Theresa Bartolo Parnis and Jackie Scudamore Urpani

For Theresa Bartolo Parnis and Jackie Scudamore Urpani, co-Directors for British retail brands Monsoon and Accessorize in Malta and Gozo, their journey in retail started as young women, when they met for the first time while both working at Next.

“At 19 I left my father’s office to pursue a career in retail,” recalls Theresa, describing the industry at the time as notably different to today, with far fewer stores and a limited potential for growth. “I worked for Next and was so keen that I was quickly given responsibilities. Jackie was already working in retail when she joined Next, and before long, we were entrusted with running the shop and buying, and we worked wonderfully together,” she says.

The pair went on to part ways for a while, as Theresa left to live in Milan and Jackie to start a family, but upon Theresa’s return, they decided to put all the experience they had gained into running their own retail business. “A trip to London quickly pointed us in the direction of Monsoon and Accessorize,” they recall.

The gender issue

Looking back on their early days, the pair say they didn’t face much competition when starting out in 1995, particularly for Accessorize. “People loved the brands! There obviously were challenges, decisions to take, money invested and a work and home life to balance, but we both had great partners who shared family responsibilities, so the gender issue was not something we had to contend with, thankfully,” they say. 

Sharing their thoughts on the difficulties women face in business, the pair say that when they were starting out, it was definitely harder, because of the gender clichés that existed at the time. “Thankfully, the mentality has changed greatly since then, making it easier for women to have a successful career from a practical perspective, but some of those clichés are still alive and kicking today,” they share.

“I firmly believe that it all starts with the way children are educated. It needs to be crystal clear to kids that they should be free to pursue any career they want, and that there is no such thing as a job for boys and a job for girls. A child needs both a mother and a father and both are equally good at raising children. Both boys and girls should learn how to cook, clean and be independent. If we can achieve this through education, boys and girls alike will have equal opportunities and will not be forced into gender roles that don’t fit the individual,” Theresa adds.

Elaborating on their own experience as female entrepreneurs, they note that while there are always going to be situations in which someone underestimates you, “we were not the type of women to let something like that hamper us!”

The changing face of retail

Since they started out, the local retail landscape has “totally changed”, Theresa maintains, describing it as very competitive and cutthroat. “Expenses to run stores are super high, so balance is key,” she reveals, yet despite all this, “the biggest blessing is that Jackie and I work so well together and rarely disagree.”

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the sector hard. Describing the first lockdown as “a very scary time”, the co-Directors recall what it was like having 100 staff members who worked in eight shops, all of which were closed. Referring to the wage supplement and measures for retailers as “a life saver”, they acknowledge the fact that sadly, several other retailers were forced to close down. 

“It has not been easy at all, and we are still not out of the woods. Over the past year, like many others, we have rethought our business model and introduced new practices, and we are glad to say that these have paid off.” Part of this was their recently launched eCommerce site, a project they reveal was being explored pre-pandemic, though “COVID-19 gave us the push we needed to get this up and running.”  

It also included the closure of the Monsoon Ladies store earlier this year. Explaining their reasoning behind this, Jackie and Theresa say that they were becoming increasingly aware that shopping habits had changed, and people were looking for a much more personal service. With only one Monsoon Ladies store in Sliema, the pair also recognised that Sliema was no longer the primary shopping destination it had once been and, coupled with high rental costs, it became less feasible, particularly when reaching a relatively small number of customers. 

“Going online meant that we reached people in the privacy of their homes, so we were suddenly exposed to a whole new audience,” they say, acknowledging that there will always be customers who prefer to touch and try on the product rather than buy online. For these, they set up private viewings in their Swatar warehouse and also offer a personal shopping service, where the team puts together a capsule collection based on clients’ needs, which is then delivered to their home. 

Sharing their thoughts on eCommerce versus brick-and-mortar stores moving forward, Jackie and Theresa admit that while online is a convenient way to shop, people still love to visit stores. “It so nice to have a shopping day out, where one can browse various shops, stop for lunch, get some sun and do whatever you fancy. Many also still love to see the colours and touch and feel the fabric in real life rather than on a screen,” they say.

On the other hand, online shopping has different advantages, apart from the obvious convenience, including the fact that “you are not overwhelmed by loads of product when you walk into a store, and can see each item individually and in your own time,” the co-Directors add.

The answer is a healthy mix of both. “We can’t imagine a world where there are no brick-and-mortar stores, and hope it never happens! Perhaps COVID-19 will teach us that originality is key when it comes to competition, so rather than copy an idea that is successful, one should try to come up with something different and new,” they say, adding that while competition is healthy, “splitting one segment of the market into 100 tiny slices is not beneficial to anyone – there’s no diversity for the customer, and no advantage for the retailer, especially when taking into account the high costs to run a store. If we open shopping centres in every nook and cranny of the island with the usual brands in each, it is just more of the same and makes it very difficult for the shops to be successful.”

Jackie & Theresa’s top tips for starting a business

The successful Company Directors offer a few words of advice for anyone looking to set up their own business.

1. Believe in yourself. Have the guts to go for it with all you have and don’t let anyone discourage you.

2. Listen to advice. You don’t necessarily have to follow it, but always keep others’ perspectives in mind.

3. Never give up. Drive is the most important thing as it will make you keep reinventing yourself and coming up with fresh ideas, which is so vital in business.

4. Build a strong team. Treat them well and love them. You are nothing without them.

5. Customers deserve excellent treatment. They are the reason why you are in business in the first place, so go out of your way for them.

6. When the going gets tough, just get stronger and more determined.  Don’t be beaten, it is not an option.

7. Micro-manage your costs. Which certainly does not mean don’t spend where you have to, just avoid wasting money on silly things – you would be amazed how many of them you can adopt without even noticing.

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