Podcast Episode 109: Melanie Tillett | Building A Vast Online Following For Your Store
Bob Phibbs interviewed Melanie Tillett who, along with her two daughters, founded Tillett's in the UK just five years ago. Now with a Facebook following of 50,000, she shares how they've added stores and fans across the world.
Tell me something good about retail
Melanie Tillett: Building A Vast Online Following For Your Store
• Build anticipation before an event
• Don't label your customers
• You have to use social to get customers to come in, you
can’t just wait for them.
Bob: Thanks for joining me today. And our listeners wanna find out who are you and what do you have to do with retail.
Melanie: My name is Melanie Tillett and I own and run a multi-award-winning ladies' fashion retailer over in the UK. We have two stores and a website.
Bob: Now, wait a minute. We...multi-award-winning. I didn't know that. What do you...have you gotten your awards for?
Melanie: We have got two different...we've got several awards. Last year, we won a best marketing campaign award for our Black Friday campaign and then this year we've won several more awards which is really exciting. One is best retailer in Lincolnshire, Northern Lincolnshire, which in our county is similar to a state in the US.
Melanie: We've also won the biggest growth award for our area, too.
Melanie: We also won a best retailer award, a European award through our coaching group that we use and that's a big, big one, big deal for us, that one.
Bob: Now let's go back. So, Melanie, first off, you have to tell me about this Black Friday promotion because that was a new thing in the UK last year, wasn't it? You guys borrowed from the Yanks, right?
Melanie: We did, yeah. We borrowed quite a few things from you. We've always got one beady eye on you, you know. Yes. Black Friday, we did actually run a very small thing the year before. Again, on the back of our huge social media following, we meticulously planned our Black Friday campaign. We built up an awful lot of anticipation for our customers. We basically closed the website down for half the day. It was such a really well-orchestrated campaign and it saw...the previous year, it saw a week's turnover in a day.
Melanie: And last year, in November last year, we actually followed a similar campaign again and we saw a month's turnover in a day.
Bob: Wowza. So if you were just turning in, that's kind of an amazing statistic and I also [inaudible 00:02:09] noticed that Melanie didn't say, "And here's how I did it." So I appreciate the fact that it sounds like this isn't something that you just woke up the day before and said, "Why don't we do this?" What kind of planning goes into that, Melanie?
Melanie: Quite a lot. There was an...because we did...we'd attempted to do some things with the Black Friday the year before and after we've taken on our coaching, we decided this was gonna be...it was becoming apparent that Black Friday really, for us now as retailers in the UK as well as potentially for you guys, is almost nearly as busy as Christmas, to be fair, with the discounts. So we decided on the discount we were going to do. We planned everything strategically pretty much around our social media and did the same offering in store, as well.
Bob: Very important.
Melanie: And just basically built up this anticipation. We changed all our logos to black on the website, we had a countdown timer. We emailed meticulously to groups of the ladies and then didn't tell them what the offer was. We were building that anticipation, building the anticipation and it really, really worked. I was absolutely astounded at the amount of orders that were just...on the day.
Bob: Well, I love that because Amazon, you know, that's the big thing. People here in the States like start two or three months out, "Oh, this is what Amazon's gonna be doing." And everyone knows what your Kmart or...well, not Kmart. No one cares what...that's not...but most people...Walmart, right. That's what I was thinking about.
Bob: Walmart or even when Toys R Us was in, you know, they would...everybody would find out that and that's totally contrary to what you do with your brick and mortar. So I'm afraid I will get all caught up in that one promotion. I think we need to step back just a little bit and...
Bob: You're only a brand that's five years old, right?
Melanie: We are, yes. Yeah.
Bob: And so how did you start out? And by the way, it's you and your two daughters so make sure we get that out, yeah.
Melanie: Yes, it is. It's mother and daughter team. I've got two daughters. One 26, one 23. And I think the great thing that works with us is that we've got a different perspective on it. Our demographic of ladies are predominantly 35 to 65. So we're a slightly older age group than a lot of the younger, fast fashion brands. So we get to look at all different perspectives...started out completely different. I've been in retail for 30 years in all types of different retail. I've been in business, in my own business now for 18 years in different forms. But this thing came about due to a lack of clothing for the ladies of my age really. I'm actually 51.
