After just six months trading, ethical supermarket hiSbe (How It Should Be) is going from strength to strength. Already championed by ethical retailing legend and Body Shop founder Gordon Roddick, the London Road business was named one of the Top Five retailers in the Observer’s Ethical Awards. To find out more, BN1’s Gary Marlowe sat down with founders Ruth and Amy Anslow.
You opened hiSbe in December 2013, six months in, what are you most happy about?
We’re happy that we’re here! It was a long, long time in the planning, far longer than we anticipated. We were overly optimistic. We thought it would be a year, but it took almost three!
You chose one of the most complex businesses to get into, why?
When we first started batting ideas around it was about creating a business that stood for doing good. We knew how food retail works. We knew how it’s driven by short-term profit and then when you factor in things like obesity issues, animal welfare issues, all of which are side effects of the way the food industry is and we thought we wanted to do something about it. You could say we started hiSbe because we were pissed off with Tesco!
Presumably, before you opened, you did a lot of research. Was there a role model you were looking to emulate?
We’ve been inspired by lots of different independent businesses, although there wasn’t any particular food retail model that we were trying to emulate. It was more about taking bits from some and creating something new. All the big supermarkets are actually quite old-fashioned, they’re based on a pile it high, sell it cheap mentality, where it’s all about cheap labour and cheap food production. But they’re not addressing the big issues we’re facing today around sustainability and eco trading.
One of your investors is Gordon Roddick, one of the pioneers of ethical retailing. How did he get involved and how else has he helped the business?
Whilst he isn’t our biggest investor, Gordon is certainly our most important one. We had been wanting to get a meeting with him for a long time, but nowadays he only invests in things he’s interested in. In August last year he invited us to meet him. We then spent months jumping through hoops to satisfy him on our business model and our projections. We were a couple of weeks away from opening with a shortfall of £20,000 and it was at that point that he said he was satisfied and invested in us. And it wasn’t a loan, he just wanted to help us make it happen.
And what advice has he given you?
Loads! He’s been a brilliant mentor. He always wants to see our monthly figures and he pops in every other week for a coffee and a chat. Gordon’s involvement was a massive validation for our business model and the boost we needed to get the store open and get the publicity his involvement inevitably brings.
You chose a site that many would have said was a brave location, but it seems you’re not the only ones helping to change peoples’ perceptions of London Road. Had you always believed in the area?
Yes, it did split opinion, but we were absolutely certain this is where we wanted to be. Although we’re not originally from Brighton, we’ve lived here since 2010 and we’d done the research. While the naysayers were saying London Road is run-down, we knew what was coming. And things have changed pretty quickly. I think us, and the other new businesses that are springing up round here have created a different kind of vibe now.
You’re very active on Twitter. You use it both to promote the business and specifically to attract people to visit the store. Was embracing social media always part of the plan?
Absolutely. The store would never have happened without Twitter! If Twitter didn’t exist, hiSbe wouldn’t exist. To take an idea from nothing, to having to raise £200,000, we had to earn peoples’ trust, we had to become a credible voice within ethical food, and become a credible presence within Brighton. We used Twitter to establish that voice and the hiSbe brand and then to raise the money. Now we use it to talk to our customers.
How do you define local? Is it a producer in Sussex or is it based on distance from the shop?
It’s both. For us, it’s either a 30-mile radius or within the county and we’re lucky because Brighton is in the middle of two counties. Our meats all come from within 21 miles of here, so we’re extremely local.
So, is there anything you’ve stocked that just doesn’t shift?
I don’t think there is. We can’t afford the space to hold products that don’t sell. There are some we discontinued because they didn’t shift as fast as others, but everything we’ve ever stocked has always sold. On the flip side, one area we hadn’t expected to go so well, but absolutely flew off the shelves, was game. We had no idea people would be so interested in it. Our customers loved the fact they could afford to try wild boar or buy locally sourced venison burgers.
Your philosophy is placing happiness before profits. In this day and age, is that really a sustainable business model?
Absolutely. We believe it is. We believe that you need to start considering the people in the supply chain, the animal welfare, the farmers that are working every day to produce our food, the harmony of the planet and what intensive farming is doing to it. Every business is really about people and you need to have people involved in the business who share an interest in doing things right and making the situation the best it can be.
But you still need to make a profit to sustain it…
We think the sustainability angle of our business, our values and our sourcing policies are the right way to go. For example, is it right that three dairy farmers go out of business every day in this country because they’re forced to sell their milk below cost? That simply isn’t the way it should be. Wherever you are in the chain, you should be able to sell your product for what it’s worth.
You call this your pilot store, when we will see you opening elsewhere?
This has always been about testing the concept, making sure our figures added up and our projections were sound. We also needed to get the range right. Once we had got it how it should be, the intention has always been to open more stores and now we’re planning our second store, which will be in Hove.
The challenge surely will come once you move beyond Brighton & Hove. There’s only two of you. How will that work?
By the time we start really growing, we’ll probably have some kind of franchising model in place. Of course, it’s an added layer of complexity as we’re a social enterprise, but I’m sure it’s something Gordon can help us with!
hiSbe is at 20-21 York Place,
Tel: 01273 608028
By Gary Marlowe
Photos © by Images Out Of The Ordinary