Small Stuff, big ambitions

08 Sep 2020

It’s hard to imagine now, but when we first meet Hellen Stirling-Baker, we sit inches apart, cosying up over mugs of coffee inside her award-winning ethical children’s shop. Located at 170 Crookes, an emerging suburb of Sheffield, Small Stuff is a delightfully dinky shop selling eco-conscious clothes, toys and gifts.

However, what it lacks in size (it’s just 30msq) it makes up in style and ambition. Hellen, 33, tells us how she’d done the remarkable – and plausibly unthinkable – thing of launching a small business while on maternity leave following the birth of her son Rafe in 2016. In those sleep-deprived first months of a new parents’ life, Hellen resisted the lure of sofa and boxsets, and instead started making ethical, traceable, chemical-free clothes for Rafe. Those garments attracted attention from friends and, unable to keep up with demand for orders, she set about sourcing goods which combined ethics and style.

A website was launched, she experimented with pop-up shops in Sheffield city centre, and eventually – despite advice to the contrary – she took the brave leap from cyber space to bricks and mortar shop. The calculated risk paid off; by her own admission Hellen couldn’t quite believe she was building the foundation of a really successful small business without compromising the environment. Brands stocked include Banwood, Olli and Ella, Tender Leaf, Fabelab, along with Sheffield-based Derek Orme and Bear & Babe. There’s beautifully-illustrated books such as the Little People, Big Dreams range. And she didn’t need to look far when she needed to appoint a chief toy tester – her son Rafe was the man for the job. She added a community area, seating to enjoy locally-sourced coffee and cake, ample space to manoeuvre a double buggy and – rarely a consideration in a retail – a baby changing room.


Hellen’s efforts started to be recognised – she was highly commended in last year’s Best Small Shops competition. And then the unthinkable happened. The Government imposed a country-wide lockdown, ordering all non-essential retail to shut their doors for the foreseeable future. Small Stuff, with its cosy coffee corner and community space, which had started to lend itself so well children’s story-time sessions and local craft clubs, had to pull down the shutters. However, Hellen refused to be beaten. “The business had to succeed,” she said determinedly. “I knew I had to pivot the business really quickly – I already had online set up, but working from our office at home (surrounding by all the stock I had moved out of the shop for safety) I started work on driving national orders and gaining traction with new customers.

Her first task was transferring all here stock on to the website – while also occupying nearly four-year-old Rafe, who was also suddenly housebound. “I also wanted to make the website as streamlined and easy to understand as possible. I implemented a chat option for real-time advice on purchases and many different options and ways to pay, including Apple and Android Pay. Naturally she also wanted to guarantee sustainable, environmentally-friendly packaging to maintain the ethos of the brand, and offered free national delivery on all orders, while hand-delivering any local ones.

“I had to try and connect with my local community in a new way.” Anyone who follows Small Stuff on social media will recognise Hellen’s talent for engaging with her growing audience which also helped drive online sales. “Luckily, having a catalogue of images of the shop and being really transparent showing myself on social media ‘stories’ packing, orders, updates and how I was working. This seems to really drive customers – they knew they were buying from a real person, rather than computer,” said Hellen, who grew up in Crosspool, just round the corner from her shop.

“I noticed more and more that I was beginning to be the connection between families for gifts; people unable to see one another at milestone events such as babies being born, or a first birthday, and so I started to offer a hand-written card with each gift order, a way in which I wanted to connect back with my customers. “This also worked really well on local, hand deliveries, especially when I knew the receivers, a friendly face delivering a bag of goodies to celebrate with,” explained Hellen, who said it was vital she stayed in touch with the local community which had been so supportive. “The website has been the lifeline for Small Stuff, the orders are consistent and customer retention has been incredible, I have also been able to take on new brands.”

The shop reopened along with the rest of non-essential retail on June 15 – a time that Hellen said was filled with excitement and anxiety. As ever, Hellen approached the challenge of reopening with enthusiasm and creativity. “I implemented a new layout within the shop; a one-way system with clear, child-friendly illustrations to make sure it was still pleasant, inviting, and not too clinical.” The main counter has been moved from the right-side of the store to the front to make it easier for customers still using the collection option from the website. “This is only temporary, but this, I feel is help-ing build confidence. a “Details within the store have always been important to me to create something that people want to visit and so having a character automatic hand sanitiser (which squirts anti-bac out of its nose), fun graphics guiding the way and a deco-rated Perspex sneeze-guard are all new ideas to the store. “There is a plinth within the store that is a ‘mock-up’ of a corner of a nursery, this is a great visual prompt for customers to think about how to decorate their own nurseries and dressing this area with specifically-curated brands.”

Despite these measures, Hellen didn’t know if customers would feel confident enough to return to the store.

“However, the community has been amazing, the first week was super busy and day one was a great success. Of course – like any other time – some days have been quieter than others. “Making sure the website aligns perfectly with the bricks and mortar operation has worked really well, especially for local col-lections,” said Hellen. Along with developing a Small Stuff app expected to launch next month (September), Hellen is hoping to move into the next phase of reopening including the events area and FIKA space (Swedish for coffee and cake break – only a mum could know the importance of that). “While many of the festivals I was due to ‘pop-up’ at have been cancelled, I still plan on working on new pop-up shop ideas nationally,” she said.

And while lockdown threw up many challenges, it also brought forward many opportunities including the chance to stock Toy Breaker, a new line of clothing by television presenter Helen Skelton, of Blue Peter and Countryfile fame. Being ethical, organic, unisex, and super stylish, it is exactly the type of brand Small Stuff champions.

“Our collaboration came on the back of an interview I did with her on BBC Radio 5Live. She absolutely loved visiting the shop and has been such a massive supporter of the brand since her visit a few weeks ago, we’ll be collaborating more over the next six months too,” added Hellen, who has also appeared in other national and regional media including BBC Radio Sheffield, Wired magazine and The Daily Telegraph.

As well as Toy Breaker, Hellen has not only brought on other brands but furthered the ethical and environmental focus of Small Stuff. “Lockdown has also given me the opportunity to work on the message of what I wanted to create with Small Stuff, so I decided to start working with the amazing organisation The Planet Mark (& The Eden Project). They essentially audit the company to help make sure the transparency of carbon use and ethical practices are really well communicated.

“I am pleased to announce that last week I completed a first audit and was awarded my first ever The Planet Mark certification.” She’s also been working with Ecologi (previously called Offset. Earth), which plants trees and funds projects around the world to combat the climate crisis. And so with an enhanced product range and renewed sense of purpose, Hellen is making the unthinkable possible – building an even stronger, greener business post-lockdown.

Find SMALL STUFF at 170 Crookes, Sheffield, S10 1UH or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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