The annual trade fair challenge!

The Spring Fair at Birmingham’s NEC is an annual event in the buying calendar of most retail businesses. The massive fair takes over 20 halls and hosts wholesale companies from all over the world who gather for 5 days in order to try to kick start their trading year. You can buy everything from tinsel to topiary, a miniature dinosaur garden (!) to giant moving stuffed toys 8′ tall, tourist gifts for a few pennies to diamond rings and all the top gift brands.

Colourful jute baskets on display at the NEC
Colourful jute baskets on display at the NEC

I usually go to trade fairs on my own. It’s lovely to have company but with so much ground to cover at the NEC I can hit the ground running and just keep going. The average day will be one of about 7 or 8 hours walking about 10,000 steps. You need comfortable shoes, layers and a lightweight bag to carry all the catalogues and price lists that you gather.

Inspiring floral displays from Floralsilk
Inspiring floral displays from Floralsilk

Now we get down to tactics. I try to arrive earlyish but without being too bleary eyed as you need a good night’s sleep the day before: it’s going to be a long day! Securing a parking spot near to the halls is great as it’s so much nicer to have a quick 10 minute walk in the fresh air than to queue for the shuttle bus. I will have been though the ‘little black book’ before to pinpoint all the suppliers that I want to see and will have annotated the halls map with all the stand numbers so that at a glance I can tell which halls I can miss out and which I have to cover. It doesn’t really matter where I start, better not to do all your favourites on day 1 otherwise the second day can feel a bit of a slog.


IMG_8325Although I don’t move quite as fast as I did 10 or 20 years ago my improved focus from over 30 years in retail more than makes up for that and I’m afraid I push myself quite hard in order to get the most out of the show. This means that I try to take advantage of any refreshments offered on the bigger stands – my favourite makes a great cup of coffee with a fabulous mini danish so I can place an order and refuel at the same time! The Summerhouse hall exhibitors hand out coffee vouchers to their customers so this is where I have my 10 minute break and a quick sandwich. There are of course plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants at the NEC but queuing and sitting down for lunch eats into my day. The water stations are great as it’s all to easy to get dehydrated in the over heated atmosphere.

IMG_8322In my opinion one of the great delights of a shop like Casa Fina is that you can be so diverse with your buying. It would be easy to get carried away but our brand stands for quality, fabulous design and good value so these are the linking attributes with everything that we buy.

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show

I am so lucky to have been invited to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show on several occasions over the years, latterly as a guest of Giles and Melanie Feilding who own Anthony Steuart. Their company supplies Casa Fina with the classic tin waste bins, cache pots and match box holders that are so popular both with those seeking accessories for their interiors and for gifts.

Chris Beardshaw's Show Garden
Chris Beardshaw’s Show Garden

I’m not a keen gardener because, working full time, I don’t have enough time to do a proper job. I can cut the grass and spend an hour or so weeding which gives me great satisfaction and pleasure but I don’t ever get to the rewarding stage of learning about plants or really getting on top of the difficult areas in the garden. Luckily you can get away with this in a cottage garden as it shouldn’t look too manicured.

Chelsea is like a ‘sweetie shop’ – the colours and scents keep you looking from one side to the other, not wanting to miss a colour combination or specimen plant. It is one of the eagerly awaited events of London’s social calendar but most people don’t go for the Pimm’s they really want to see the gardens.

Kazuyuki Ishihara's Artisan Garden
Kazuyuki Ishihara’s Artisan Garden at Chelsea

This year, Jackie and I were eagerly anticipating our day out (extra special as a Chelsea occurs in my birthday week). With the sun shining as we drove to London our expectations were high. We joined the snake of people walking down to the Chelsea Hospital site from Sloane Square tube station and found ourselves in a scrum leading up to the entrance. We looked at the artisan gardens first admiring Kazuyuki Ishihara’s beautiful combination of acers, bonsai conifers, moss and rock pools and admired the tranquil and pretty Commonwealth War Graves Commission Centenary garden which used vintage sculptures set amongst drifts of alliums.

The Silk Road Show Garden
The Silk Road Show Garden

The big show gardens were crowded but patience is rewarded with a better view and my favourites were Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Garden; the RHS ‘people’s choice’; a woodland setting evoking a typical British garden and The Silk Road garden, a landscape of vivid pink rhododendrons and peonies.

The buying opportunities are many and varied and before long I’d picked out a Victorian glasshouse, a garden statue – Leaf Spirit by Simon Gudgeon and a garden room that was comfortable enough to move in to. Sadly no money changed hands and they remain on my wish list until I see even more gorgeous things to covet next time.

Leaf Spirit by Simon Gudgeon
Leaf Spirit by Simon Gudgeon

The centrepiece of the show is the Great Pavillion. Here we tasted tea on the Wedgwood stand – delicious Camellia and Yellow Tonquin and were interested in their new contemporary blue jasper cachepots. However as they started at £55 for a 4″ pot we didn’t think that we could stock them in Casa Fina. My favourite flowers in the Pavillion have to be roses and peonies but I also marvelled at the 50 year old bonsai trees – utter perfection!

The trade stands were a bit of a busman’s holiday in part but we may have found a new supplier so every day out is an opportunity to develop the business. By 5 o’clock we were nearing exhaustion with the heat, crowds and walking so we headed off home armed with bundles of planting lists, phones full of colourful images and heads swimming with inspiration for that perfect retirement garden.

Burleigh – where the past is very much in the present

A few weeks ago I was delighted to visit the Burleigh factory in Stoke-on-Trent. It was a fascinating visit which demonstrated the traditions and skills of over 150 years of producing English handmade and decorated pottery. Being a longtime fan of the novels of Arnold Bennett it was extra special because the Middleport pottery is as near as you can get to stepping back in time.

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Discovering the Wallace Collection

I have a list of places that I want to visit and this spring I crossed another off the list – The Wallace Collection. The only problem was that I enjoyed the visit so much that I’ll have to go again! In case you haven’t been, the Wallace Collection is probably the finest art collection assembled by one family (over five generations). A condition of the bequest was that no object should ever leave the collection, even for loan exhibitions and it is now a national museum containing over 5,000 objects.

© Wallace Collection

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Mary Portas

In 2012 I was reading a trade magazine which talked about Retail Independents Day. Mary Portas was quoted in support of this idea. It aimed to increase awareness of the independent businesses that are vital to the economy and which bring an individuality to each town and city in the country. Salisbury Independents group was subsequently formed and this year we sponsored the visit of Mary Portas to the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival. Continue reading “Mary Portas”