Bob: You didn't have to say that. You sound like you're 21.
Melanie: I know, but I don't mind. I'm not hiding anything. That's...it is what it is. I'm not ashamed to be 51. It's great, you know. We're the older...the younger older generation.
Bob: Yeah, well, I'm 60 so I have you beat. So there we go. All right.
Melanie: Yeah, well, there we go. We're not too far apart. So yeah. Basically, we came across just some really good fashion clothing that's pretty much a one-size thing. We're not labeling people with the size. We give a clear indication in store and online as to what the items we think will look nice if you're a size 14 to 16. Our sizes are slightly different, I think, to yours. But we kinda say, "This isn't gonna fit you, but this one will go with you." It's really clever how it works, this one size thing. So we can buy a lot...
Bob: A lot of choice. That gives you a lot of choice to how you end up doing. And, you know, you now have two stores. So what was your biggest challenge, you think, in the past three years and how you overcame that?
Melanie: The biggest challenge really was once we'd decided that we were gonna try and build the brand really...so we started with the website and as you probably know and other people know, you know, you do a silly dance as soon as you get an order in because they're few and far between when they first start out so...
Bob: So true.
Melanie: Every time we got an order like, "Yeah. I've got an order. I've got an order." But then as time went on, we realized that online gets blamed for an awful lot of things that are going on in the high streets at the moment, but we wanted to give the same kinda level of service to our online shoppers as we do to our in-store shoppers. So for us to it was about the communication and the biggest challenge with that...I see our website as just a checkout, as a till pint. All the other things that we do to lead the ladies to that purchase by communicating, they can get hold of us in loads of different ways. We actually have a telephone. People can actually ring us up and talk to us, which is highly unusual these days. So they can communicate that way. We've got the Messenger on the Facebook, they can connect via Instagram, telephone, like I say, and everything nowadays is so instant. But the biggest challenge really was getting the brand out there, but that is where we've kind of...working it well with the store and the website because...
Bob: You mentioned when we chatted briefly the other day that you realized once you opened the doors, it's like, "I'm not just gonna wait for people." Right?
Melanie: Yes. Yeah. There's too much apathy, for me, for independent retail. People tend to think it's easy. You come up with an idea, you fill a...cute little shop up and you open the door and you hope that the customers are gonna come in. I'm afraid it doesn't work like that anymore. Customers have got so much choice now with the online, as well. So it's about building a presence. It's about being relatable and I think that's what we do really well with our Facebook Live videos. [inaudible 00:07:31] we're doing one this evening at 7:00. Basically, it's done on Facebook and talk to women. I do a little fashion show for them every week, twice a week. Basically, I go off, I put the clothes on, I come back, I talk about it, answer any questions as they come in and then people think they know you, they trust in you.
Bob: Well, they do know you because you're not acting.
Melanie: They do know me, absolutely, yes. And I'm not acting.
Bob: You're just saying, "I'm putting the clothes on. Here's what it looks like."
Melanie: Yeah, that's it. It's just me and my daughters behind the camera. We chitchat away and it just comes across so well. The feedback we get from our lovely ladies...because they really are. I know regular names now. In fact, we have a lady in New York who buys regularly off us. She stocks her orders up and we send them off so she's got...it's worthwhile paying the postage and send the whole load of things off to her every so often, which is great.
Bob: Well, you found that the tribe wants to follow you. And remind me. You also...that's one place. You have the Facebook videos, but then you also have a VIP secret group, right? And what happens there?
Melanie: We do. That group is amazing. I've just done a small live video to those ladies this morning just to let them know that we've got new stock online today. So they get a little heads up before anybody else. We tell them...so there's a group now. I've actually got the numbers wrong when I spoke to you the other day, but I've checked today. We've got 5,000 people just over now in that group. 5,000 ladies predominantly. It's a closed group. I encourage ladies that have purchased from us or who are thinking about purchasing from us to ask to join the group because in that group, there's a whole load of ladies and they buy things off us, they put them on, they take selfies in the mirror, they could take a picture in the garden, they get their husbands to take a picture or the grandchild. And so they're basically doing my job for me in a way. They're such a great bunch of women and they're giving the sales...each of us so much more confidence. There was one lady this morning who put a picture in and she said, "I don't like taking photographs of myself, but thank you for giving me the confidence to do so." And there she is in front of the mirror with one of our dresses on.
