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06 May 2021

Life after lockdown with Handbag Clinic

Our latest launch, Handbag Clinic, is the UK’s first omni-channel marketplace for restoration, authentication and luxury handbag resale. The business has gained a reputation as a leader and early pioneer of the designer goods refurbishment movement, and since opening its first store on King’s Road, Chelsea in 2015, the business has seen a real demand for buying and selling pre owned luxury handbags and reached its first £1m in turnover over the past twelve months.

We caught up with Charlotte Staerck, co-founder and CEO at Handbag Clinic, to gain a little insight into what business has been like since the reopening of non essential retail...

What stores did you reopen on April 12th?

We are proud of our physical presence on the highstreets of Britain and have multiple stores across the country; located in Chelsea, Leeds and our concession in Fenwick Newcastle. We are working tirelessly to ensure that every aspect of these stores are prepared for reopening on 12th April. 

As a result of our launch in the Fenwick flagship store last October proving to be a huge success, (we hit our monthly sales targets in just three days), we are expanding our concession to their Colchester location. We’re working hard to ensure this is a seamless and highly anticipated opening. 

Handbag Clinic is fortunate to have an incredible team of dedicated people who are committed to providing a seamless experience for customers and continue to work hard in preparation for when our stores can reopen. Like the majority of retailers, we are grateful that this time around, we have been given ample notice for when the high street can reopen; allowing us to confidently implement safety procedures, stock and staff. 

What have you had to change to ensure your in store experience is safe for shoppers?

We continue to adhere to the government guidelines, and will implement in-store appointments to discourage a build-up of customers within the store, to ensure that social distancing can be practised at all times. 

Our stores will undergo daily cleans and will be stocked with hand sanitiser for customers on their arrival, with 2-3 members of staff, all of which are committed to wearing the mandatory facemasks, to support the national campaign of reducing transmission rates. 

Across our social platforms, we regularly receive communications from customers expressing how they’re looking forward to returning to our stores. In the lead up to the 12th, we plan to reach out to our customers and inform them of our in-store protocols and what they can expect when they visit us. 

What elements of your business were able to continue during lockdown?

During each lockdown we have had to close our stores, but despite this, we experienced record growth through our ecommerce platform during the height of the pandemic (April /May 2020) with an increase of 500% year on year in online sales. Overall, this is now 306% year on year, which still represents rapid and continued growth for Handbag Clinic.  

We created a completely bespoke system for buying bags from customers which creates an easy-to-use, customer led journey. This has definitely helped us to keep our online ‘shelves’ full during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, we were buying around 50 – 100 bags each week. Our new system has 

helped us maintain a steady flow of new bags and we are now averaging between 30 – 80 per week which is remarkable given our stores have been closed which were always traditionally a strong acquisition point.

Investing in additional equipment has allowed us to adjust our pattern of working within the office, and we continue to encourage our team to work from home as often as possible to reduce the foot flow. 

The fact that we are such a unique and specialist skill operation has also helped us pull through the pandemic. People are fascinated by the art of restoration so we have diversified and showcased these skills to create amazing and engaging content. Our YouTube channel now has 115k subscribers, Instagram 24.7k and these platforms drive significant sales.  Both platforms are growing fast and have an incredible level of engagement – so much so that we are recruiting more Artisans to our team to ensure we can capture more of the amazing work we do. 

We are lucky to be in a position as a business where we are actively recruiting. The pandemic has highlighted just how rapidly the world is changing and we need to ensure that the craft and unique skills we are incubating within our team (our Artisans undergo a three-year training programme) are supported correctly, with the right systems and data to enable us to sustain and accelerate our speed of growth.

What areas of the business have had to shift as a result of lockdown?

Handbag Clinic has fortunately remained operational throughout the last year, but lockdown has undoubtedly impacted the rhythm of the business. 

We’re a dynamic team of individuals that work cohesively to secure sales and retain customers; we have had to adapt our notion of team work to include distanced collaboration online, as opposed to in the office. 

The impact of lockdowns has been felt ‘hardest’ in our Clinic, where we are operating with a reduced team but receiving the same, if not more bags than before lockdown. We pride ourselves on our team of experts who host an eye for detail, commitment to provide only the highest quality of craftsmanship, and have countless years of experience with some of the world’s most prestigious brands. During National Lockdown we reduced our workforce down to a specialist Core Team; one third of our workforce. This was to ensure we were able to meet the parameters relating to social distancing and to limit the amount of people coming to the building. So far we have never been back to full capacity within the Clinic, which has naturally had an affect on our lead times. 

