Welcome to our series of articles on retailers that are operating in ways that provide some interesting and valuable lessons to the wider industry.
Name: Whiskers & Cream
Location: Holloway Road, London
In a nutshell: Whiskers & Cream is one of only two cat cafes in London. By bringing experience-led retail to a previously unloved part of London, using pre-payment to ensure a secure income flow and introducing some elements of dynamic pricing at quieter times this business is future-proofing its high street self.
Whiskers & Cream proprietor Karen Allen fancied a change from her career in the NHS as a senior nurse service manager and she certainly got one when she decided to combine her love of baking with her love of cats and open a cat café in Holloway, north London.
Her aim was to set up a “calm, relaxed and very chic environment focusing on the quality of produce” which also happens to feature cats and she opened up last November on a site which had been empty for nearly two decades.
Having overcome the hurdle of managing to get a lease from landlords suspicious of any new leaseholder with no previous experience or portfolio, she finally found a unit which did not require much license change to be turned into a seated café.
This is only the second such establishment in London – there is currently another operating in Shoreditch with a further 14 spread out across the UK – but the idea originates from, and is most popular in, Japan. In fact, during Retail Insider’s visit several Japanese visitors arrived for their timed booking.
In terms of challenges the first thing Allen stresses are the amount of rules and regulations that need to be followed. In fact since October there has been an extra requirement to have a performing animals licence – more usually required for a circus – but reflecting the fact that the cats are integral to the entertainment factor.
Allen thinks the hoops are necessary for animal welfare but feels “they could put people off” and admits she initially thought her role would be hands-off management until she realised that a minimum of three people would spend several hours cleaning the premises every morning before the café even opened and that basic costs of running it would make her a presence on the shop floor a necessity.
The café is located on a busy street but in an area which is not known for tourists and visitors. Allen says she “cannot rely on local trade so needed to be near good transport links” as she is trying to pull people in to the café from all over London and abroad and if her location is seen as problematic they will not come.
As for the cats – it is a lot harder than you might imagine to recruit rescue cats as animal charities tend to be disapproving of donating cats where there is no outside space. In the end she got some of the cats from Gumtree where cats being offered for free often end up being claimed by people organising illegal dog fights.
The numbers of children are regulated although unlike some cat cafes they are definitely allowed. The key, according to Allen, is to “observe the usual social boundaries” – if you wouldn’t go and crouch down next to someone else’s table in a normal café, then don’t do it in this one either.
However, people have very different expectations of how much they will be interacting with the cats and this can occasionally be problematic. (For the record, guests are not supposed to pick them up or have them on the tables but stroking and playing are welcomed).
Having set up the enterprise she then had to sort out the pricing structure. Cat cafes can charge by the 5-minute, or have set times and prices with the option of adding refreshments, or inclusive deals. Allen eventually plumped for the latter – customers book in advance for a 90-minute slot which includes a drink. They are then free to add whatever they wish on top.
On Retail Insider’s visit most people did add a food item to their drink which is important when as Allen explains “20% of the £10 is VAT, then take the cost of the drink off, then cost of looking after cats and extra staff”.
At the premium end of the offer is afternoon tea at £25 per person, which Allen says is doing very well especially at weekends. This advance visibility of demand and therefore income can be crucial in a small place such as this because if only a few tables don’t show, within a normal reservation system, Allen could be working for free that day as she says “The fact that people pay in advance greatly cuts down on no-shows”.
But it also gives her a chance to attempt dynamic pricing. If people walking by want to try the café on the spur of the moment she is able to calculate because of the timed slots when a table will be free and next needed. She can then offer a reduced half hour slot with compulsory drink purchase, say, based on that information which helps her keep the café full as it needs to be.
In the future Allen may begin investigating the idea of pushing out offer notifications to her social media community on the days/times she knows she will be quiet.
But who are her customers? She is currently serving around 250 people a week but her initial pre-conceptions about ladies of a certain age being the mainstay have been wide of the mark. “I was so shocked – so many men come in. We get all ages and all types”.
Engaged staff help to sell the experience by telling customers about the cats and showing how to play with them and as Allen notes “every cat is someone’s favourite”. To tap into this she has begun to personalise the cats’ characters in sellable forms via cat pins and wants to expand the range to tote bags, tea towels and mugs so that she can foster the cat-loving community aspect of the operation which also brings people back to see their favourite feline. There is also a loyalty card in operation to encourage repeat visits.
In terms of further leveraging the unique aspects of her café – Allen is toying with the idea of themed events – Hallowe’en would seem to be a prime opportunity – and she cooked for an evening Valentine’s event this year that went well. The launch of a cat-focused book is on the horizon as is a beer-tasting with local brewery Hammerton whose beer she stocks.
No one would argue that there are plenty of upmarket cafes around with charming décor offering high quality local produce but by pairing all this with the added experiential element of the animals, Whiskers & Cream has hit on a potentially winning lesson for the high street.