Today is a gift that is why it is called ‘The Present.’

I have lived in Barnet for many years and have watched shops come and go on my High Street. A shopkeeper’s life before the pandemic was already a challenge, with rising rents and reducing footfalls. There have been plenty of initiatives – from government, local councils as well as celebrities – to highlight the benefits of shopping locally. Some have worked, others have not. 

Consequently, I was very sad to see that one of my favourite shops on my High Street was closing its doors this July – not due to lack of footfall and not due to Covid. It was closing because its owner had decided that it was time for something new.  The shop was called The Present and sold cards, gifts, jewellery, the perfect space to spend a lazy afternoon. 

When I heard the news, I reached out to the owner, the lovely Louise Rolfe, and asked her if she was up for a short interview. As a coach, many of the people I work with find it really hard to make any kind of change in their lives. What did Louise have that enabled her to make these life-changing moves for herself? 

Louise was incredibly open with me and I hope you will be inspired by reading what she said.

 

Part One: Setting up the business

In the first part of our interview, Louise talked about what had led to her setting up the shop in the first place and what had made it work so well. In the second part, she talked about when she recognised that it was time for a change. Finally, she concludes by offering some invaluable advice to new business owners. 

Firstly, I asked her what prompted her to set up a shop in the first place, twenty years ago?

At that time, she and her ex-partner were both actors and looking for additional employment that would bring them more income. They talked about finding a freehold one week and then the next week spotted a small advert in the local papers. Finding a freehold shop on the High Street – one which had been in the same hands for forty years – proved to be a selling point for Louise. She initially visited it with her father and knew instantly that this was the place she had been looking for. Throughout the interview, Louise talked with confidence about ‘just knowing’ and it was this inner confidence to listen to her intuition that set her on the path to becoming a shopkeeper. 

With her cautious friends giving her words of warning – such as ‘What are you doing? You’ve never run a shop before!’ – Louise and her ex went full-steam ahead and learnt it all on the job. For example, she would pick particularly supportive reps who helped her to stock the shop in a thoughtful way. Louise explained that it was slightly easier starting a shop twenty years ago, compared to today, as there was less internet shopping then and people still made trips to the shops.

Louise would always spend time really considering the customer’s journey. She wanted great products and she wanted the environment to be right. ‘I wanted it to be somewhere you came in and there was nice music, and everyone chatted and it smelt nice and there was a good ethos in the shop.’ This was the environment that she continued to develop over the twenty-year life span of the business.   

Louise talked about how businesses often forget the importance of creating the right environment, and she believes that this is what lets them down. Louise knew that all of her stock was available to purchase elsewhere and particularly online, so as the years passed and online shopping became the norm, she had to keep up with this online competition. She found that focusing on the in-person interactions really helped: ‘Three or more times a day a customer would come into the shop and say, “I don’t know what I want but I know I will find it here.” They were coming into the shop to really enjoy the in-person experience.’ 

Louise was keen to ensure that no one felt intimidated to buy or was ignored. She managed to walk that fine line between supporting the customer and giving them space to browse. In my experience, Louise – and all her staff – managed to find just the right balance in this.

I asked her whether she had a time span in mind when she first opened the shop. Had she planned to run it for ten years or longer, perhaps? There had been no time frame when she first opened; she had simply wanted to get it up and running. In the earlier stages of developing the business, she had wanted to build on the experience by opening another shop, but over time she focused on making her customers’ experience in her shop the very best she could.   

By keeping an eye on expansion, Louise felt that the shop continued to offer these supportive experiences for her customers. 

Over these twenty years, she drew from a wide customer base, including regular customers who came in once a week and a group who came in once a month, as part of a social outing with friends. The socio-demographic background of her customers spanned all income levels. This was helped further by re-focusing the types of goods they had on offer to ensure there was a purchase for every pocket. The handmade glass and custom-made furniture were phased out and good-quality gifts became the norm.

Part Two: Making a change

So, what prompted Louise to make such a change, to decide to close such a thriving shop which had by then become a little community in itself? Why make such a change? 

Louise explained that she has never been scared of change: ‘I’m not sure if that has stemmed from being an actor, never being sure of where you are from time to time. I think it has been grumbling someway, I kept standing in the shop thinking when I don’t have the shop, I’ll do so and so when I haven’t got the shop I’ll do so and so. So, I said to myself –  when is the ‘when I haven’t got the shop’ going to be?’ The more she gave thought to closing, the greater the sense of relief she felt. She felt the relief in her shoulders, gut and head – a relief from feeling that she wasn’t going to be doing all the jobs that go with the pressures of solo-running a High Street shop.  

