Jo Southcombe opened her first business in Somerton over 30 years ago, when antiques were her main ‘stock in trade’ with clothes elegantly draped over the furniture as a little side dish. The antique market died a death in the late eighties so she started to focus purely on ladies clothing. It was a source of much amusement that Jo would watch customers haggle over the price of a piece of furniture, pay the correct price for their clothing and then leave tip when dining in her restaurant, and all under the same roof!
When her family came along, she rented out the shop but couldn’t resist a few deals along the way. The house would be filled with teddy bears, crystal or even cookers and washing machines. By the mid-nineties, the children were at school and Jo was ready to expand the business again so she bought up boxes of bankrupt designer sweaters and invited all her friends around.
One of the ladies at this event (who will remain nameless since she is partly responsible for the next 30 years) asked whether Jo would bring her clothes to an event at Killierton, the National Trust House in Exeter. Jo contacted old friends in the fashion trade, who supplied her with labels such as Mondi, Tricoville, Parigi, Jacqmar and Levi. She borrowed a transit van and Jo and family set off for Exeter.
In Jo’s words “I had no till, no credit card facilities and no staff, just a great friend Bin who still helps when she can. When a giant vase nearly toppled over in the stately home, I saw my life pass before me as I hadn't thought about insurance and ladies were hanging garments on the furniture. It was chaos! Thankfully the vase landed on me as did 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”.
After this she invested in a brand new van (the only new vehicle she’d ever owned) and travelled around the country staying in Base Camps and B&Bs meeting some amazing characters along the way. On one occasion, she was exhibiting at Chirk Castle where 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!
The Designer Clearance Business was gathering apace including taking over a business called Sue Walsh Designs and the exciting new project of designing her own brand of country clothing as well as beautiful Toscana sheepskin which sold at around 80 shows including Badminton and Cheltenham. She now had two vans, together with a “company” caravan in which they all lived come rain or shine. It was quite a sight to see- three ladies turning up onsite in designer clothes towing a 40’ vehicle.
The family moved to a farmhouse just outside Yeovil and were able to hold private shows in the house and adjacent buildings 4/5 times a year, for a few hundred ladies via their private mailing list. This was incredibly popular so when Jo moved to Taunton much later even with all the stores this continued at her Manor house in the form of preview shows.
The National Trust shows continued for the rest of the nineties but unfortunately, Foot and Mouth disease came along and completely halted all the shows. It was about this time that Jo held a staff contest to dream up a new company name as ‘Sue Walsh’ was getting a bit dated, the winning suggestion came from a very good family friend and loyal customer, thus Retail Therapy was born.
With no outlet to trade Jo began looking for a fixed abode. She searched the local market towns and fell in love with Castle Cary and so Retail Therapy as we all know it today opened for business.
On finding the shop 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. Caroline was that girl and she was keen to manage her own shop. She is now General Manager of the business and Jo’s right hand woman.
Foot and Mouth and BSE continued to disrupt the travelling trade so Jo decided to fully focus on opening more shops, the second being Ilminster, next was Honiton, then a small boutique became available in St James Street so Retail Therapy finally arrived in Taunton. The tiny shop in Taunton thrived but they were capable of much more, and as luck would have it, Jo was approached by The Fashion House, in her eyes, the best boutique in Taunton and right opposite her existing shop. So, everything was finally falling in place for the Retail Therapy Empire with a flagship store on three floors worthy of the name over the door.
The next acquisition was Sidmouth, and 2 years later Wedmore on the Somerset Levels. Both openings were a brave decision in a recession. They both performed ‘OK’ but Jo Southcombe doesn’t do ‘OK’ so they were let go to focus all her support on the strongest stores.
The flagship store was now groaning at the seams stocking occasion, evening and daywear under one roof so Jo decided to open up a dedicated daywear boutique close to the first store, next door to Debenhams. This has turned out to be a brilliant expansion for the company, each store is blossoming in its own right. The new Store (T2) has 2 fabulous light oak fitted floors of the best daywear including full price collections, whilst the existing store (T1) had the space and privacy needed for special occasion wear purchases.
In April 2018, the shop adjacent to T2 on The Bridge became vacant, so Jo bought this and relocated the occasionwear store so that it took over the complete detached building next to Debenhams, and everything in Taunton is now under one roof.