Claire Harper has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
During a high-flying career in sales and marketing, she was helped take a number of major businesses to “the next level” of their development.
Now she’s continuing the trend with her own online children’s clothing and gifts retailer, IndiaCoco. The company, named after Claire’s daughters, Coco and India, was launched just a year ago and operates from the dining room at the family’s Kirkburton home.
But it has already won a WOW Award from Knickerbox and Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold, has been nominated for a regional business award, has expanded into “bricks and mortar” retailing and is building up a loyal customer base at home and overseas.
Claire, 39, left her job as marketing director at Colnebridge-based nursery products firm Mamas & Papas to set up the business, which offers British-made high quality and great value clothes for children aged up to eight.
Claire joined Mamas & Papas with a CV that any go-ahead executive would envy – having worked in senior positions for national retailer Argos, John Lewis Partnership’s fledgling online grocery business Ocado and supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.
She left Mamas & Papas after five hectic years of helping take the business onto the world stage to spend more time with her children. And after talking things over with husband Lee Williams, who has his own career at Morrisons, decided that running an online business would give her the best of both worlds.
“The catalyst was having our second daughter,” says Claire. “With one child, I could devote time to the job at Mamas & Papas, although it was far from being a nine-to-five job. With two children, I couldn’t keep it going. I was travelling a lot as Mamas & Papas developed internationally – on the plane to America and Europe. I needed things to change.
“It is hard for a working mum with two young children to be travelling a lot and putting in long hours. I didn’t want a nanny bringing up my children and driving them to school. I wanted to be there for my kids. With IndiaCoco, I have the flexibility to take my oldest daughter to school and be around for my youngest daughter during the day.”
She admits: “There are still not enough hours in the day! But I have never looked back.
“I am so excited by the opportunity of growing the brand and growing into international markets, which has taken me by surprise! The customer base is growing, customers are coming back and recommending us to others.”
While being predominantly online, IndiaCoco sells some of its products at the gift shop at Blacker Hall Farm Shop, Calder Grove, near Wakefield.
Claire says: “The farm is a family business and we have very similar values around customer service. I just approached them and suggested there was an opportunity to introduce our gift lines into the shop.”
Claire, who hails from Southampton, gained a degree in business studies with marketing and French at Southampton University before joining the graduate scheme at Argos.
“The company was at the forefront of web-based retailing,” she recalls. “They set up ‘click and collect’ and ‘ring and reserve’ and at that time they were leading the way. As a young graduate, what they were doing inspired me. I was learning from the ground up. I used to put my hand up and volunteer to do everything – working in-store, going out in the vans to do deliveries and working in the warehouse to understand how the business operated.”
After five years, during which time Claire also assumed a number of marketing roles, she was approached by Ocado – at the height of the dotcom boom – to help develop the new online shopping venture for John Lewis Partnership and its Waitrose grocery arm.
“My role was to go from postcode to postcode across north London, put flyers through letterboxes, carry out interviews on the doorstep and try to change people’s shopping habits of a lifetime,” she says. “On Friday nights I was still in the warehouse packing people’s orders to make sure they got out. It was hard work.”
Claire says her experience in retailing taught her the importance of “surprising and delighting” the customer.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of product you are in,” she says. “There are basic principals that apply.”
Another five years later, Claire was head-hunted by rival retailer Sainsbury’s to work under newly-appointed chief Justin King.
“It was a fun time,” she says. “Sainsbury’s had been at the top, but it had slumped and Justin King was called in to get the business back to basics. He got a great team of people in, people who understood the customer and got the brand back where it should be.
“To be part of that and to do basic things well, to increase customer numbers and to take on Tesco was a fantastic experience for me. Most of the time, I was part of their online team and became head of marketing for online. I was based at head office only half the week because I was encouraged to go into the stores, put my orange fleece on and meet the customers, get into the stockroom and get back to the shopfloor.”
Claire became Mamas & Papas’ first-ever marketing director after moving north with Lee after he was offered a position as divisional marketing director for Bradford-based Morrisons. She played a key role in the expansion of the family firm into an international brand and after leaving remains on good terms with founders Luisa and David Scacchetti.
“I have worked with so many amazing people and companies going through a lot of change,” says Claire. “It has inspired me to build on that experience. There’s nothing like running your own business and having that experience has helped me enormously in marketing and establishing the brand.”
Claire says: “There are a lot of online businesses, but they aren’t all doing it well. To succeed online you have to make sure your website and brand are strong. You are only one click away from the competition and your site has to work properly time and time again. It is tough out there, so you really have to understand the customer. If they are going to shop with you, they have to know they are going to get a great product.
“They have only so much disposable income. There isn’t room in the economy for spontaneous purchasing. Customers are more demanding and their expectations are high.”
Says Claire: “I was under no illusions that running the business was going to be an easy ride. But I enjoy a big challenge!”