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Rag Dolls to Riches

Toby Powell, owner of Powell Craft Ltd., shares how the English company continues to expand and evolve, becoming a one-stop resource for baby and home along the way.

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Toby Powell, owner of Powell Craft Ltd

Putting his phone on speaker, Toby Powell rips open a package that had just been delivered to his company’s Cornwall, Great Britain, headquarters. “Whoa, look at these!” he says, admiring the new shipment of children’s moccasin designs. “They’re brilliant!” He then pauses and laughs. “I’m 45, and this is what excites me,” he says. “My God, I should’ve done something else with my life!”   

Kidding aside (a rarity for Powell), he knows his passion lies in none other than running the family business, makers of childrenswear, nursery accessories and its renowned rag dolls among numerous houseware items and gifts. “Retail is in my blood,” he says, citing his three sisters who are all wholesalers and married to either wholesalers or retailers. “My mother once said, ‘For God’s sake, can we not have a lawyer or a doctor amongst the lot of you?” Even Powell’s wife works in wholesale for a licensing company, as well as part-time at Powell Craft.

A successful family-run business since 1962, Powell Craft Ltd. started when Powell’s parents, William and Veronica, moved from London to Cornwall, a “pretty but very rural” region of Southwest England. Knowing the area was a place where people come for holiday, the Powells opened gift shops. William Powell also introduced a side business selling wooden toys. “There’s pictures of five-year-old me in one of our first catalogs playing with a pull-along duck, a little wooden castle and so on,” Powell says. The modeling days were short-lived however, as Powell mostly recalls his parents putting him to work at the warehouse. “That was my first paying job—clearing out bins and rubbish, cleaning the loos, sweeping seagulls off the top of the roof,” he says. “As my mother phrased it, ‘Jobs you couldn’t possibly ask members of the staff to do.’”

Perhaps it’s  little surprise that Powell didn’t join the family business straight out of college. He started his career selling vintage clothing in London for a couple of years, but returned to the family business when his father passed away. Then 23, he helped his mother manage the business, which first meant nixing the stores to focus on wholesale operations. Powell Craft had recently expanded its collection to include more homewares, including a popular lace and linens line. “We’ve always done well with traditional items—the ones that tea shops and people with stately homes enjoy,” Powell says. The upscale demographic still accounts for a large portion of the company’s customer base. “We continue to supply lace parasols, fans, beaded jug covers and tea sets to the stateliest homes throughout Britain,” he adds.

In 2004, with Powell Craft sales on the upswing, Powell decided to buy the company. He soon expanded the homewares offering to include everything from bedding to porcelain statement pieces, and the children’s apparel collection blossomed from its signature Victorian nightwear into daywear, rainwear, nursery accessories and its now popular rag dolls. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Powell says in regard to the expansion blitz. Sales have grown rapidly along the way, and Powell Craft is now distributed through approximately 1,800 retailers worldwide. He estimates the company exhibits at about 20 trade shows per year, with a third of the children’s sold through specialty boutiques and an even larger portion sent to gift shops with a children’s section. “A gift buyer is normally our best type of account—someone independent who has two shops, maybe three,” Powell says.        

As for the company’s recipe for success in the U.S., Powell uses a simple rule of thumb: “If you take our top 100 selling items in England, America will be the same. When I go to the U.S. and lay out a stand, I’m always confident what people are going to buy.” Of late, Powell notes that its new linen collection has performed exceptionally well, with 70 of his top 100 accounts reordering. The new children’s moccasins and leggings have also been a big hit this year. Initially only available in sizes newborn to 24 months, retailers asked Powell to increase the sizing to 2-4 years. “After hearing the same request two dozen times, you’re crazy if you’re not trying to add it to the line,” he says. In fact, Powell attributes much of the company’s success to acting on customer feedback.

Another key contributor to Powell Craft’s success involves playing by the rules. Specifically, its children’s nightwear sales in the U.S. have spiked since it found a way to meet CPSC regulations. Powell Craft uses an organic treatment process to maintain its soft cotton, free-flowing quality. “Victorian-themed nightwear has been at our core for 30 years, so it was a shame to not be able to bring that to America,” he says. “Not many U.S. buyers know about our new and approved sleepwear, but those who do have bought straight through the range—double and triple quantities!”

Another hot trend, according to Powell, is personalization. Embroidery requests on Powell Craft’s best-selling rag doll collection are on the rise. He reports 10 percent of rag doll sales now include embroidered names or initials. In fact, Powell advises companies to personalize as much as possible—from packaging and delivery to communication before and after the purchase. “The trend of personalization doesn’t stop at the product,” Powell says. “To keep the attention of customers today, the best thing you can do is mollycoddle them.”

How’s business?

