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The award-winning journey to the perfect fit

Sarah Connelly used her long experience in lingerie and her “superpower” understanding of fit to launch Drapers Niche Fashion Retailer of the Year Odyssey Boutique.

Award-winning independent lingerie retailer Odyssey Boutique is located on a picturesque cobbled street in Edinburgh’s West End. The 200 sq ft William Street store attracts shoppers with its brightly coloured lingerie and girlishly fuchsia-pink walls, making it stand out on the Scottish high street. Upon walking through its doors, customers are greeted by enthusiastic owner Sarah Connelly and her playful dalmatian dog Thompson.

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“I visit department stores to see what they have and what is available. And then I come into Odyssey, and am confronted by colour, shape, fun and variety,” says Connelly. “And that’s what I want to do. I want to bring things to life in a different way.”

Connelly’s desire do something different, her dedication to customer service, and her belief in the potential of bricks-and-mortar retail have seen her through difficult decisions and frustrations with suppliers, and are behind her determination to take Odyssey beyond its Edinburgh base.

Odyssey opened in August 2010 at the height of the recession, offering lingerie and swimwear in B to F cups. It also offered beauty treatments such as waxing and tanning. After five years of planning and with a total of £65,000 – borrowed from family and the bank, and an investment for a 29% share from a friend – Connelly launched the store.

Odyssey sells lingerie, swimwear, loungewear and accessories. Bra and knicker sets range from £80 to £800 for luxury lines, and the 20 brands on offer include Mimi Holliday, Panache and Stella McCartney. The sales mix is 73% lingerie, 14% swimwear, 10% loungewear and 3% accessories.

The shopping experience Sarah offers her customers is second to none.

Jennie Lodge, Fleur of England

The bestselling lingerie brand is Simone Pérèle, whose basic bra and knicker set retailing for £117, followed by Fleur of England, which it has stocked since the store opened. Vix is the store’s bestselling swimwear label.

“We love Odyssey Boutique and everything that it stands for,” says Jennie Lodge, product development and wholesale executive at Fleur of England. “The shopping experience Sarah offers her customers is second to none. [She] is hard-working, friendly, motivated and really cares about her customer and their needs. She is very knowledgeable when it comes to fit and has learnt exactly what her customer needs. We love that fact that Sarah has developed her demand for lingerie-fitting services – something you cannot find on the high street.”

Sales of lingerie and swimwear increased 3% year on year for the year to 31 March 2018. Average sale value was up by 47% year on year to £236 in the three months to 30 June 2018. However, total turnover fell from £151,000 in 2016/17 to £104,200 in 2017/18. This was the result of the tough business decision to stop offering beauty treatments in January 2017, because of high staff turnover and management stresses. Connelly now runs the store alone.

“It was a gigantic leap of faith in myself to retire beauty – to trust in myself that I could push lingerie sales forward and maintain overheads. It is extremely frustrating that I am eight years in but still in that start-up phase because I am restarting to focus on my priorities and what I’m passionate about.”

Odyssey Boutique doesn’t have a transactional website. Its online presence offers fit information, advice and directs visitors to make fitting appointments, and Connelly has no plans to add a transactional element.

“I see online and bricks-and-mortar commerce as two completely different entities,” she says. “I see so many independent retailers that struggle financially by investing too much in their website and pushing their online sales. When you’re online, the whole world is your competitor. With bricks and mortar, you are more niche, but it’s tough as you have to fight to stand out and attract customers. As long as you are true to your own vision and offer your customers a real experience, I think there is a strong future in bricks and mortar.”

Connelly believes buying selectively from brands works best for her, but as a growing business, she has struggled with changing trading conditions in a difficult retail climate, as certain brands implement large minimum orders.

“Last year some brands changed their trading terms and conditions and that impacted me significantly,” she says. “It was frustrating because they accounted for a big chunk of my turnover. Even though I put forward a strong business case with evidence that such [minimums and] high spends would result in unsold stock – which is not good for the brand or my business – the brands were evidently, and very sadly, not interested in negotiating.”

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Connelly displays only a selection of her stock

As a result, Connelly is due to introduce new brands over the next two seasons, including Romania’s Jolidon and British lingerie brand Coco de Mer for autumn 18, and swimwear brands such as Emma Pake, Lenny Niemeyer and Alexandra Miro for spring 19. Connelly finds new brands from trade shows such as Paris sur Mode, Splash Paris and Salon International de la Lingerie, frequent visits to London for more independent shows, including Dessous London and The Lingerie Collective.

The ethos behind Odyssey is to take the pain and frustration out of ill-fitting bras and awkward fitting experiences. Connelly launched a members’ club, called “O”, in February 2016 to provide an even more personalised service for lingerie shopping and styling. The by-appointment service was initially introduced to top clients, but Connelly has now opened it to all customers, officially rolling it out in its current form in January this year.

Customers are invited to one-to-one appointments over a glass of champagne. Connelly handpicks a selection in advance and offers seasonal trend previews and a pre-order service, as well as access to “meet the designer” events and collections not available at the boutique. These are available for individuals, pairs or larger groups.