As her children grew up she realised that her only tie was now the shop. She knew that there would be plenty of customers to keep it going, but Louise made a choice to step away. It wasn’t lockdown that made her close up, but an accumulation of ideas and desires to do something else.  

Each step away from the shop brought new challenges. Louise used her experience as an actor to keep herself moving forward, reminding herself of the many times that she had stepped out onto the stage despite her nerves and fluttery tummy. 

This was a useful reminder to keep hold of the experiences we have had in our lives. So many of my own clients find it hard to join the dots with what they do.   

I asked Louise if she had gone to anyone for advice. Her good friend and colleague helped her a lot by giving impartial advice. Her in-depth knowledge of the day-to-day work of the shop helped Louise to make an objective choice. And when she wavered, she gently reminded herself that she did not want to work in the shop another Christmas.  

What might have been the risks of you not changing? – I then asked her. Possible health conditions definitely were in the mix. Without sounding maudlin, Louise talked about how recent worldwide events had reminded her that life is not to be taken for granted. She wanted to stop promising herself stuff in the future. She wanted to make the most of her life right now.  

Louise rarely gets bored, either on her own or with others. As a creative person, she is open to many possibilities in the future. I sensed her joy and anticipation. As a child, she read prolifically, and now she is looking forward to having the time to read a whole book. She used to be someone who loved sports but now that had gone. As I listened to her talk, I heard someone who felt that parts of herself had been out of balance as her time had been used up being a partner, mother and shopkeeper for so long. 

What advice would she give to new shopkeepers? – I asked her. ‘Not to be too precious about what you sell. You must like what you sell but you have to sell what sells.’ She had thought her shop was going to be all rustic and handmade in Barnet; this was a lovely idea but she soon learned that it also has to pay the bills. ‘If it is only a hobby and not making any money at all you will find it hard to get up in the morning. You need to be open to change. You’ve got to look at where your shop is, where it is situated and know your customer base. Be prepared to work harder than you think you have to.’ 

Louise spoke about the joy and fulfilment she felt from owning a shop of her own. She talked about her love of opening up the shop door in the morning – a daily ritual that she enjoyed right up to the last day. 

‘When I turned that key in the door, I loved opening that door. The day I don’t love opening that door is the day I close. It went through my head on the last day – you have opened this door for twenty years and you still love opening that door.’ As she spoke she did the physical movement of unlocking the shop with her hand. She told me she didn’t want to get to the point where unlocking the shop was no longer a joyful act.

She described other aspects of her work that also made her happy;

‘Joy in the products that I sold. A shop that aesthetically looked nice. People talked to me about who they were buying for and often returned to give me feedback from the person who was given a present. It meant a lot to know that something small from my shop brought happiness to others. It was joyful being in a nice pleasant environment every day too.’ 

What advice would she give to someone who might be finding it hard to make a change? – I also asked her. 

Louise’s mother-in-law who was a recovering alcoholic gave Louise some advice: ‘Always remember, that you are allowed to change your mind.’ That advice freed Louise. She knew from that point that she could do it and then change her mind if necessary. Often younger people can get stuck in not wanting to change their minds but at fifty Louise was ready to change her mind. The education system can set you on a path that you might not want to stay on forever. It is worth remembering that we are allowed to change their mind. Underlying this is the idea that we each create our own opportunities. 

Louise spoke about the importance of both living within your means and keeping some flexibility in your life if your finances allow for this. She also shared that in considering this change, she realised she was more scared of being stuck somewhere she didn’t want to be than she was of trying something new.

 

So what key lessons did Louise share with me that might also benefit other people and other business owners? 

  • Listen to your thoughts and listen to your body. (Louise talked about the book ‘Blink’ which is all about gut instincts).  

 

  • Take time to listen to your intuition and ignore it at your peril. 

 

  • Take time to focus on the journey your customers take with you. Make it a pleasurable experience for them. They need to want to work with you throughout the engagement. 

 

  • Whatever you are selling – love what you sell, be that a product or service. If you love it, others will. 

 

  • Be adaptable, refresh what’s on offer and move with the times. 

 

  • Physically embody joy in your work. If you are a writer, feel the joy in the words; if you are a coach, feel joy in the connection with a client; if you run a shop, feel joy in the community you create. 

 

  • Feel the freedom of always being in charge of your own mind. 

 

Louise often used this wonderful quote throughout her time in the shop: 

Today is a gift that is why it’s called The Present.  

 

Thank you Louise for showing us all how not to be chained to the past but to live in the present, and always …. to be open to change. 

 

 

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