Very upbeat. There’s been a few teething problems like technical difficulties at shows due to the atrocious weather we’ve been having. I know people always blame the weather, but it’s quite valid this year. Yet we’ve still been up and had the best strike rates we’ve had for a long time. We attended shows in January, February and March across six different countries, and all of them have been up. Our new ranges have gone really well, and September will mark my next wave of new ranges. I’m looking forward to it.

Do you think the current retail climate is as volatile as some news outlets report it to be?

Yes, you can’t miss a trick. It’s like in the days when people used to shut on a Wednesday, or they didn’t know if they should get a fax machine. It’s just another one of those situations where everything is evolving. Just keep all doors open, work a little bit harder and be more open-minded.

For example?

Customer service has always been essential, and that applies today even when communications are remote. The days of receiving an order, popping it in a box, sending it to someone and then wandering away are long gone. An online exchange should have the same feeling as walking a customer to the door and thanking them for their business. At the same time, service must be fast and furious. We aim for a five-day turnaround time on orders from England to the States. That means a completely full order, as well as a few freebies to help boost the vibe at the shop and our relationship with that retailer. We typically follow up with pictures and other forms of promotion for their website, as well as a separate follow-up to ask how things are selling, what designs are doing best and if there’s anything else we can provide. The difference between a retailer and a consumer is the retailer may not care if it’s wrapped in tissue paper, but they do want an organized, complete delivery to sell as soon as possible.

In what ways do Millennial moms shop differently than previous generations?

Out of everyone who uses the internet, the Millennial mom is the biggest, most professional and most interactive user. It’s competitive to get her attention as she’s often following several companies similar to ours. You look on a mom’s phone who wants to buy a nappy or changing bag for the pram, they’ll have 63 different styles on there before they’ve even committed to making a purchase. Whether she buys from you or not, you want to be on her radar. She may come back again, but know that she’ll always be spoiled with choice. That means it’s up to the retailer to make sure they are emailing her, promoting product and staying in touch.

What’s the biggest challenge facing our industry right now?

The internet not being policed. There will always be someone undercutting the next person, which can be incredibly damaging. Say something is $10 and someone then puts it up for $9.50. Another person will mark it as $9, and then you’ll get some lunatic who’ll put $2 even though it’s $5 wholesale. And they’ve done that because they have no intention of paying their bill, or they’ve gone bankrupt or they’re just stark raving mad! Today’s customer can look at 10 sites at the same time, selling the same nightdress. Two of them are in debt collection, one you haven’t supplied for in three years, a few you don’t even know who they are, two of them are fantastic partners and the last one is your sister. That would not happen on High Street because those retailers would have to face the music. The internet enables the ability to hide.

Sounds tough. What about the advantages of having online accounts?

Some of our best accounts are online-only. The internet is certainly another vehicle to retain and find new business. While you may lose a local customer, you also may suddenly gain a man in Croatia who can’t help but buy nurse rag dolls or something daft that you couldn’t make up. That’s the strange beauty of the internet. We launched an e-commerce site in 2006, which is a very small portion of sales, however we receive business from around the world that way. It’s all part of getting out there and driving sales from all angles.

What is the best way to attract new retail accounts?

Trade shows are always key for a wholesaler, however shows are not what they used to be. Retailers used to attend shows and buy for the season, but not anymore. Why commit to an order that covers you for six months’ worth of stock when you might be able to get something for six weeks, see how it goes and reorder what works? Now it’s all about discovering, reordering, discovering, reordering—it’s a cycle of constantly adjusting and improving your stock.

How many signed orders are you receiving at shows of late?

I’d say it’s 50/50. Some retailers still swear by ordering at the shows to really take an in-person look and feel at what they’re buying. Trade shows are essential just to meet and greet, whether you’re ordering or not. It’s always nice to make yourself feel more comfortable with the people you’re doing business with, especially new accounts.

Do your children have any say on what makes it into the Powell Craft collection?

Absolutely! When I first changed a nappy, I thought, ‘What idiot has put buttons down the back?’ You know how crazy this is if you’ve ever changed a nappy on an airplane, which I’ve done now. Talk about enlightening. Another great example was when my daughter was four, I gave her 30 rag dolls and asked her to pick her 10 favorites. For three consecutive years, she got the top 10 of the entire year’s sales perfect.    

What do you love most about your job?

That feeling when something you’ve tried to get up and running for so long works. After six months of building a range, stocking it, promoting it, raising it, bringing it overseas, steaming it, displaying it and then someone at the show walks up and says, ‘This stuff is terrific. Can I give you an order?’ It brings such a sigh of relief and feeling of achievement. The same feeling comes when a customer returns and says ‘This has gone really well for us. Thank you for your service.’ Then you know the system that you’re working at as your daily grind is obviously working for somebody else. In the end, it has nothing to do with the money—it’s simply the satisfaction of knowing what you do in your daily life is not a waste. •

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