“People feed back to me that the experience is really fun because a lot of people do feel apprehensive, especially when undressing in front of a stranger. I’ve personally had bad experiences and I don’t want anyone to feel like that here. For these appointments, the door to the store is locked to ensure that there are no interruptions when I’m in the fitting room with someone. It is only me, you and anyone that you invite.”

Connelly learnt to fit at lingerie chain Boudiche, where she worked from 2005 to 2008 as boutique manager. (The business closed its Edinburgh and Glasgow stores in June 2010.) She also worked in the lingerie department of Harvey Nichols’ Edinburgh store from 2008 to 2009.

Fitting is my superpower … As soon as someone tells me what size they are wearing, I will know if that is right or wrong.

Sarah Connelly

Connelly maintains that she does not use a tape measure, as she does not need one. Instead, she has the experience to evaluate and size without. She understands the nuances behind finding a perfectly comfortable bra and making the experience fun and relaxed is her USP.

“Fitting is my superpower. I learnt how to fit so I am now able to look at where the breast tissue sits and how the band should feel, and I adjust accordingly,” says Connelly. “From there it came with practice. Now, as soon as someone tells me what size they are wearing, I will know if that is right or wrong. Nine times out of ten, I’m right.”

Within the store, Connelly decided to not keep a large amount of stock on display. Instead, she prefers to speak with clients during lingerie-fitting appointments and bring out potential options so that customers can decide what items they want.

“Purposely, not all stock is shown on the shop floor, so it really is a case of come into the shop, get fitted and I’ll bring the best pieces for you,” she says. “It might be that they try everything in that size. Or it might be that we really nail what they might be looking for. People are not always comfortable to say what they are looking for, so it is nice to experiment with them.”

Another big decision for Connelly was her choice to focus on a certain size range — size B to F cups: “Having been on the ground with [former store] Boudiche and the wide size offering, I learnt from their mistakes and decided that I did not want to do that. I have set my [size] guidelines and I stick to that. Customers can sometimes be a bit upset if you don’t have their style or what they are looking for, but being strong in yourself and true to your vision is really important, otherwise you can get into trouble.”

At one point there were many lingerie retailers in Edinburgh. However, there are now two Independents in the city: Odyssey Boutique and Bravado, which offers practical, structured styles for the F+ cup.

“Because of our different retail propositions, we have a really nice crossover, so we can send customers backwards and forwards depending on what they are looking for, which is really helpful because people can get a bit frustrated when they realise you don’t offer their size or fit,” says Connelly.

Bravado owner Sarah Rollins says: “Sarah’s boutique offers the lingerie buyer another set of options. Sarah is award winning because she offers an extraordinary experience – and coming from a lingerie background, I knew that she would be a success. Any recognition of small businesses bucking the trend and providing exceptional service is a positive influence on the lingerie industry. We all need to keep our heads down and stick to what we are good at. Competition is good for business and creates public awareness. Anything that gets the public to stop and think goes a long way.”

Odyssey Boutique won Niche Fashion Retailer of the Year in 2017 at the Drapers Independent Awards, as well as being shortlisted for Best Customer Experience. Of her win, Connelly says “it blew [her] mind”.

Sarah herself is key to the success of the store.

Drapers Independents Awards judge Sarah Murray

One of the award judges, Sarah Murray, owner of Edinburgh-based independent Jane Davidson, says she was very impressed by Connelly’s commitment to service, curated product offer and character.

“Odyssey is a very special boutique. Sarah takes personal service to another level and curates a gorgeous mix of niche and known brands. Sarah herself is key to the success of the store. Rumour has it she can find your exact bra size without a tape measure. Everything about the store, from the gorgeous dalmatian dog who greets you on arrival, is a fabulous experience.

“The business rests very much on Sarah’s shoulders and I was impressed that she is able to maintain such a great level of customer care and continue to source new labels. She really eats, sleeps and breathes the business.”

This year, Connelly was part of the judging panel for the Drapers Independents Awards 2018.

She says that being part of the judging process made her feel more grateful and honoured for her own win the previous year: “I read the criteria and submissions this year and just thought, how do I measure up to these people? It took me a couple of days to get my head around the fact that I had won and so was in the right place. It made my award all the more incredible because I now know how difficult it is to become a finalist and how cutthroat the judging process is.”

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Odyssey Boutique

Connelly’s lease at the William Street store ends next year, and she has decided to relocate the business: “I will definitely stay in Edinburgh, but when my lease comes up I want somewhere that is a better space for my service and is more economical to allow me to reap what I sow.

“In 2023 or sooner – ideally, I want to be completely debt-free, so that the business is 100% owned by me. Also, Edinburgh is such a transient city, so I have a lot of international clients. I would like to operate pop-ups in London or abroad. That would fulfil my odyssey, my love of travel and give me the chance to do something fun and a bit different.”

A pop-up store in Geneva is currently in the planning stages.

The struggles facing retail are acute, but Connelly’s passion is clear. Her approach shows that independents that follow their own path and make tough yet business-focused decisions can thrive. Her determination to upscale her exceptional levels of personal service will give Odyssey the future she desires.

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