With banks, landlords and suppliers all breathing down your neck, the last thing you need as an entrepreneur with a new business is to be targeted by a rival intent on closing you down before the first customer walks through the door. But that's something Alexis Amor, 35, knows all about.
Less than a month after he opened his opticians, Iris, in Richmond, Surrey, in summer 2005, he had an unwelcome visitor. "This man walked in and started pointing at all the brands, not even looking at me, saying yeah, we do that, we do that'." He turned out to be the head of Amor's biggest competitor. "He said, I came here to tell you that we're moving over the road. We'll see you in ten weeks' time'."
It was the start of a loveless relationship, which wasn't just down to the usual retail rivalry. Amor had hit upon an idea that could put the rest of the trade out of business. Instead of making glasses in store, they are all made from one location in London's East End. A buyer walks in with a prescription and picks the frames they want, which are then made in Butlers Wharf. This saves Amor money on store space, which he then passes onto customers.
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So it's no surprise that the competition sees him as a threat - they have even tried to stop suppliers from dealing with him, though he still gets stock from the key brands. "We sell expensive frames from Gucci to Armani. But we do the lenses for free, so you'll save 30% in some cases 50%."
Amor came across the idea while on holiday in St. Tropez. In an opticians looking for sunglasses, he noticed that no one hassled him to buy anything. "I could look at the glasses at my leisure, and pick things off the shelves and try them on. It was a lot more relaxed" than the British buying experience. That got him thinking about simply stocking a store with products, rather than peopling it with sales staff and opticians.
He then tracked down a store just off Richmond high street. The rent came in at £30,000 a year over five years. His former boss acted as guarantor for him, but with just £50,000 in savings, Amor only had half the money he would need to fit out the shop and buy stock. "So I built the business largely on credit."
Suppliers offered generous terms because he was buying in bulk, allowing him 120 days to pay for £40,000 of stock. Fitters were more of problem; most large firms weren't interested in dealing with a start-up. "But I found a company doing up a shop just off Fouberts Place on Carnaby Street. I was just walking by and took their number." They took a chance on him, agreeing to accept 50% of the costs three months after opening.
Opening in June 2005, Amor benefited from demand for sunglasses. By October he'd sold about 1,000 sunglasses and spectacles at an average of £140 a pair. It allowed him to open a store in Liverpool Street in March this year. He is now set to hit £1m turnover and plans further stores in Mayfair and Islington, although he's under no illusions about the economy. "I'm holding off until the [commercial property] market dips. I think retail is heading for a troubled time." But he thinks he can ride out any problems. "People will always want spectacles and quality and if they can get it at half the price, they will."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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