The art of gifting
Gift shop Alligator Pear has long been delighting customers with its range of products. Owner Maggie Thornton reveals the secret of her success…
Alligator Pear has a seriously loyal customer base – if you live in and around Tadworth, no doubt you will have either browsed its well-stocked store or been lucky to have received a present from its diverse range of inspiring gifts – from kids’ toys to scented candles.
And, having just won The Great Gifts Retailer Award 2018 for the third time, founder and owner Maggie Thornton is over the moon that her and her team’s endeavours have been recognised once again. But with success comes hard work and Maggie openly admits that since the shop’s conception, it has been a 24/7 job.
“It was hard managing the business with family time when I first started, but it helped that the children were older,” Maggie explains. “Now, 20 years on, I’m balancing the business with the grandchildren instead! But somehow I manage to make it all work. It was lonely at times, though, because you know all the responsibility lies with you. Although I have more help now [a team of 11 staff] that doesn’t change…”
Does Maggie think that Alligator Pear bucks the trend, when so many high street shops are struggling and closing down?
“I think there is still a place for people who like the experience of shopping. Because you can park reasonably easily outside, customers can do a fairly quick buy here and we present the products in a way that’s easy to shop,” she says. “It is also pivotal we have friendly staff that put themselves out for the customers. The other day someone came in looking for a mug with ‘Best Teacher in Walton-on-the-Hill’, so I went out and sourced one. A personal service is so important.”
Maggie also believes that the key to the store’s ongoing success is being able to identify what customers like to purchase.
“The challenge for me is defining our customers and buying for them, and I’m able to buy not necessarily stuff that I like for myself, but things that I would like to get for other people. And there is a big difference in that,” smiles Maggie. “A lot of people tell me they love the shop and that they can always find something reasonably priced. And I think that’s the key.”
With exciting future plans including a possible expansion, and developing Alligator Pear’s own range of products, Maggie shows no signs of slowing down, even though she acknowledges that all her years at buying fairs has taught her some important lessons.
“When we started out going to the buying fairs it was exciting and we liked to look the part with our high heels and jackets. Now, the best outfit is elasticated waists – to allow for four days of hotel breakfasts – and trainers for the marathon walk round the aircraft hangers,” she laughs. “The agents and reps always chuckle at me charging down the aisles with the team trying to keep up with me. I’m a bit like a mother hen with her chicks!”
After years in retail, has she got any advice for young entrepreneurs who want to set up their own business in such a challenging market?
“My husband always used to say: “Stop trying to make everything perfect,” but I think all successful businesses are based on passion. You have to give it your all. If I knew then what I know now I would still do it. But you can’t underestimate how much time it takes to get a business off the ground. It was extremely challenging building a business tucked away in a village with no passing trade,” she reveals. “But I still love it. All these years later I still get the same surge of excitement as I enter the doors of the Grand Hall at the NEC for a trade fair. Even though I now stagger out more than bounce out, when my time comes to say goodbye, I’m going to miss it so much. But I hope that’s not for a long while yet.”