Bob: Wow. Well, you're changing people's lives and I think ultimately most clothing retailers would like to believe that, but you're actually seeing the effects and more importantly, like you said, they're doing the job. They're telling their friends about it, as well, right?
Melanie: Well, they are because sometimes you'll be sat in the office and all of a sudden a whole load of orders come in for the same item. I think, "What is going on there?" And then you go on the VIP page and there's a lady in that particular item and you think, "Oh. It's a stroke of genius, that one, really."
Bob: I love that. I love that. Well, you are so positive and you have such a great outlook about it. What do you think one of the best or most worthwhile investments that you've ever made in your business?
Melanie: I think the most worthwhile investment really was once we decided that we really wanted to get hold of this thing by the scruff of the neck and the changes it was making to the women and to the women's lives. We thought, "Right. We need to spread this word further." So we really did invest in property. I've got a huge warehouse facility which is where I'm actually sat now in our head office. We've got our own photo studio here. We've got two units downstairs with a team of girls packing and wrapping carefully all the ladies' items ready to send them out. So there was a...financially wise, that was a huge investment for us to commit to that, but it was the only way we could do it properly and fulfill the orders to a standard that we want to do so we can keep our level of customer experience up.
Bob: And you also have your two stores so each of your daughters run one of the stores or...
Melanie: No. My daughters...myself, I'm sort of the front or the wing woman if you like, the front woman doing the videos and things. And my youngest daughter, she deals with a lot of things that go on in the warehouse and Grace, the older one, she deals with a lot of marketing. She knows exactly what she wants the website and the stores to look like. We have a store manager, a girl that looks after both of the stores. I think we employ about 24 people right now.
Bob: Yeah. Well, you know, what's fascinating to me is that your target woman is in the 30s to 60s. You know who she is. And yet most people would think that your younger daughters would be trying to go after really younger audience which, to me, that's a much harder place to...fashion down there. You're in the H&M's, their world where a young woman's getting a dress for $15 these days. I mean, it's like, "Can I even wash them, you know, at some point?" It's disposable fashion and so you've carved out this niche where you've been able to talk to them in a way that feels like friends which...do you think that has anything to do with generations or age or what? Is it you being the front person?
Melanie: Yeah. I think it's definitely got to do with age. My take on it is that I am a typical Tillett's customer, if you like. I would be a Tillett's customer if I wasn't doing this probably. I think women get to a certain age and probably by the time they get to 35, the chances are they've probably settled down maybe, had a child, maybe put a little bit of weight on. They're not that standard. Eight, 10 in our sizes, I think, is probably a 6 or a 4 in American sizes.
Bob: Right. Or zero. Yeah, exactly.
Melanie: Or zero, yes. Yeah. So, you know, and there's not a lot out there on the high street. In the UK, there's lots of casualties on the high streets at the moment.
Melanie: And you've got the big players like the Boohoos, the [inaudible 00:12:59]. You might not have heard of any of these, but they're all the big fashion people. And there really is nothing for our age group. There's Mark's and Spencer's, which is a great British institution, but isn't doing half of the things that it should be doing nowadays. In fact, their CEO was on TV a couple of weeks ago being interviewed and he actually openly admitted he didn't know who their customer was which I thought was appalling.
Bob: Oh, my God.
Melanie: I thought it was appalling. I thought, "That guy..." It's just outrageous. No wonder they're not doing well.
Bob: How can you say that in this day and age?
Melanie: I was astounded. But I think this is where we've really got it right because through our VIP group particularly, as well, we can...I'm in their living rooms. I can see what their houses are like and these ladies just live really...they're lovely ladies. They live just ordinary lives and you can see by the, you know, beautiful gardens they're taking the pictures in or in their little holiday homes somewhere on the coast and you kinda get a feel for the lifestyle and the things that they like. Therefore, I know it's no good for me going and buying into designer brands because it's not something they're going to want. They've probably got a little bit of extra cash every month and they can treat their self to something up to, you know, anywhere between £25, £30 maybe. And that's it and they enjoy it and it's a treat for themselves each month, probably each week.
