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Jo Southcombe -- Retail Therapy
We set up our original business in Somerton over 25 years ago and antiques were the main product with clothes elegantly draped over the furniture as a little side dish. The antique market died a death in the late eighties so we started to focus purely on ladies clothing.
It never ceased to amaze us when visitors to our shop would haggle over the price of a piece of furniture, pay the correct price for their clothing and then give us a tip when dining in our restaurant - and all this in one building! When a family came along, we rented out the shop but Jo couldn’t resist a few deals along the way. The house would be filled with teddy bears, crystal or even cookers and washing machines.
In the mid nineties, the children were at school so Jo wanted to expand. She bought a bankrupt designer sweater deal and invited all her friends around. One lady (whose name we shall not mention, because she is partly responsible for the next 20 years) was at this event, and she asked whether Jo would bring her clothes to the National Trust House in Exeter. We borrowed a transit van and Jo looked up old contacts in the fashion trade in London, who supplied her with labels such as Mondi, Tricoville, Parigi, Jacqmar and Levi.
Well, we had no till, no staff (apart from Jo’s friend Bin, who still helps out when she’s in the Country) and no credit card facilities. When a giant vase nearly toppled over in the stately home, we saw our lives pass before us as we hadn't thought about insurance and ladies were hanging garments on the furniture. It was chaos! Despite this, it landed us the contract with the National Trust for houses from Plymouth to Newcastle and we were given access to them for our shows for several years.
We invested in a new van (the only new vehicle she has ever owned) and travelled around the country staying in Base Camps and B&Bs meeting some amazing characters along the way. On one occasion, we were exhibiting at Chirk Castle and Maggie Thatcher was having dinner with the family who still lived in a wing of the castle. Jo managed to set off the alarm in the van and was confronted by several bodyguards waving revolvers!
We then took over a business called Sue Walsh Designs and designed our own brand of country clothing as well as beautiful Toscana sheepskin which we sold at around 80 shows including Badminton and Cheltenham. We now had two vans, together with a “company” caravan in which we lived come rain or shine. It was quite a sight to see two or three ladies turning up onsite in designer clothes towing a 40’ vehicle.
We moved to just outside Yeovil and were able to hold private shows for a few hundred ladies via our private mailing list. This was very popular and happened 4/5 times a year. Now that we live in Taunton, this has taken over our new home. This continued for the rest of the nineties but unfortunately, Foot and Mouth disease came along and completely halted all our shows.
On the upside, we held a staff contest to dream up a new company name as Sue Walsh was getting a bit tired and the winning suggestion came from a very good family friend and loyal customer, thus Retail Therapy was born.
We searched the local market towns and fell in love with Castle Cary and our trading in shops began. Jo’s first phone call was to a girl who had applied for a job some time earlier, but who was far too ladylike to drive a lorry or do the horse shows. However, Jo had told her that if ever she went “retail” she would make contact. As luck would have it, Caroline was keen to manage her own shop and she is now General Manager of the business all these years later.
With Foot and Mouth and BSE disrupting our travelling trade we decided to give up 90% of our shows and embarked on opening more shops, the second being Ilminster. We then employed Samantha straight out of university (now married and a mother) to manage our third shop in Honiton.
A small boutique became available in St James Street (opposite Debenhams) so Retail Therapy in Taunton was launched. Unfortunately, the shop proved too small but we persevered, for a while. We were doing well with the shops and we continued with a small number of shows.
As luck would have it, we were approached by the best boutique in Taunton, the Fashion House, whose owner was selling up and so the Retail Therapy flagship store was born. Located over the three floors, the store has been open for four years and specializes in the best selection of eveningwear outside the Capital as well as wonderful mother of the bride outfits and occasion wear but also our ever-changing ranges of daywear.
The next acquisition was Sidmouth, our only seaside shop, but gladly not seasonal because the town has a thriving local community.
Our flagship store was now groaning at the seams so we took the decision to open up a dedicated daywear boutique next door to Debenhams. We have relocated the casual wear out of our existing St James Street store to enable both to have the space and specialise in wedding and daywear respectively.