Emma Bier, co-founder of retailer Tiger described the rollercoaster ride that took her and her husband Philip from startup to the successful sale of a 44-strong store portfolio in just 12 years.
Danish-born Philip was a professional photographer for 20 years and Emma worked as a store designer for Waitrose when the birth of their second child prompted a radical rethink about their ambitions. Through a family connection they knew Tiger’s founder Lennart Lajboschitz, and as regular visitors to Copenhagen they were familiar with the quirky retail brand. “I was always surprised by what they sold. Every time I left the store thinking ‘how is that possible?’” Emma remembered.
Lajboschitz agreed that the brand would translate to the UK, and he granted the couple a 50 per cent share in the UK business. The Danish parent would provide stock, marketing and merchandising support, but the Biers were totally responsible for operational matters, and that meant they had to remortgage their house to raise the £200,000 needed to fund the startup.
The biggest challenge was finding a store to trade from. “Landlords seem to struggle when dealing with startups,” she said. Eventually a former Dixons unit in Basingstoke was secured but Emma still feels the process was unnecessarily difficult. “A partnership approach between landlord and tenant could ease that process,” she said. “Landlords, think outside the box and you might just end up with the next Tiger in your centre.”
The store consisted of a simple white box with low-level displays in a maze arrangement. “We brought hygge to the UK in 2005 with our low-level pendant lights,” she recalled. A year later the second store opened in Hammersmith, bang opposite Primark. “We had maxed out or loan but the store traded so well it paid back its whole investment in just 11 weeks,” she said. “It was so busy we had to employ a night shift to keep it merchandised.” She said: “The Hammersmith customer totally fitted Tiger and it was consistently one of the top five stores worldwide.”
One feature of the business has been price transparency. “We have no Sales and no loyalty scheme,” Bier said, “just great service and great products. Customers will come back if your all-round offer is good.”
The shopfit evolved with every opening and in time the brand experimented with price points up to £5 rather than just £2. And the Biers moved from buying other retailers’ end-of-lines at trade fairs into designing their own products, bringing a wider range and better quality. As a result the brand moved from what Bier described as a “posh pound shop” to a design brand and its target locations moved accordingly, aiming at areas with high disposable income and correspondingly higher rents.
One move epitomised this change when Tiger moved out of the Stratford shopping centre in east London into Westfield Stratford City across the road. “Westfield demanded higher design standards – their design input improved our store and it’s now become standard,” Bier said, “Low prices and good value don’t have to be cheap and nasty.”
In 2016 the chain rebranded as Flying Tiger Copenhagen, allowing it to use the same brand worldwide including Japan and the USA where it had been prohibited from using the Tiger name for copyright reasons. And at the end of the year the Danish company bought out the Biers’ stake.
So what does Bier think made Tiger a success when other better-funded startups failed? “The ability to renew is part of it,” she said. “But above all surprise the customer and over-deliver at every transaction.”