doing everything and anything she could to gain more work experience. However, she didn’t love it as much as she thought she was going to. She was eventually offered a full-time role as an in-house runner, and while it was a rare opportunity for the media, especially for someone of her age, Charlotte wasn’t sure it was what she wanted. She was left with a tough decision.
“I either took the job or moved back home with my tail between my legs. I didn’t think I wanted to work in television anymore, and so I chose to go home. They weren’t going to pay me enough to live in London, to do something I just don’t love enough.”
She moved back home, not really knowing what she wanted to do. She got a job in a gift shop while she worked it all out.
Charlotte’s boss offered to sell her one of her retail locations when Charlotte was just 25.
In order to be able to buy the shop though, she needed the help of her parents. When she managed to prove to them she was serious about her dream, they agreed to help her. However, they discouraged her from buying an existing business.
“They said, if you really want to do this, we’ll help you, but we don’t want you to buy an existing business. We want you to do your own. Which was exciting but scary.”
Charlotte decided that she was going to build her own store from scratch.
They found a property and agreed it made sense to buy the space rather than rent it. Charlotte believes this decision is a reason the shop has survived, as she is able to avoid the big overheads of renting. She also personally moved into the same building as the shop to keep costs down.
“It’s one of the things I would always recommend to friends if they want to start some kind of retail [business]….if it’s a viable option, buy the building, because it’s one less thing on your mind. It allowed me to change my stock more regularly in the early days, which kept people coming back and kept them interested”.
She initially considered doing men’s clothing, but as things kicked off for her in the middle of the recession, it made sense to stick to what she knew, which was gifts. She’d also been able to make contacts in the industry from her five years of experience working at the previous shop.
Charlotte began her own gift store and put her own stamp on the industry.
By having a unique selection of gifts she has managed not to ‘step on the toes’ of the shop she previously worked at. She tries to keep her stock ‘edgier’ and target a different market. One day, she’d also love to expand to furniture but at the moment she is restricted by space.
“I’m glad I went down the gift road because [fashion] changes all the time and there’s less of a shelf life for things…in fashion, you’ve got a quick turnover so you can’t really box it away for six months then bring it out again. Whereas you can do that with gifts, so if I don’t sell a Christmas candle at Christmas I can bring it out next Christmas!”
In the beginning, she went to lots of trade shows to generate ideas and read a lot of magazines and trend books. This helped her define what was unique about her shop. Although she knew there were plenty of other gift shops she knew there would be none like hers.
In 2017, after running the business for 8 years, Charlotte’s life was turned upside down.
Charlotte’s mum passed away. Her parents had been such a big part of her life and business, and this shock caused her to re-evaluate her life.
“My mom had just passed and I thought, that’s it, I’m going to make a massive change in my life. Is this what I want to be doing forever? I’m gonna sell the shop and I’m gonna go move somewhere else in the world.”
Charlotte suffered from shock and grief, and it made her want to do something drastic. So she quickly found buyers for Raffia Store and began the sale process.
When she was in talks to sell the business, she found herself sharing with her buyers about what sort of lifestyle they should expect. She told them about the flexibility, the freedom, and what fun it was.
She explained to them that although the earning potential of the shop may be lower than some other careers, the flexibility she got instead is much more valuable – at least to her.
“You’ll be able to go and watch your children play cricket. You can go on holiday. It took me a while…I didn’t go on holiday for the first few years of having a shop, but I have family over in the States and now I try and get over to see them sort of three-four weeks at a time!”
It dawned on her: owning the shop was the only thing she really wanted to do. She realized she was incredibly lucky to be able to do something she loved which also paid the bills.
Although there were downsides and it could be intense, she believes that the pros most definitely outweigh the cons. She felt fortunate that she has a job she’s excited to get up for in the morning. She knew this wasn’t the case for many people.
While explaining the benefits to the potential buyers, she realized that she actually loved the lifestyle that came with the shop.
Her plan was always to sell the shop if she no longer enjoyed it, or once she had owned it for 10 years. While her grief had caused her to make a rash decision, she took a step back and realized that she loved her life and work – why did she need to set a timeline for herself?
“I realized I was still enjoying it. I think I was trying to talk myself into not being into it, telling myself this isn’t for you anymore, after my mother passed away.”
This realization sent her back to the buyers, begging them to let her keep it. She explained that she had been thinking irrationally. Luckily they agreed, and Charlotte kept her business.
“I’ve thought about opening another branch and things like that, but the issues of staffing and things like that. I enjoy what I do and I don’t necessarily need to be bigger. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t have a website and because I don’t feel I need to grow. I can’t be in two places at once and my USP is that I am the shop, and I can only be in one place to build relationships with people”
With Charlotte’s passion for Raffia Store revived, she began to try new things.
When the pandemic began, Charlotte saw an opportunity for a pop-up shop. Stuck inside, people had begun redecorating their houses. The building next door to her shop was empty, so, with the blessing of the landlord, she created a pop-up shop for prints. It was a great success.
“It was really fun for me to do, it was nice to be in a different environment. As much as I love here, it was nice for a change.”
Now, Charlotte has a newfound love for pop-up shops and wants to invest in more in the future. They allow her to expand her reach without having to launch a website.
“I do like to dip my toe in the water of new things, just to keep it interesting!” Her partner developed a lockdown hobby of embroidery (inspired to be creative by Charlotte’s creative energy), and she has now also started selling their embroidered clothing and bags. She has even recently branched into selling clothes. It’s early days, but so far they have been well received. She loves having new things in stock so it’s always different when people come in.
Charlotte is so happy that she didn’t sell her business. She is now happy where she is, and looking forward to seeing what she can do with her store next.
Charlotte opened Raffia Store in Clitheroe, UK, after discovering her love for the gift industry. She stocks a unique and diverse array of gifts and is passionate about finding interesting things for her customers.
Merchant Stories: Real entrepreneur stories from real people. If you’d like to share your merchant stories, email us.