At peak time we have 700+ orders in our Clinic and with 13 Artisans this equates to an average 2-8 week lead time depending on the service required. Unfortunately, if the workforce is reduced by two thirds timescales can increase 2-3 times our standard 2–8-week paradigm, particularly for our most complex services. Nevertheless, our small but eager team have worked incredibly hard throughout and with the support of our amazing Communication Teams, have kept all clients updated on the shifts in this area. We have received truly overwhelming support from all our clients, who have regularly commended us on our outreach to them, and how reassured they have felt. We are looking forward to the 12th April in the Clinic, as this is when we plan to again bring more of our amazing Artisans back into the business in-line with our retail stores re-opening. 

The refund aspect has been the most logistically challenging. We generally have a really low return rate and offer free returns if a bag is bought impulsively, or if the lighting in images hasn’t quite reflected the colour 100%, or if the strap on a particular bag isn’t quite long enough for cross body. The return cost lies with us, so, if it happens multiple times for a particular model, our profit margin is affected – whereas in store we don’t encounter this issue so it’s not a factor.  This means we’ve had to work hard to ensure every image is perfect, descriptions are more detailed and this makes the process of putting a bag on our platform ready for sale slightly longer – and all whilst working with a reduced and remote workforce.  

What made you re-launch with a new ecommerce site during these times, and how has that impacted your business?

We’ve always had an ecommerce platform but because this became our primary operation, we invested in improving and streamlining this with Techquity. 

We created a completely bespoke system for buying bags from customers which creates an easy-to-use, customer led journey. This has definitely helped us to keep our online ‘shelves’ full during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, we were buying around 50 – 100 bags each week. Our new system has 

helped us maintain a steady flow of new bags and we are now averaging between 30 – 80 per week which is remarkable given our stores have been closed which were always traditionally a strong acquisition point. We also have plans to further improve on this and are working with Durham University’s Computational Cosmology Department, to create automated valuation of bags and even facial recognition technology to assess condition and authenticity.

Generally speaking, our website has always been slightly ahead of the curve in the UK. We prioritise having clear, professional images, super zoom functions so bags can be assessed inch by inch online, and our phenomenal customer service team are always on hand remotely to answer those little questions customers may have once asked in store. We also offer a robust returns policy unlike a number of pre-owned retailers, so customers can shop with confidence. 

For the preowned resale side of the business, historically the split was around 50/50 until around 2019 when we saw the sales shift higher on our ecommerce platform. We’ve been fortunate to maintain and ever increase the sales volume for pre owned sales online throughout the pandemic. 

Restoration works slightly differently given the work is very bespoke so customers prefer to come in to store and speak with someone in person. People naturally feel much safer handing over their treasured bag to someone in store rather than a courier, so that human interaction is still incredibly important to this side of the business. That said, we have seen an increase in restorations coming to us via online bookings during the pandemic which shows that people are adapting. 

What’s next for Handbag Clinic?

As previously mentioned, within the imminent future, we are launching a sister concession in Fenwick’s Colchester store, which we are hugely excited for, and anticipate that we will continue to roll out in more Fenwick locations over the course of the year.

We are constantly striving to innovate and continue to invest in technology that will enable faster, more streamlined systems – so that we are ‘pandemic proof’ in the future. Whilst the core of our business relies on specialist hand-crafted skills we look forward to finalising our collaborative project with Durham University to further strengthen our authentication service. 

We are also looking at integrating a rental model into Handbag Clinic which has a natural synergy with our restoration service and capitalizes on the now booming sharing economy, where Gen Z and Millennials in particular, favour access above ownership. 

Because of the human interaction, physical stores on the high street are still hugely important to us. Our flagship Chelsea store is the heart of the business – we’ve adapted very well to the pandemic and it’s highlighted the importance of the online journey. We plan to continue to invest in improving and streamlining systems to ensure we can offer a digital service that parallels the bespoke, personalised and unique service offered in store. 

Check out Handbag Clinic’s brand new ecommerce store here.

Written by

Rebecca Lawson


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