Bob: And that's such a great idea that you know exactly what her house looks like because she's showing you...I love that. I love you. I love that. Well, I don't...you know, I could go on talking to you all day because I think you're brilliant and clearly you understand what's going on.
Melanie: Oh, thank you.
Bob: But let's face it. You're gonna have a friend who's gonna hear how easy it was. You built a brand in five years and you're getting these awards and so, "I've decided...I'm, you know, gonna go into...open my own shop." So what would you tell a friend? You know, she meets you at the store and says, "Let's go to the...let's have a cup of...a pot of tea at the local..."
Melanie: Yeah, the local tea shop.
Bob: Pantry or something and they say they're gonna open this shop and they're so excited. What would you say to a friend looking to get into retail?
Melanie: Well, it wouldn't be the first time because I do get asked that question. I have helped people out from time to time. I'm not against doing that. I think it's always great to share your advice and your tips. I think really, for me, it's...I see so many small business, independent people come and go. I mean, where we trade in [inaudible 00:15:23] in Lincolnshire in the UK is a very small, quaint shopping street as you've described because of the tea shop...there is. There's a [inaudible 00:15:32] tea shop there. There's the local pub. There's gift ware shops. There's little jewelry shops. And so it's really quaint and very English. I've seen so many people come and go. They open the door, like I said earlier. They expect the customer to walk in. Apathy comes in after a while because they lose energy for it if they're not as busy as they thought they were going to be. And for me, I think when we spoke earlier, social media now, you've got to, got to use it. If you're not using the social media and particularly video on social media, I think you're really missing a trick. And that's why I say do your research properly, have a plan, have a proper business plan, research your customer. All the things really that if you're thinking about going into business should be simple things that you...key things that you should be doing, really.
Bob: But it's not gonna be easy.
Melanie: No, definitely not gonna be easy because...you only learn by your mistakes. I think everybody agrees with that one.
Bob: I think we should... Don't get me started. Yeah. We do learn those. But at least you don't...at least you don't forget them which kind of helps you, you know. I mean, one of the things that we have noticed is that retail certainly has changed just in the past few years. Certainly, your ability to connect with your customers, one. What do you think, what else has changed, you think, in the last few years? Do you think customers are more inclined to buy in a store or online or are they jaded or what do you see?
Melanie: Well, I think it's an education, really, for our ladies particularly because although they are buying online in the droves, they still love to come to the store and we've got them flying in from all over the place. We've got them coming from all over the UK, from as far as the north of Scotland right down to the south of England. They're traveling. They're making detours on their holidays on their way home to come and see us. So they definitely want to still shop in store when they can.
Melanie: They're crying out for us to open more stores in different areas which is something we would like to do, but obviously we've got to carefully consider where and make sure we get that right. But yeah, no. I think if you could have the best of both worlds, then that's great, but they can kinda get the confidence with us online and then if they decide to come and pay a visit...it's the fact that they know you've actually got a store. There are real people there. Whereas lots of them are just websites and there's nothing to grasp on to really, if you get me. You understand that?
Bob: Yeah, no. I totally get that. you know...
Melanie: And I think they're buying into us as a family and as people, as well, really.
Bob: Yeah. I think one of the interesting things I know that in the old days, a client of mine when he opened his stores was he put an ad in the local, in a major newspaper and then you had to call in to find that information. And so what he did was he tracked where all the phone numbers came from and that's where he opened his first. So that's what an awful lot of digital-first companies were able to do. Kinda like you. You're able to see, "Well, my goodness. We're getting an awful lot of things from toaster up there. So we've gotta open a store up there." And then ultimately it all works.
Bob: You know, this all...it sounds great. But what happens when you become overwhelmed and let's face it, you're juggling a lot of balls in the air. You've got a lot of...or we like to say irons in the fire in the US.
Melanie: Yeah. That's right. Yeah.
Bob: How do you stay focused? Because it can be overwhelming to be an entrepreneur. You have a lot more demands. I think certainly when you now have this VIP group and you have...you're constantly thinking of content. I know that's one of the things I struggle with is, at some point, you're like, "My goodness. I have to just stay on this wheel. I can't pull back," right? So what do you do?
