Located in the heart of Wiltshire, leading children’s furniture specialist, Aspace can attribute their current success to Severine Thirion and Caspar Williams; two good friends who joined forces to take the original company out of liquidation in 2016 and who have now built it into an award-winning brand.
Q: How does a French woman with an American masterís degree end up working in Wiltshire?
A: Well I originally came to England through a Town Twinning experience between my hometown of Chateau-Gontier in West of France, and Frome in Somerset. I met my husband whilst I was over here and given that I was better at languages, we agreed I should stay here in the UK. The rest, as they say, is history!
Having completed a Master’s degree in Business and Languages at Pennsylvania State University, I settled in the West Country and worked with Publishers Butler & Tanner and then a large PVC manufacturer as their sales representative in Europe.
By 2003, I had a young family and needed a job that involved less time on the road, so I started working at Aspace, soon after it was set up.
It should be noted Aspace was established one year previously in 2002 and was at the vanguard of designing and manufacturing products with direct links to factories here in the UK as well as across Europe and the Far East, in addition to supplying retail customers such as John Lewis and Mothercare. During this time, the brand developed many of the exclusive ranges of Children’s furniture it sells today.
Severine explained: Good customer service is something that I am very passionate about! So, before I went for the interview, I called up, pretending to be a customer. I was not at all impressed by the lack of help or engagement I received. I had no hesitation in sharing this disappointing experience during my interview. I knew that I could do so much better!
Fortunately, the company had the foresight to employ her and Severine worked in several positions, including Customer service, Warehousing, and Operations and HR. In those early days, there was no website and sales were based on catalogues and telephone only. Later as we grew, we bought data from Abacus and Experian and undertook a lot of Direct Mail.
Q: Aspace used to be a much bigger company- what happened?
A: In their heyday, before the financial crash of 2008, Aspace had around 120 staff, with 25 of those in warehousing and 20 or so in customer service. Unfortunately, the margins were narrow and there was a disconnect between the quality and high standard of their products, which should have commanded a premium price, versus the discounting they started to offer, trying to compete against new competitors. Offers of 30 per cent for online orders were just not sustainable.
They also operated seven retail outlets in London, including Notting Hill, Fulham, Chiswick and additional shops in Tunbridge Wells and Guildford, which were all leaching out profits. Added to that, Mothercare, a major former client, had also ceased trading and the cost of logistics continued to increase.
Q: When did you take over?
A: In 2016 the company finally went into liquidation. Caspar, who was the former chairman having originally joined the company in 2012, stepped in to take the helm in equal partnership with me. Between us, we set out to revitalise and relaunch the Aspace brand. Our skill sets compliment each other. Both of us share a strong commitment and passion for the Aspace brand; the products we sell, the customers we serve and the dedicated smaller team of 10 that we still have behind us, who help to make it all happen.
Q: So what is the new company ethos and what sets you apart?
A: Our collections are all exclusive to us with a focus on quality, durability and adaptability. We source from local suppliers in Wiltshire and Somerset, as well as internationally including Portugal, Poland and the Far East. We are big supporters of British manufacturing as this gives us the flexibility to offer our customers bespoke and customisable furniture in addition to our exclusive collections. From bunk beds and furniture to accessories and mattresses our furniture is designed to last from one generation to the next.
We operate an in-stock model with above 80 per cent of our items in stock. We deliver to our customers within a week of placing their order in most cases. This strategy was key during the last lock-downs.
Our manufacturing specification is very exacting. No Cam-Bolts for us here! We specify beech/oak or hardwood and have a collaborative relationship with our suppliers. We expect our furniture to last for 2 or 3 generations, so it does tend to be a one-off sale per household. We constantly need to attract new customers
During lockdown we gained a lot of new customers with sales increasing by around 25 per cent. Living and working at home made them more aware of their living areas and gave rise to re-modelling and re-vamping. Parents realised that children being home schooled needed better home study areas and desks for example.
Q: What about Aspace stores today?
A: Funny, you should ask. We are extremely excited to announce that we have just opened a showroom space in Bruton, Somerset. We have partnered with Smouk Interiors (who specializes in crafted rugs and textiles). It has been so amazing to finally meet our customers in person and listen to their likes and dislikes! We are learning so much every day. It has taught us that retail can work with carefully curated brands. We are loving it here in Bruton!
Q: How is your is your marketing mix delivered?
A: We sell around 70 per cent of our furniture online with the rest via telephone.
We drive website traffic via dedicated PPC campaigns, social media and using influencers. We also outsource graphic design and SEO/website and PPC management. That is the beauty of people being able to work from home. Our email marketing has been ‘OK’, but is being re-vamped this year focusing, on doing better with more personalised campaigns. We do not undertake any off-the-page advertising.
We have collaborated with the Watergate Bay Hotel in Cornwall, where we fitted out their bedrooms. We also have a strong relationship with Abi caravans where we have supplied them with many bunks for their high-end caravans.
We no longer have printed catalogues. I recall the company spending over £1 million on print back in the day. We will be looking at inserts and A4 leaflets in the last quarter of this year, aiming to be as targeted as possible, to young families and parents with babies.
Q: How do you measure your success?
A: We have amazing testimonials from our clients and that feedback is very important to us.
Many of our leads come from personal recommendations or through the role of influencers. Customers have included David and Victoria Beckham and the residents at number 11 Downing Street George Osbourne, Dylan Hartley, Roger Black, Mel C….
We are also delighted to shout about several award wins we have under our belt. We are immensely proud to have received the highest recognition for customer excellence; Feefo’s Gold and now Platinum Trusted Service Award in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. In the same two years, we also gained recognition from Direct Commerce Awards, by being awarded ‘best children’s retailer’.
We are very much looking forward to the More2 Direct Commerce Awards on 23rd June at the Millennium Hotel, in London, in person this year. We hope that we can pull it off again!
Q: What is the secret to your success?
A: I admit that I do question and challenge everything! I will ask – is this the best way? I also never give up! My advice in business is to surround yourself with a great team. As a small company, we rely on good communication between us all and we are always there for each other. Mutual support and trust is invaluable.
I feel that is also very much the case with fellow members of the DCA. It is very easy to reach out and ask for advice. It is a very helpful community.
I love reading about other people’s challenges too.
Q: What is new on the horizon?
A: The current age range of our customers is 2 to 12 years. Clearly, there is an opening from birth upwards. This is why we are excited to have just launched a capsule nursery range including a quality cotbed – a baby cot that will then convert into a bed as the child grows up. We know it’s important for parents to invest in flexible and sustainable furniture. Hence our slogan: “Designed for Today’s Family.
With additional nursery products on the horizon to expand the new range, we’re really excited to get stuck into this new market and bring people into the Aspace family earlier.