Our latest Behind the Counter post features To Home From London – who are on a mission to redefine the perception of souvenirs. Founders Bianca Timotheo and Nacho Martinez are doing this with their original designs made in their studio in London. And they are doing a smashing job.
What started as a one-day-a week stall at a local market in 2015 has blossomed into 2 flagship stores in Camden, 4 stalls at London’s most popular markets, and have 7 Christmas pop-ups in 2019, including a 90SQM shop in the famous St Pancras International Station. They are also running a thriving wholesale business.
We caught up with Bianca and Nacho to learn about their journey with To Home From London, get insights into their strategy with markets and pop-ups, and find out how technology is helping them understand their business and customers better.
Check it out!
How did To Home From London start?
Nacho: I gave Bianca an art kit for her first birthday living in London. She used to draw when she was younger but had stopped. She started drawing again and everything she created was London-inspired. We started applying the designs to coasters and that was our very first product.
Bianca: We got a stall in our local market and started selling the coasters. The idea was to create a home-decor brand and our first collection to be London-inspired, and then to move to different themes in the future.
After being in Portobello Market (London) for a few months, people started to perceive them as souvenirs. People would tell me “I love your souvenirs”, even though I didn’t think that’s what we were making. After we got such a good response, we started looking at the souvenir offering in London and realised it was mass-produced and really bad quality. We realised there was potential there so embraced the concept of being a souvenir brand.
What are the biggest differences between running a permanent store and a pop-up?
Nacho: The format is a bit different. Our permanent shops are a little bit bigger and the traffic is a little different. The common thread is that we want to generate an experience for people. We want them to be attracted to how colourful our products are and always have excellent customer service, whether that’s at a market stall or permanent shop. The biggest difference is that the pop-ups have a short timeframe.
Bianca: Usually, for a permanent shop like we have in Camden Market, you have to build the store itself. With time, you’re going to get it right. With pop-ups you have a short timeframe, you really have to make it click right away. You have to plan a lot in advance, think about exactly how it’s going to look. You have to make sure you can execute it as close to perfect as you can, from as early on as possible. Otherwise, you’re going to miss out on the limited opportunity from being there.
What are your biggest challenges as independent retailers?
Nacho: Recruiting. Being an independent retailer, we don’t have the luxury of having an HR department or HR agency that can help us with screening or getting the word out there. Getting the right people is a huge challenge, and very time-consuming. It’s also very critical for us because customer service is so important. It’s part of the brand we want to create, so we need to have the right people actually representing the concept.
Bianca: In the end, your staff are the ones representing you. From the beginning, we knew the kind of experience we wanted our customers to have. The people you hire are the ones in the front.
Getting the right people is very hard. You need to do a lot of training and make sure they are always motivated.
Also, because you’re an independent, not a lot of people know what you do or your style. Big brands are recognised for that and that’s why people apply for them.
What I see is that bit by bit as we start building a reputation, for example in the market, people from the area and community know what we are and our work style and this attracts people as well.
Nacho: I would also say finding the time for priorities is a big challenge. As a small business, you are constantly prioritising and choosing how to use your time. There are a number of things you have to get done through the week and we don’t have a big team supporting us in the back office. It’s a constant prioritisation game.
Bianca: The fundamental question is what to do next. That also links to our vision of expanding the brand and growing the business. We’ve gone from one stall to a second, then a shop and another shop. We now have 13 point of sales every year.
The more you grow, the more you have to do to keep the brand growing at the same pace. In terms of brand identity, you have to generate content, be active on Instagram, engage with your followers. Growth opens new variables. It’s a big challenge for us to not only grow how many points of sale we have, but also grow the brand, establish it, and get our concept out there.
What are independents doing differently from chain-store retailers?
Nacho: We’re starting to do wholesale and know a few other independent retailers that are starting to sell our products. I think there’s a degree of love, care, and human touch in independent retailers, that is very hard to replicate when you reach a certain scale.
Bianca: The very established brands are just so big that they aren’t necessarily paying attention anymore or fostering relationships with their customers.
Nacho: In our case, what we want to do differently is to make customers feel like they are actually part of the To Home From London story as well. We engage them and generate proximity with them that when you reach the scale of a big brand is very hard to create.
What’s your advice for people wanting to start their own retail business?
Bianca: We have faith in our business and show our customers who the people behind the products and behind the company are.
In our case, the moment we started putting ourselves out there through Instagram by doing Stories and ‘behind the scenes’ content, we started having a closer relationship. I was afraid to start doing it because I was concerned it would look unprofessional, but it’s actually the opposite. People want to feel closer to you and this will make them engage with your brand.
Bianca: Test out your local markets. London is one of the most visited places in the world and one of the biggest cities in the world. The number of street markets here allows you to try a product, test it out and get direct customer feedback.