Melanie: How many times can you reinvent yourself for the things and times? Yeah. To be fair, I don't really get overly stressed and, for me, when we reach capacity again is how I like to see it...we get to a point where we think we can't do anymore. We've got to...something else has got to give now because we're running around like headless chickens or we can't do it. That's the time to actually step back, work...a big thing I've learned is working on your business and not necessarily in it because once you're in it, you can't focus on the things to drive it forward.
Melanie: So once we kinda reach capacity with it and we think we can't go any further, we step right back and look at what things we need to do to solve the problems that we've got whether it be hire new people. I like to hire people that are better than me because I'm not good at everything. I'm a saleswoman predominantly. I'm a talker, as you can tell. But when I'm hiring people in specific roles now, I want experts, people that are better than me. So once we get to capacity and stress levels rise a little, that's the next step up for us. So I quite like that.
Bob: I like that. That's a good way to do it and then I think if it does get a little overwhelming, you have...you're a gardener, aren't you, by trade? Isn't that what you like to do?
Melanie: Yeah, I do in my spare time, which...I have to make spare time sometimes. Otherwise, you're always at work. Yeah. I was fortunate enough last year to build a lovely house in the countryside and my daughter, eldest one gets married on the first of September. So I'm busy getting the garden...
Melanie: Thank you. Busy getting the garden in order for that. So yeah. So I do. I like...in my downtime, I like to relax. Yeah, holidays, things like that. [inaudible 00:20:46] see those if I can.
Bob: I'm a gardener. There's something satisfying about pulling weeds. You can...I hate doing it, but, you know, when you're done, you're done. It's kind of...
Melanie: Well, you are.
Bob: ...there's a beginning and an end and then you look at it and you're like, "I'm glad I did that, but..."
Melanie: You can see where you've been, can't you?
Bob: Yeah. I think that's something, sometimes it's harder, for us with businesses, it's sometimes harder for us to see those moments where, "Oh, that's a clear beginning and that's a clear end, you know." Sometimes it just feels like I'm doing very much the same and...I have two...couple more questions for you.
Bob: So what do you think makes an engaging Facebook video? What do you think makes it so different? You kind of say, you know, "It's just me up there," but clearly, you said you're a salesperson, too. So I think there's a, you know, there's a fine line between...I think some people use Facebook and they just post a picture and like, "Look what we got in." And that doesn't work. But you're putting it on. So what are some of your tips, you know? Because I have people listening all over the world and they sell everything from high-end jewelry all the way down to hardware to clothing to...I mean, everything. So I think it transfers for everybody.
Melanie: I think it's about keeping it real. Don't bombard all the time. Don't...one thing after another after another because don't get me wrong. I'm not the only person doing this in the UK, but we appear to be the market leaders at the moment and feedback we get from some of our suppliers is that as soon as we put something out there, everybody else is looking for it which is great. That's a real compliment. I love that.
Bob: That is great.
Melanie: But keep it real. I don't know what it is particularly about [inaudible 00:22:27] about me but it seems to work. The ladies are brilliant. They engage really well with us, but I think social media...video is huge now and there's lots of changes coming and we always got our eye on the next thing. I think you guys over there sometimes get things before us, but we're always ready and waiting for the next thing. And it's also social media is social. It's not all about what you're selling all the time. It's something I...you know, I've been on the planet 51 years. I remember when we had TVs in the UK. You only had three channels on the TV. And sometimes I will put a post on like that and say, "Can you remember, ladies, when we only had three channels on the TV?" And you'll get about 400 people liking it and commenting on it. Something as simple as that. Or I think you call it candy. We call it sweets. We did one in the week, a 10 p candy mix. You used to be able to go with 10 pence, which you can't buy anything for 10 pence now, and buy a bag full of candy. And people related to that one and it brings back memories and they start talking. You're not actually selling them anything, but it's page engagements.
Bob: Yes. Yeah, that's the key.
Melanie: And they're getting on there and use it and then the next time you actually put a post on or a video, they're more likely to see it because they've engaged with your page.
Bob: Yeah. And that's...I think that's important, too. So the name of this is "Tell Me Something Good About Retail." So what would you tell someone is good about retail?
