‘Childrensalon has grown out of a passion for what we do and the fact we also have fun’
15th March 2019
One of the biggest retail success stories in Tunbridge Wells is that of the Childrensalon empire. Here its CEO Michele Harriman-Smith tells us more about the story of her success
For those unfamiliar with the Childrensalon brand can you please give us a brief history of it?
It started with my mother Sybil and her passion for beautiful clothing. She was raised in a very creative family and learned to sew and design clothing at an early age. After the war she started sewing circles in Vienna and then in Tunbridge Wells when she and my dad relocated here. Her sewing became so popular she started her own business creating beautiful hand-smocked dresses. The label was called ‘Joy Models’ after my eldest sister. With the success of this she then opened up a shop, but in a nod to my father’s French heritage they called it The Children’s Salon. The business grew and soon they began stocking all of the best children’s labels of the day.
How did you become involved in the business?
It was the 1980s and I took over running the shop and built on what my mother had started. My husband was an artist and an illustrator and one day he came to me with the idea of putting The Children’s Salon online and creating a website. Initially I did the coding, learning everything I could from books however it soon got too complicated for me to do. Within a few years the business grew very rapidly and we were emailing and chatting to people from all over the world, helping them dress their children beautifully, just as my mother had done in the shop. Our ethos was always to treat our customers the same special way we did in the shop. Very soon the majority of our business was online and keeping up with it became our focus and passion. As the business grew so did our team, many of whom have been with us from the beginning. It’s been such an incredible journey and we have learned so many things along the way.
You are one of the area’s biggest employers, can you tell us how many are on your staff now?
We now have over 370 members of the team, most of whom live locally or have since relocated to Tunbridge Wells, but we are always on the hunt for talent. Given how rapidly we are growing, finding talent has been challenging at times and as a result of this we started holding our own in-house careers fairs. We find meeting people in person is so much better than looking at CVs! We are very excited to announce we will be holding our fourth in-house Careers Fair on Saturday March 23rdthis year and are looking forward to it being just as successful as the others we have held.
What are the benefits of working in a place like Tunbridge Wells?
It is a lovely town to live in, with plenty of choices to have fun and spend quality time. It is our home and where Childrensalon was founded and we couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Tunbridge Wells also has strong transport links to London, which has really helped with the running of the business. These links have also helped us find and retain the talent we need.
Why do you think your business has been so successful, especially during this difficult retail climate?
When people ask why Childrensalon has been successful I always say it grew out of a passion and love for what we were doing, for our customers and the fact that we also have fun. Every day is different, and we have learned so many things from the mistakes we made. We also put our customers, our team, and the community we live in first and our value of ‘People Before Profit’ says this best really. We are privately owned and this has helped us remain agile and to keep our culture, and in-turn, stay on the same path that has brought us where we are.
Do you put any emphasis on sourcing goods from local designers?
We carry a very large assortment of British designers for all tastes and budgets and our team of buyers do an amazing job finding them. We always try and attend the British trade shows where we have always found special things.
Can you tell us a little bit about the awards you have won over the past few years?
We have been incredibly proud to have been given a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade. To have been recognised at that level was amazing. Last year also saw us rank at #45 on the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For list for 2018 and that was also special for us. We’ve always been a family business and our team is a huge part of this. We have very low staff turnover compared to many other businesses in our industry and I think it is down to our culture and making sure everyone feels valued. Another part of our ethos is paying people fairly so that they can afford to live in the community they work in. We were very proud to have joined the Living Wage Foundation in 2015 and last year we were awarded the Living Wage Foundation Employee’s Choice Award, which is chosen based on feedback from the team.
What keeps you so excited and passionate about your business?
Being able to come to work and do something I love plus work alongside people I care about - and then have fun on top of it all is just amazing! We have always loved what we do. Giving our customers the best assortment of product, the best customer service
and the best online experience is a challenge and we will always be passionate about making sure we learn from our mistakes and continue to evolve.
Can you please tell us about the forthcoming plans for the automation of your warehouse and how this will be a game changer for you?
The last few years represented a steady 40% growth year on year for Childrensalon. To ensure the same high levels of service, in 2018 we started implementing Autostore, a warehouse automation system which will support us to maximise efficiency and ensure we cope with the growth we will be experiencing over the next five years. The system is almost ready to be rolled out and soon some of our customers’ orders will be processed automatically. Lastly, true to Childrensalon’s value of protecting the environment, the entire Autostore system including all lighting and conveyor belts will be 100% powered by solar energy.
What is the benefit of still having a visible presence on the high street (as you do with the Petit Childrensalon Outlet)?
Tunbridge Wells High Street is our heritage and the shop will always hold immense sentimental value to us. Keeping a visible presence on the high street is a part of this.
Childrensalon in numbers:
- 2.2m – unique monthly visitors to Childrensalon.com
- 270+ - brands stocked
- 160 – countries shipped to worldwide
- 365 – days a year you can chat to our Customer Service team
- 32+ – languages spoken in the Customer Service team
- 360+ – staff
- 12 – original family members still working at Childrensalon
- 150,000+ – square footage of Childrensalon HQ
- £100m – turnover for 2018
- 2018 awards and accolades: Queen's Awards for Enterprise 2018: International Trade, Living Wage Champion Award: Employees Choice, Sunday Times HSBC Profit Track 100 (number 90), Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200 (number 139) and Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For (number 45)
Childrensalon’s key trends for spring 2019
We are a global company and our customers’ seasonal choices differ depending on where they are in the world. We always have this in mind and our SS19 product offering is definitely a reflection of this.
Where do you source stock from?
We carry brands from all over the world and have a buying team of 20 who travel extensively to make sure we always have the most beautiful assortment of both up-and-coming, traditional and more high-end designers.