Bellissima Weddings: Growing a successful bridal boutique
Bellissima Weddings is a thriving bridal boutique in Essex, founded by husband and wife team Laura and Michael Daly. With support from Funding Circle, they have grown their award-winning business to employ 14 staff over the past 18 years. In this case study, Laura shares how her business came about, her top tips for staying relevant to your customers and how she overcame some of her biggest challenges.
Before founding Bellissima Weddings, Laura lived in Italy and spent her time as a dancer and fashion model. Having worked for an Italian bridal company, Laura was accustomed to being fitted and pinned into bridal gowns. With first-hand experience, Laura understood the creative process behind wedding dresses and began to expand her knowledge of the bridal fashion world. She had an immediate aptitude for it. After moving back home, Laura saw a niche in the UK bridal market. She felt that the existing bridal retailing industry was stuck in 1980 and appeared old-fashioned and stuffy. Laura would walk into bridal shops and think to herself “this isn’t right!”. That’s when she knew she wanted to do something about it and start her own bridal boutique to give brides a better experience.
Bellissima set out to deliver a more modern approach with unbeatable customer service. This is what won Bellissima Weddings their first customers. Brides would say, “I don’t know what I’m buying but I’m buying it from here” and that’s when Bellissima knew they had got it right.
In 2001, Laura and her husband opened Bellissima Weddings as a joint venture. At the time, Laura’s husband was working in a full-time job as a policeman, so it was just Laura on the shop floor. In the first year, they couldn’t cope with the amount of business they were generating. They had people queuing outside the door and queuing to try on gowns in the bathroom! To keep up with demand, they took on another member of staff. In 2002, Michael decided to go part-time as a policeman because keeping on top of Bellissima’s books was demanding more and more of his time; one year later he took a career break to work at Bellissima full time to keep up with their exponential growth — he never went back!
How they grew
Although Laura is the face of the business, Bellissima Weddings bridal boutique wouldn’t be where it is today without the hard work of both Michael and Laura, “we’re the yin and yang” says Laura. The business was doubling sales each year so, in 2003, they moved into a bigger 3,000 square foot shop where the boutique remains today. Bellissima now employs 14 people. Laura’s attitude to her staff is very much that they contribute as much, and are as vital to Bellissima’s success, as her and Michael.
“It’s not a question of us and them. Everyone works for the business and we all feed the monster every day. We all work for the one big name that is Bellissima.” Laura Daly.
Laura’s business highlights
- Winning the top two industry awards — the Oscars of the bridal world – ‘Bridal Buyer Award’ in 2010, voted by their peers, and ‘Wedding Industry Award’ in 2017, voted by customers.
- In 2011, Laura was voted Essex Business Woman of the Year.
- Laura was the chair of the Retail Bridalwear Association but stood down because it compromised running her business. She is now vice chair.
- Laura writes a monthly column in Wedding Trader. She uses the platform to voice the retailer point of view to suppliers.
- Bellissima being presented to Princess Anne when she visited one of their suppliers as a top account, a few years ago.
Challenges of running a bridal boutique
- Cash flow: Keeping it healthy is a rocky road. In the first few years, Laura and Michael found it almost impossible to do any projections, so learning to forecast effectively has been a challenge.
- Carving out a niche in a crowded market: Bellissima had to reinvent the wheel to make themselves different. This is a constant challenge for the brand and Bellissima have annual meetings to discuss how they can improve to keep their customers happy. “The challenge is making our shop look familiar without being the same as everyone else.” – Laura Daly
- Finding the right staff: To work in the bridal industry, you have to be passionate about people and fashion. Bellissima do roughly 500 bridal gowns a year and every wedding is as important as the next. The staff at Bellissima strive to ensure every single bride has a great emotional journey from A to Z. “I can do that in my sleep. I was born to do that!” says Laura.
Laura’s top tips for small business owners
- Enter awards even if you don’t think you might win! It forces you to look at your business in a snapshot of time with a critical eye.
- Don’t be too proud to take criticism. Negative feedback allows you to improve.
- Don’t open a business unless you are absolutely passionate about it.
- Focus on how you can differentiate from your competition. “In the first few years, you will be living your business 24/7. In this climate where there’s every variety of everything already on the market, unless you know that you can make yourself different and stand out, don’t do it.”
- Understand your customers. “A beautiful store with great stock and wonderful service is nothing if you’re not offering what your customer actually wants. Do your homework and work out what your customers need.”
Laura and her husband came to Funding Circle when it was the business’ 15th birthday. They found that other bridal retailers had caught up with them and they needed to do something different. To reinvent themselves Bellissima needed a new refurbishment, new designers and new stock — that’s where Funding Circle came in.
They liked the idea of ordinary people investing in their business. “It spurs you on to do what you said you were going to do. You owe it to everybody because they have faith in you and are behind you cheering you on. It’s not just money taken from a bank.”
Laura’s message to their investors…
“However small or great the amount was, you don’t realise the difference it’s made. Whatever you think you’ve done, you’ve done ten times more. So thank you. To know you’ve got people behind you and supporting you is a great feeling.”