“It’s been a lively Christmas period!” As we speak just narrowly before Christmas, with an extended gap between ‘black’ Friday and Christmas Day itself, Mark agrees that the run up to the festive season does feel longer this year than last.
The Bazaar Group is a family-run soft furnishings design, manufacture, and retail business. “It was my wife Jayne’s business before I got involved in it. She decided she wanted a big beanbag, but they were hundreds of pounds which was unrealistic for her.
“She decided she was going to make one – she’s that kind of person – her mum had done some pattern cutting in her time and her dad was a tradesman, so they got the sewing machine out of the loft and she bought some fabric and knocked herself up a beanbag.”
The first order came from her brother, who wanted one for himself, but his friends loved that one and wanted their own too, and it was suggested that she try selling them on eBay.
“Jayne is quite technical and was able to put those listings on herself, despite eBay listings being a more technical exercise than they are now.”
That day, there were 54 beanbags on eBay. Today? Over 30,000.
“That tells you how the internet has helped to develop products like this,” Mark adds. “They’d been forgotten about since the seventies because they’re so expensive to transport. A polystyrene ball is 98% air, but they take a lot of storing!”
An obvious, and valid point. And in the twenty-first century, when so many things were getting smaller, it was perhaps understandable that the value of the beanbag was in decline, in the eyes of profit-hungry retailers.
“How many iPhones could you get on a pallet, in the space it takes to ship a beanbag?”
Ten years ago, Jayne was making beanbags in her front room when she first met Mark, and they soon moved into a place that meant they could manufacture in their double garage and spare room in rural Northumberland.
“But it soon got to the point that it over-spilt any realistic understanding of our neighbours,” Mark adds, “and we went for our first commercial unit in Cramlington which was just 2,500 sq ft.
“We thought it would do us a few years, let us start our own website, but come the first Christmas we expanded out of the front door and six months later we were up to 15,000 sq ft!”
Though that move wasn’t without its stresses, as Mark was dealing with developers who’d been caught out in dealing with young businesses before – but some work in demonstrating their worth to the development company led them to eventually buying that unit, which they own today.
They’ve outgrown it again, though, and their present home is 40,000 sq ft. The market for the beanbag, in several iterations, is quite clearly buoyant; and, as Mark points out, only 15% of home furnishing sales take place online. There is a clear bent for the customer to want to feel, to touch, before they purchase.
“Jane and I have similar personal values,” he says, “and that’s why she tolerates me.” Mark’s formative career years were in M&S which, at that time, was still a family business renowned for looking after its workforce. “Very good people were attracted to that brand and they worked very hard,” he noted, “and we wanted to bring that culture into our small business.” Equally, as you’d expect, they’d seen businesses that they didn’t like – with politics, and various shenanigans that got in the way of them doing business.
So they work hard to attract people who share their core values: "Work hard for us, and we’ll work hard to be as decent and fair an employer to you as we can be. And we’ll invest in you, even though we know one day you might want to move on!”
And that investment still pays off, as staff stick around and take on more seniority in the business – becoming beanbag experts in their own rights.
Their recent achievement of IIP accreditation is not one to be taken lightly, shared by only five other manufacturers of equal size in all of Northern England.
Mark credits Bazaar Group’s head of HR, Toni Madine, with working hardest of all to come up with some ‘best of breed’ policies to really push the company to achieve everyting they could in their leadership framework. IIP, in this business, is used as a ‘carrot’ and not as a ‘stick’ – done with positivity, candour and diplomacy.
“We’ve worked really hard to get this accolade, and we’re really proud of it,” he says, but it’s not ‘job done’ – it’s an ongoing process and they’re not done, yet.
For the Bazaar Group, IIP accreditation is something that carries value as a tool to aid with recruitment and selection, but also when it comes to the business’ position in supply chains.
And with a focus on moving into retailer’s supply chains in 2017, allowing access to the remaining 85% of the market who prefer to buy in person, the dividends to be paid by this investment might not even have started… yet.