Melanie: Well, I think what I think is good about retail...I absolutely love it. Like I say, I've been in retail for 30 years. For me, there's one thing good about retail is the difference we're making to these ladies' lives. They're actually ladies of a certain age that probably lost the way with fashion. There's not a lot out there for them. To see somebody like me, a similar age wearing a product and think, "Oh, maybe that might look good on me." And then the feedback you get that it's changed their life, they feel good about themselves again and they're wearing color again, which they probably haven't done. So the good thing for me is the change that we're able to achieve for ladies.
Bob: Yeah. And I think that could be true for anybody that really enjoys retail. You enjoy that, you know, that when they buy it, it isn't that you got a sale. That's kind of secondary. It's that this person gets to become a new person, right? She gets to feel pretty or she just lost 50 pounds or even if she's gained 25 pounds or whatever, she still has that confidence of being this woman who's out in the world and I think that's a great gift you give.
Bob: Now you also have like 50,000 fans on Facebook, right? I mean, you're a force of nature.
Melanie: We do. We've got 50, about 57 and a half thousand likes now on our Facebook page. Now they are all genuine likes. I do...I am aware that you can actually buy likes, but for me, that's business suicide and completely pointless. So these are ladies that have taken the time to click the like button and follow us on there. Instagram, slightly younger demographic. My younger daughter takes care of that one. So anything that we think might appeal to the more younger ladies, she'll put on the Instagram. So that's slowly growing and these things don't happen overnight. It is a slow burner. So we're...yeah. So we're really optimistic about the future.
Bob: Yeah. Well, I think it's interesting that, you know...somebody over here in the States and this whole thing about privacy and people are like, "Oh, Facebook is, you know, selling our stuff or knows all this stuff." And, "Oh, I don't like it." It's like...but three billion people a day check in on it. And when I hear people like you, successful retailers who not only have 50,000 fans, but you're growing in leaps and bounds because you get the social aspect of it. You're not just trying to say, "Oh, we'll do what we do in a brochure. We'll just do that in a status update." You're really thinking about it.
Bob: I think it just again shows where else would you find these women? See, that's the thing. Where else would you find them? Yeah, you could send a mailer, but where would you [inaudible 00:26:10] have the chance for them to show you, "This is my house," or to tell you their life story? I don't think there's anywhere that's nearly as powerful. Would you agree?
Melanie: There isn't. There isn't. I totally agree. The closed group, the closed VIP group is the important one there because although they're still in a group and they're sharing with ladies...it's 5,000 ladies. If a lady puts a picture on and we want to put it, say, on our main page, I always ask the permission just out of courtesy because, you know, she might not want it put on there. So I would say, "Would you mind if we look..." They love it. They love the fact that we want to put it on the main page and that's great and it's great for them to have that sort of exposure.
Bob: And validation. Right.
Melanie: And validation. Completely. So I can't speak highly enough of the social media side of it, really. You couldn't get out there. I mean, years ago, we used to have to pay five pounds for a half a page advert in the local newspaper and you haven't got a clue, no idea as to whether it worked or not. Nobody would ever come in and say, "Oh, I saw your advert in the paper, in the newspaper." So, for me, it's instant, instant results. You can track it, you can measure it, you can try different things to see what works. One thing works better than another. So it's just...it's a...there's a lot of work involved and lots of trial and error, but once you hit on the right thing, it seems to work.
Bob: Clearly. And that brings us towards the end of our time and I just wanted to ask you how can they find out more about your wonderful stores?
Melanie: Well, look, we are over in the UK, but we do post all over the world. So if anybody is interested to have a little look, it's www.tillettsclothing.co.uk. That's T-I-L-L-E-T-T-S. We're on Facebook so just search Tillett's on Facebook. If any ladies would like to join our VIP group to see what we're about, just search Tillett's VIP on Facebook and you'll find it. And we're also on Instagram @tilletsclothing. And if you want to follow me personally, Bob, they can follow me, Melanie Tillett on Instagram.
Bob: I absolutely do. Well, you've been a joy and you're an inspiration to people all around the world. Especially for what you bring to your customers. So I really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.
Melanie: Well, thank you, Bob. It's been lovely speaking to you. Thank you so much.