Yes, it's true; a poor little harmless 'gator was found needing love and attention. Read all about it here. But as we all know I'm not here to talk about reptiles although I am trying to highlight pitfalls for those trying to set up a business here in the USA. So, following this morning's news, never wear flip flops when disembarking from a flight landing in the 'Windy City'.
I've been picked up from the airport by Susie, our Maternity Rep here. She has given me the most fantastic whirlwind tour of Chicago - following the lakeside into town travelling past the most all-American houses you can ever imagine - splendid with Halloween decorations extraordinaire. It's all so very clean and so very tidy and so very, very nice looking. Maybe a little sanitised for me because I like a bit of urban decay to keep me on my toes with a frisson of excitement running through my veins. But it's lovely even on a cold, dull day.
We stop at the Baha'i House of Worship - a non-ecumenical religion which welcomes all mankind as one family; in effect trying to be a church/temple/mosque/mission/tabernacle/synagogue etc. all in one. It's an exhilaratingly obvious solution to the world's religious problems but like all simple ideas, I presume it attracts much of the same politics and fanaticism that all the other specific religions do. But the building is peaceful, awesomely so. The sort of place you can go and sit and just find peace - clear your head. I wish we had more time, but as always I'm not on holiday or trying to find myself this time. I've been through religions and philosophies like a dose of salts over the years, ticking off an interest in Islam, Buddhism, The Emin, and even transcendental meditation - all whilst being a rather lapsed Catholic. So I do have to drag myself, and I think Susie, away. By this stage our new Maternity Rep and I are forming quite a strong bong - it appears we are kindred spirits, possibly even sisters in a previous incarnation?! Oops, here we go again - must get back on to the subject of business or else...well I may have to say a dozen Hail Marys as a penance for wasting company time. Oh the guilt!
Back at the showroom I'm impressed. Both our Maternity Rep and our Kids Rep, Beth, are situated in a Chicago version of our Battersea Design Studio. It's a stunning converted warehouse with a roof terrace with views of the city skyline to die for - perfect for an after-selection drink. I can't recommend this location enough, it's eclectic and fresh but with the history of the building and the area, an island in the river reached via two bridges.
I spend some time with Susie going through the collection, but she does not really need me too much. She's yet another specialist maternity professional, as I am. Selling fashion for pregnant women is most definitely NOT for all. It needs a deep routed understanding of the subject and the independent retailers who choose to follow this tricky niche market. I never encourage new maternity start-ups without telling them the bad news first. As you know from JoJo you can do very well from this entree to the market, but you can fail spectacularly. Susie, in Chicago, Hope in Atlanta and Cathe in LA all know this and we all work together to help, advise and encourage the intrepid independents who chose to pursue this line. But what an engaging and rewarding business if you can get it right! I cannot tell you how much I love the day to day contact with our customers; it starts at about 3 months when they pop into the store, a little shy and really not needing any maternity wear at all. They are desperate for information and we give it willingly despite the fact we know we probably won't make much of a sale till they suddenly wake up and scream: "HELP! I can't find anything to wear!" They rush back into the store and with some proper advice will find some effective mix and match outfits to suit every occasion for the next 5 months. They will wear the clothes to death (much more than regular fashion) but won't want to spend too much since it's a transient phase of their lives. We have to make stunning styles, which are incredibly hard wearing and all exceptionally affordable - it's a challenge but one we enjoy because our customers become friends and come back time and again for the next stages; later pregnancy, maternity bra fitting, hospital bag, nursing bra fitting, breastfeeding fashion and of course layette for their little darling. If we are lucky they pop back to introduce the gorgeous new baby which has popped out of the bump we so carefully helped them dress.
Next I head upstairs to spend some time with Beth, who represents our kids' collection in a stunning showroom alongside impressive competitive brands. I'm delighted by the display she has put together based on the training she and her assistant have taken in whist in London and her own 9 years' experience in the industry. She is obviously very creative has other great ideas for shop fit design which I sketch out for use in our own stores back home. Beth and I have a candid conversation about pricing structure and where JoJo Maman Bébé competes with other mid to up-market brands in the USA. It's a huge help that she is not only our Rep but also the mother of two small children living in the leafy suburbs, having moved from the city as her family grew. She is both brand representative and potential customer and she really gets why JoJo could be so huge but equally we need to be patient and drip feed the brand building - this is investment time for all of us and I'm grateful she is on my side.
Exciting news from the PR team in the UK: JoJo has been spotted on exactly the type of star we LOVE to have dressing their kids in the brand. No flashy fly-by-night wannabe but a truly talented and intelligent actress was seen pushing her twins through New York's Tribeca in our outerwear. I'm so pleased and would much prefer not to have to name the actress in question because she deserves her and her babies privacy but I can help include the link to the article we found online. Click here to find out who she is! I hate the PR we require to get 'thinking parents' to learn about us in the USA and understand our brand values. But we are novices in this market, a start-up, virtually unknowns. We need this PR and we can't be too arrogant. A well-kept secret may just stay that way, we need to reach a critical number of sales this year to warrant the opening of our new distribution centre here, planned for 2015. WE NEED PR, THAT'S LIFE.
But all I can say is that this actress is a sensible mother. Not only are our cosy outerwear styles stylish and fun to look at but they are also environmentally responsible. This fabric, developed by us over years of testing, is cosy, very warm, soft, bright and more important than anything - made from 100% recycled fibres, mostly plastic bottles. To view the collection please click here.
Off south again soon and SO excited since I'm meeting my sons for half term in Florida. Can't wait - it's been so long and even though they are very grown up teenagers I have been missing them like hell.