Ford was a librarian by profession when Erin started BoxHill at just 17 years of age. The idea for the boutique came from John, an accountant who worked for EziBuy in the 1990s. At EziBuy, he learned about how the back-room side of retail worked, and passed on his knowledge to his daughter, who was then working for Australian label Cue.
The family put their plan into action, and Erin and Sheila went to wholesalers in Melbourne to pick up some stock. Sheila says this process involved a certain amount of chance.
“To be perfectly honest, we really didn’t know what we were doing, so we sold what was available and that we liked the look of.”
“We just kind of learned as we went.”
Sheila juggled dual jobs in parallel for some years. She worked 30 hours per week as a book buyer at Wellington City Libraries, taking time out of her annual leave to cover BoxHill when Erin got sick.
This carried on until Erin took an OE in 2009. Fortuitously, the library announced a restructure at that time, and so Sheila volunteered for redundancy in favour of going full-time at BoxHill.
“[Erin] was away for two years and when she came back, we worked together.”
Sheila says that initially, she wasn’t sure how she and Erin would work together as parent and child. She wondered if they would lock horns as Erin is a strong personality and was “not an easy teenager,” but, happily, this hasn’t come to pass.
“We have different ways of doing things, but the roles tend to get divvied up.”
Sheila ended up handling the back end of BoxHill – doing the accounts, paperwork and supplier management – while Erin took on the website, communications, marketing and customer services roles. Two part-time employees help run the shop, although Sheila still works the closing shift.
BoxHill targets middle-aged women. Its market has aged slightly as the store has become more established, Sheila says, adding that they’ve served customers aged between nine and 99.
“We’re not aiming at a younger market because they tend not to have the cashflow.”
BoxHill has had up to four Wellington outlets, but when the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2009, it put significant stress on the business and it’s now down to one location in Thorndon. Three locations have been shut down, including the original in Ngaio during 2014.
The company last year shelved its ecommerce presence. The number of sales coming through didn’t justify the hassle, Sheila says, and selling stock from the shop online was creating difficulties – as BoxHill is such a small space, Erin and Sheila tend to buy just one or two items in each size bracket, making stock difficult to reconcile.
“[Customers] would come in and say they’d seen something on the website and I would have to say, ‘Sorry, we’re a small family business and nobody’s looked at the site for a couple of weeks. That item isn’t there anymore.’”
Now, some suppliers carry stock through the seasons so BoxHill can safely promote these items on their website. The system is simple – the items come to BoxHill, and Sheila puts them in a courier bag with a handwritten note.
Thoughtful customer service is very important to BoxHill’s business model. The store is not significantly differentiated from other boutiques of its kind, Sheila says, so it all comes down to “falling over backwards” to build trust and provide knowledgeable, friendly service.
The job has many crossovers between Sheila’s former role at the library. She’s still using her taste and knowledge to find customers the right item for their needs – but now that item happens to be a dress for a summer wedding, rather than a book for a long flight.
“There isn’t any new thing under the sun, but I think building a relationship is huge for a little shop because people are loyal.”
“It’s a little bit of magic because it does work.”
Sheila and Erin’s partnership is appealing to customers, Sheila says. They play up to it with banter: “People say, ‘Oh, you don’t look old enough to be her mother,’ which is not so fun for Erin but lots of fun for me.”
The deep understanding between Sheila and her daughter is an advantage when they’re working together with customers. She knows Erin so well that she can tell intuitively what Erin will do and say in different situations, she says,
Asked if she’s ever been tempted to steer Erin, Sheila says no, not at all.
“She’s very able, she’s very strong. She’s making it work.”
This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 745 August/September 2016