A NEW VENUE IN NORTH WEST LONDON INGENIOUSLY COMBINES SHOPPING FOR NURSERY ITEMS, WITH BABY CLASSES AND SOCIALISING.
When Huggle founders Rachel and Jason Heller returned to the UK, they were looking forward to furnishing a nursery for their unborn daughter. “We’d been living and working in Canada when Rachel became pregnant, but we decided not to shop for baby things until we got back to the UK.” However, when the couple went shopping for baby things on the British high street, they were not impressed.
“We were really disappointed by the choice available to us, compared to what we’d seen in North America. And some of the larger multiple nursery retailers in the UK have a lot to learn about making shopping a pleasant experience for parents: not only could their staff do with some training, but how can you be expected to shop in a store when you can’t even push a buggy around? What hope do parents have if nursery retailers can’t even get that right?”
With experience in retail (Jason) and marketing (Rachel), the Hellers decided that they could do better themselves. However, they were determined to get everything exactly right, and it took them almost four years of hard work before the doors finally opened on their new shop in Swiss Cottage last October. “There have been so many challenges in that time that sometimes we both have to pinch ourselves to believe that it’s finally open. The most frustrating part was our aborted website launch last year, which was a very bitter pill to swallow, but we’d spent so long sourcing products and ensuring that the in-store customer experience would be a positive one that we weren’t prepared to compromise with our website.”
Jason and Rachel’s initial inspiration, having struggled themselves to find the things that they wanted in the UK, was to stock products that had not been previously available here; however, they also decided to stock some more familiar items. “We work with more than 150 suppliers from over 10 different countries, and we import products from around the world. Fifty percent of the products in our store are unique, or not easily available in the UK – our range is a mix of the unusual, and the best in different categories. We love modern, contemporary products, that are functional and will have a life after the kids grow up.”
Rachel and Jason now have two children, who, they feel, help them to understand the needs of other parents. “We have two little product testers that we work with every day – they continually inspire both of us, and ensure that we never stop thinking differently about how children put things to use.”
As well as differentiating themselves through the products that they sell, the couple’s vision was for somewhere that was more than just a place to shop. “Rachel had attended some fabulous classes locally with both our kids, but they were all held in old churches or community centres, where the floors were always dirty and the toilets never worked. She was adamant that she wanted a space which was kept clean and tidy, with natural daylight, so that parents could relax and enjoy the classes.”
As a result, Huggle incorporates both a lounge space, and an espresso bar. “We hold up to five classes a day, ranging from languages for toddlers, to Diddi Dance. We also have small toilets for the kids and nappy changing facilities. We hope that this offers something different for our customers.”
Although Rachel and Jason have had to work hard to open Huggle, they are managing to reap some of the benefits of working for themselves. “We love being our own boss – although Jason would say he still has one! The family life is still fitting around the business, at the moment, but we are able to be more flexible with our time, and we try to ensure that, although Jason spends most of his time in store, he still gets to spend time with the kids during the week.”
“School runs were difficult when we were both working for large companies and struggling to get away on time – now it’s a lot easier for one of us to take time out. Rachel spends a lot of her time working from home and that enables her to spend more time with our youngest child.”
“At the moment, our evenings are always spent working – with Rachel often working late in the night, and Jason making excuses not to! Working together as a married couple has its challenges, and we have to ensure that we don’t always take our work home, and spend all of our precious time with the kids talking about work related topics – which isn’t always easy.”
“Travel and holidays are our weaknesses – those, and time spent with the kids on Hampstead Heath, continue to keep us sane.”
The satisfaction of having created something that seems to be going well, must also be contributing to the Heller family happiness. “We’ve been genuinely taken aback by the response we’ve had to the store, and especially the classes, from the local community. We were determined to ensure that we offered our customers an environment where they could not only be confident that they would be able to push their buggy around the shop easily, and buy great products, but also where their children could happily play. Now we’re becoming a destination for customers wanting to do all their nursery shopping in one place.”
Huggle, 8-11 Winchester Road, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3NT
020 7483 2826
Photography taken by KJ Photographic