Retail Species – the newcomer

The Person: Helen Keenan

The Company: Little Punk London

The Job Title:  Founder

The Story:Keenan is not a career retailer. Until last year she worked for BoJo [that’s Boris Johnson – for non-Londoners] at the Greater London Authority with a budget of £35 million and a team of 60. Before that she was a Director at the London Development Agency getting big failing projects back on track. More used to advising politicians on supporting start-ups than actually selling to the great British public herself. But now she is seeing the retail world from the other side of the table and as it happens there are just a few things she would just like to bend David Cameron’s ear about. Starting with…

Well, that change around didn’t take long. But firstly what brought her to retail? One stubborn three-year old. One frustrated parent. Or is that one frustrated three-year old and one stubborn parent. Either way she noticed that getting children dressed in the morning presented something of a problem to some parents, so she decided to ride to the rescue with Little Punk London.

Does it involve safety pins? No. That would be cruel.

Strange hairstyles?Nope. But it does involve producing T-shirts with detachable characters (at the moment the range consists of letters and animals) which the children stick on for themselves and rearrange as they like thereby taking their mind off the horrible fact that they are being dressed.

Nifty. Her own idea? Indeed. Keenan realised that there is not a child alive who does not like stickers and so she put two and two together. In February 2012 she set up the company and by June she had done the obligatory peer research at the toddler group and bingo!

Going well?The range is only available online at the moment but the 2012 Christmas themed T-shirts and characters sold out which is impressive as this product definitely comes under the ‘luxury not necessity’ label. T-shirts and stick on characters together will set you back around £26. And it’s definitely relations buying them as gifts who are the main customers at the moment, along with mums. But it took a long time to find anyone who would do some test digital embroidery manufacturing without a definite order (first retailing gripe).

So what next? A new range in Spring 2013 with cupcakes and fairies for the girls and bugs and dinosaurs for the boys and of course the next retail challenge which is to turn it into a wholesale product after battling to get the price down to a wholesale level. (another retailing gripe). She hopes to sell through and soon and then, big deep breath, on to the much maligned, much focus-grouped, and much fretted over high street.

Aha. Then the transformation to retailer will be complete: Hang on, the jury is out on whether she will open her own shops but Keenan definitely wants a premier department store – think Selfridges, Liberty, but not Harrods as she is after a strong UK customer base – to stock Little Punk London. Thereafter a string of selected independents will also be approached and the range expanded from T-shirts to the whole wardrobe. In the years to come New York is the next major location and thereafter Keenan will take it eastwards.

Ah, I knew the Lakeside at Thurrock would feature eventually: I mean China.

Right. And her prognosis for the high street? Well, one thing she learned in her previous incarnation is that regeneration has to respond to what people want. Shops with the wrong offering will go as part of natural selection, and the high street may well look very different but she is not too pessimistic about its future. This is more than can be said about the effect of British psychology on business.

Pardon?Keenan studied psychology and in all seriousness would love a university department to study what she calls the cultural negativity of the British compared to other countries. She has been very surprised to find how hard it is and even with her experience in big budget problem solving has been confounded by hurdles again and again, not just red tape which brings us back to the PM’s listening ears.

OK, give me the two most important things that could be done: Firstly there is a huge issue with retailers and finance. You used to be able to borrow money from your bank for prototyping products, not any longer. The flow through is not working.

Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions: Answer – a government-backed investment bank for small business and retailers.

Next? Creating awareness of new ventures. She cites Theo Paphitis and his Small Business Sunday Twitter idea where he chooses six of his favourite ventures and retweets them to the world. The government should do similar. In fact they could go further and set up a version of Not On The High Street as a publicly funded (“it would cost peanuts”) shop window for tiny businesses.

Well I know he reads this column so fingers crossed on that: There’s a free T-shirt for Florence in it.