Chalk Talks: Episode 2 - The English Soap Company

Chalk Talks is a business podcast presented by Switchplane's Head of Marketing, Garry James, which tells stories about businesses and organisations in the south east from a range of different sectors, how they have been affected by COVID-19, and their inevitable shift to doing more online. The second episode features Oliver Butts from soap manufacturer Christina May and associated brand The English Soap Company.

Background:

Christina May was established in 2000 by Bob and Juliet, who had perfected the art of soap making from their kitchen table before moving their soap operations to a local farm in Waldron, East Sussex. Oliver, their son, joined the company eight years ago when the company needed more senior management to drive the business forward; Christina May has quadrupled in size since that point. The company initially focused on manufacturing high end, hard bar soap on contract but has since founded a customer-facing brand with their own products, The English Soap Company, to eliminate the risk of larger clients reducing their contract spend. As of the end of 2019, a record year, 55% of their sales were through The English Soap Company brand, with the remainder comprising their contracts for others.

The English Soap Company’s luxury products are stocked in National Trust properties, Kew Gardens and stately homes. Aside from bar soap, they are increasingly diversifying from hard bar soaps to include hand creams, soy candles, bath and body collections, fragrances, and gift sets in their product range.

Exports account for half of what they do as a business - their soap is popular in Germany, Australia, Taiwan and the US to name but a few, as the “Made in the United Kingdom” label carries a strong resonance around the world. Their products are made using raw materials from local Sussex suppliers where possible and are manufactured on site, where they have 34 staff.

Key problems faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic:

Early in 2020, Oliver first noticed the disruption to the supply chain, but customers were continuing to order as normal, not expecting any changes.

However once coronavirus started to hit the UK, all of their orders fell dramatically. The majority of The English Soap Company products are stocked in brick and mortar shops and attractions, all of which suddenly closed. There were no reorders of their own brand product.

All of the trade shows Oliver planned to attend to sell their products internationally were cancelled, including in Germany, Italy and Hong Kong.

Usual customers weren’t looking to do business as they had no customers themselves and their own uncertainty, and it has been hard to find new customers.

Changes made within the business throughout COVID-19:

  • Oliver has attended Department of Trade webinars, instead of trade fairs.
  • Oliver has Zoom calls to keep in touch with existing clients and promote new ranges, which would usually have been done at trade fairs.
  • The company has recently invested in a new website for The English Soap Company, which includes an online ordering system for trade customers as well as the option to sell directly to the public.
  • The English Soap Company is looking to invest in digital marketing to engage with their customers via social media and email newsletters. This is part of the company’s overall plan to increase their online presence due to the in-person trade shows not happening.
  • They have now diversified their range to include hand sanitiser, as a result of demand from the coronavirus pandemic. Hand sanitiser had always been in the background as a product to launch, but this development has been accelerated to match demand and should be ready by the end of July/early August. Worldwide supplies of bottles and alcohol for hand sanitiser had been scarce early in lockdown, but this has now improved. The hand sanitiser will be sold by their existing customer base in brick and mortar locations including attractions, garden centres and boutique stores.
  • Other products in the development backlog have been pushed back in order to carry out the prioritised hand sanitiser production.

What does the future look like?

As of June 2020, the company is beginning to get reorders from their existing companies, but it won’t be until next year that Christina May fully bounces back to what it was in 2019. Oliver envisages a subdued second half of the year and doesn’t think sales will have picked back up to pre-COVID-19 levels by Christmas, however their existing growth curve might mask some of the coronavirus impact.

Oliver imagines that sales will be difficult for his customers even when stores have reopened again due to changes in consumer behaviour, such as social distancing and people not wanting to hang around in shops for too long. The key thing for the company will be what sales are like in these locations, but Oliver believes that although The English Soap Company offers premium products, these are still affordable gifts - and in a popular sector, given the current climate.

Oliver and his father feel that the most important thing is to be adapting and evolving with the times in order to survive, i.e. coming out with new products that people want, and then ensuring the timing and delivery of these is right.

To listen to Episode 2 of Chalk Talks and hear about Oliver’s experiences with Christina May and The English Soap Company during the coronavirus pandemic, visit Anchor FM, or find Chalk Talks via your usual podcast platforms.

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