The feel-good factor

Hot Tomato Director, Alex Machin, sees challenges as a learning curve, and has built a successful and thriving business offering guilt-free, affordable products

gold and diamante brooches When did you start up and why? We started trading in a very modest way in 2007. I was working as an agent at the time we set up the company and ran both businesses in tandem for the first few years. Our first range consisted of one style of silk scarf in 24 colours from Vietnam – I sold them out of the boot of my car as I travelled around seeing my customers – those were the days!

What prompted you to launch the business? I loved 'agent life' and had some great agencies and amazing customers but my creative side was not fulfilled, and I felt I needed to address this by doing something for myself. I had previously worked as a designer/buyer for a wholesale giftware company, and the idea of doing my own thing didn't really phase me – it was a path I'd trodden well before, the difference being that this time I was risking my own money!

stack of heart shaped jewellery boxes What challenges have you overcome since the company's launch? We chose to grow organically – buy a bit, sell that, buy a bit more etc. Long term that has proved to be our strength and has provided solid foundations for the business.

The early days were very much hand to mouth and sometimes we were operating on vapours. We have to pay for everything up-front, before it leaves the country of origin and there can be several weeks (sometimes months) before we launch, so it can be a long time before we recoup any money for all our efforts – all this plays havoc with cashflow, especially in those early days.

Working as an agent while establishing my own brand was demanding and I was stretched – thankfully all my agencies were supportive of me and encouraging which was a blessing.

I think COVID challenged us all – it turned so much on its head but ever the optimist I would say it accelerated new ways of buying and shopping that have benefited us all. In truth I don't really see challenges as such, I see opportunity and new experiences – every day is a learning curve!

Tell us about your product offering. Primarily, our products offer customers that feel-good factor without breaking the bank. We're about affordable fashion accessories from textiles through to all categories of jewellery. We also help combine a couple of significant bases for our customers in that we offer a guilt-free self-purchase – as a result of our pricing strategy as well as a desirable and affordable gift.

What are your most popular products? As you might expect in fashion what's hot and not tends to ebb and flow, currently we are seeing a marked resurgence in textiles, especially for the new Autumn/ Winter collection. I love textiles and studied fabric and textile design at college – scarves are what we started Hot Tomato with and traded in exclusively for the first couple of years. Since then we have diversified into all manner of fashion accessories – latterly earrings have been hugely popular – but ask me in twelve months and it could well be something else!

Have any styles taken you by surprise with their popularity? It seems we can sell sparkle all year round these days, it no longer appears to be the preserve of Christmas and the party season. Also, we are braver (as a nation) with colour which is very exciting – historically the UK colour palette has consisted of the cooler and more neutral colours but we appear to be kicking off those shackles and having some fun!

three different coloured and printed scarves

three hand stands with gloves on How do you keep your designs fresh and current? Do you follow trends? Yes, I'm always looking at forecasts, colours and trends but that needs to be tempered with some caution because you can be too early and that's just as frustrating as getting it completely wrong. I've always been aware of up and coming trends from interiors through to fashion and vice versa – in my experience they inextricably linked and influence each other.

We also have strong relationships with our suppliers – most of whom we have been with since the early days. The longevity of our relationship means they are happy to follow our design briefs, safe in the knowledge that it's an investment from their side that will bear fruit.

What sets you apart from your competitors? I think you'd have to ask our customers – we like to set ourselves apart at trade shows and take pride in how we display and present ranges. We also like to 'share the love' when it comes to all the props, bits and bobs we use and we're always happy to reveal our sources. My theory is if your store looks amazing, your customers will literally buy into it and you'll sell more – win, win!

How are you finding the current climate in the UK? Is it affecting business? My most favourite expression is that I feel we're getting our fair share – this is a wonderful industry and there genuinely is room for us all. It's so easy to be swayed by all the doom and gloom out there – undoubtedly times are harder at the moment but we had a bumper year last year and are currently ahead of that. My advice would be that while we can't ignore the facts, don't get sucked down that bleak rabbit hole peddled by the media. In tough times we all have to work harder and dig deeper – there's a vast reservoir of talent in the independent sector – we can do this!

three items of sparkle jewellery in a row

three coloured diamante hair clips How do you view the future of independent retail? My own feeling is that recent, dramatic changes to the face of our High Street, while devastating for those that worked there, have proved beneficial for the Independents. Generally, the indies can turn on a sixpence if necessary and being able to react swiftly to an ever-changing environment is key. As a company we have certainly grown within the gap that has been created by the High Street fall-out. We are also in a sector that is, by its very nature tactile – I think most of what our customers offer falls into this category, back that up with good customer service at the coal-face and I believe we will all continue to thrive.

Are you active on social media? How is this important for the business? No, not anymore – we did have a Facebook representation, but we didn't manage it on a regular basis and in my opinion that's worse than not being represented at all. We trade business to business and choose not to deal direct – this is important to us, it helps support our life-blood which is the independent sector. At our core is the belief that our customers helped us build this business, we couldn't have done it without them, why would we then set up in competition with them? We do keep in touch with our customers through e-shots but we don't like to bombard them and only connect when we have something to say / shout about – a new launch or a trade show for example.

Do you have any advice for new businesses starting out in the world of gifts? Don't be impatient, not to run before you can walk and be nice to people. This industry is built on relationships – it's a friendly, non-corporate space where how you treat people counts. Build your reputation alongside your business – it will stand you in good stead.

What can we expect in the future from the company? All the usual launches will continue – keeping us as fresh and interesting as ever. I do confess that I am always having ideas – it's actually amazing that we've not branched out beyond our fashion accessory remit before, certainly, latterly I have felt the urge to explore new categories with a view to adding them to our offering. As you can probably guess my ideas aren't fully formed as yet so I will keep them under my hat for now but watch this space!

T: +44 (0)1225 422 188

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