You can rent a stall in a street marketing from £20 a day. All you have to do is set up your table, put your products out there and you’re going to have thousands of people passing by you and giving you feedback what would take too long if you were going through the classic product adoption route and trying to develop the perfect product from the beginning. I always tell people that want to start a product for retail to try out selling in street markets.
A lot of people talk about online but it’s very hard to create an online-only business and generate traffic through your website. You can also try Etsy and online marketplaces but from our own personal experience. I think everybody who starts their own retail business, online or not, should try testing their products at a market. I think people would be surprised by the amount of input and feedback that you can get towards your products from a lot of people passing by.
When I started making coasters and selling them I had 40 different designs. I envisioned them as separate products or in specific sets. When I went to the market, people started asking me, “Can I mix this with that?” and I’d say no, it’s only the set. The fifth time somebody asked me, I said ok. I saw how people enjoyed mixing and matching their experience in London and selecting their own set of coasters, so I started letting them choose.
I also had the idea to make the coasters magnetic, which was a twist and really changed people’s perceptions about our products. It’s still the best-selling products that we have today. I tested this idea at the market by asking people if they would like it magnetic or not. 99% of people wanted them magnetic. I did that for four months then started only selling magnetic coasters. This all came from learning from my customers directly on the spot.
Nacho: There is also a huge pop-up market in London. There are companies and agencies that actually help you with really short term flexible contracts. It can be a bit more expensive in terms of rent, but it’s really worth it because it can help you refine your concept, range and offering because getting into a bigger commitment.
With offline retail, the biggest risk that you have is actually rent. Rent is putting a lot of retailers out of business. Pop-ups help mitigate that risk – you can try for a few weeks, try a few different locations, different formats and places. Then when you’re really comfortable and happy with your concept, go for a more permanent location
What were you looking for in an ePOS system? How easy was it to get up and running with Vend?
Nacho: The first thing we were looking for was simplicity. It had to be very simple to use because we have a high staff rotation in the shops and it needed to be something people could use intuitively. It also had to be reliable in the sense that it had to work every day, every time.
Getting started with Vend was very easy – too easy! We were onboarded by Laura in Vend’s Customer Success team in London. I was asking her, what’s the catch? And she was like “No, I’m going to switch you to Vend in one hour, just press this button.” That was it! We tested it and it worked. The onboarding was great, everything was up and running really quickly.
Vend is very simple to use, very intuitive. Every time we have a new person in the shop it only takes a couple of minutes to explain how the system works. People figure it out and straight away.
How has Vend made an impact in your business?
Nacho: Vend saves me a lot of time because before I had to consolidate information from different databases and run a lot of analysis on Excel. Now, I have all of my points of sale in one platform, which is amazing.
The reporting is also very handy and I’m saving a lot of time. Every Monday I run a lot of reporting and make the production plan for the week. It used to take me half a day to do it, now I just do it in a few minutes.
Bianca: One of the biggest things we are getting out of Vend is customer data. We had an idea in our head of who our customer was but never had real data to prove it. Now we’ve started doing wholesale, people want to know who the target customer is. A larger retailer assumed our product was for teenagers because they were so colourful and cute, but we knew our customers are adults, young adults, and families.
We started gathering customer information from all the customers that come into our shop and it turned out our main customer base is adults and young professionals, not teenagers at all. We are now using this data to convince and prove ourselves to other retailers about who our customers are.
What integrations are you using with Vend?
Nacho: We’re using Shopify, iZettle, and Xero. Vend completed our cloud software universe perfectly. The integrations with Xero and Shopify are seamless. The iZettle integration is also incredible, it works very well as a transactional credit care provider, it’s rock solid and the integration with Vend is perfect. We’re a modern independent and love electronic payments, managing cash is a total handful.
Bianca: Sometimes people in the market are surprised we take contactless and card payments. We get a lot of feedback saying. “This was super easy, super fast.” It’s super straightforward and they may even spend more because they can use their credit card and it’s an easy transaction.
Any final words?
Nacho: We are really excited about what we’re doing. I really like the retail side of the business, it means we stay constantly in touch with our customers. I really encourage other people to try retail, it’s a really cool business to run, it takes a lot of understanding people to make it work.
We’re a very modern but also traditional business in that sense. We design, we produce, we retail, but we’re doing it in a very modern and contemporary way, being very integrated with technology. Having Vend and the solutions we have at the moment is amazing.
Bianca: We are really tech savvy because being an independent, every minute you spend on something has to be for the most fundamental thing. You shouldn’t be wasting time learning how to use the ePOS system because it’s hard to use or has bad integrations. Your time is the most valuable thing that you have to make your business grow and succeed. Focus 100% on what’s fundamental to grow the business.
About Lucia Afanasy
Lucia joined Vend in New Zealand in 2017 before flying across the world to join the London team. She works on all things marketing across the UK, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Her passions and work experience include retail, production, and social media. When she’s not in the office, Lucia loves exploring London, planning trips, and trying to keep her plants alive.