Thanks to its commitment to customer care, it’s no surprise that so many people are saying yes to this wedding-dress franchise
Britain’s wedding industry is worth around £10bn each year according to hitched, the wedding-planning website. And thanks to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England, Scotland and Wales in 2014, there have been even more blushing brides on the lookout for their dream gown. But it was more a case of personal experience that prompted Kate Atkinson to start Bridal Reloved, a chain of stores selling pre-owned designer wedding dresses for a fraction of the price. “I was trying – and failing – to sell my own wedding dress,” she recalls. “I couldn’t find any high-street shops to take it and most brides weren’t comfortable buying it from me online.”
Spotting a gap in the market, Atkinson realised she’d stumbled upon the perfect business idea. And given her temping role at a local school had just come to an end, the timing seemed perfect. Within six weeks, she’d ploughed her personal savings into opening a store in Beverley, stocking 30 second-hand dresses to test the waters. “I just figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot and, luckily, it proved very popular,” she says.
But it wasn’t just a sprinkling of good fortune that helped the concept take off. It also helped that Atkinson knew her target market inside out: she’d been a bride herself and was also a seasoned bridesmaid, having been wedding dress shopping on more than one occasion with her sister and friends. “I knew what it felt like to try a dress on in a boutique and had seen brides spoken to rudely,” she says. “I wanted to do things differently and make sure that the bride felt like an absolute star.” And so Bridal Reloved was conceived with the bride – not her entourage – in mind. Dresses can be tried on by appointment only so women have the shop to themselves and receive one-to-one attention from the salesperson. “It’s a privilege to be in the room when a woman first sets eyes on her dream dress and we want to make that experience as memorable and special as possible,” says Atkinson.
Once she got the keys to her first store, the entrepreneur threw herself into the task of researching the bridal market, speaking to people from the industry, learning about how to properly clean dresses, getting to know the top designers and reading every bridal fashion tome or online article she could get her hands on. There was also a big marketing push from day one. “For the first three to six months I created awareness and built a community, doing everything from starting a Facebook page and creating a networking group to sending out press releases and attending wedding fairs,” she says. “I just went for it.”
As word of mouth started to grow, business picked up and Atkinson was able to open a second store, this time in Dorchester. But then came a fork in the road when a misstep at a networking breakfast left the entrepreneur out of action. “I walked into the venue swinging my laptop and feeling so confident, thinking ‘I’m a young entrepreneur’,” she recalls. “And then I tripped and fell right at the entrance steps: it was so embarrassing.” A few blushes were the least of it: it turned out Atkinson had a slipped disc, which meant she was only able to keep her stores open a few hours a week and ended up having to undergo spinal surgery. Thankfully, a friend offered to help out and the entire experience made Atkinson realise that it was time to build a core team around her instead of trying to do everything herself. “We had enquiries coming out of our ears and business was snowballing: I couldn’t have handled it all by myself,” she admits.
Once back on her feet, Atkinson’s entrepreneurial hunger started to grow and, not satisfied with two stores, she started to consider franchising her business. “So many people kept telling me they would love to manage a branch but I didn’t want to spread myself out too thinly by overseeing a third,” she says. “Franchisees care so much more: if they have a cold they’re far more likely to push through it than employees because it’s their business.” Bringing The Franchise Centre, the franchising consultancy, on board, Atkinson identified her first franchisee and opened a store in Maldon in January 2015.
It wasn’t until a year later that Atkinson felt ready to start advertising for more franchisees; she wanted to iron out the kinks first and make sure her concept and methodology were fully fleshed out. “What I realised from opening that first franchise outlet was that I would have to show our franchisees how to build their own local squad: a network of people in the wedding industry, from florists to caterers, who can help you get word out,” she says. But there’s only so much the franchisor can do beyond providing an established brand identity and a proven strategy. The franchisee is the one on the ground and will ultimately know their region best. “You can’t buy a franchise expecting everything to be ready-made: you have to work at building your own network and finding brides in your area.”
And one of the most valuable tools the franchise uses to develop relationships is social media, which everyone gets full training in. Atkinson has always been adamant that her franchisees should retain control of their social-media presence as the network grows, rather than outsourcing the work to a PR company. “They know the businesses and people in the local area best so I want them to manage it themselves,” she says. “Every franchisee has social-media targets: if they hit them they can expect to have a certain footfall and conversion rate.” The company’s social-media success hasn’t gone unnoticed either: it won a gong for Best Social Media Marketing at the Dorset Echo Industry Awards and Atkinson is routinely asked to deliver social-media workshops as part of the Dorset Business Women Go Digital programme.
Thanks to its social-media mastery, enquiries from people keen to open their own outlet have started to pile up and Bridal Reloved welcomed five new franchisees into the family in 2016 alone. As things stand, it has seven franchise outlets in total, with two more in the pipeline. But Atkinson is starting to think even bigger: what started as a lifestyle business is set to become a global franchise. “There’s only room for about 30 franchise stores in the UK without having them eat into each other’s territory so I’m now looking at taking the brand overseas,” she says. The franchisor is already in early-stage talks with people in Abu Dhabi and the US and Atkinson is spending much of her time mapping where she might be able to have a presence beyond UK shores. And now that she’s surrounded herself with people who are just as passionate about the business as she is, Atkinson is able to take a step back and think more strategically. “For first three years, the business drove me; I’m now in the position where I can drive my business,” she says. “That feels good.”