We caught up with Connie Nam, founder of trendy jewellery brand Astrid & Miyu based at Workspace Edinburgh House in Kennington. She shares her secrets to thriving during the pandemic, Astrid & Miyu’s expansion plans and how Black Lives Matter inspired her to launch a new business accelerator programme

What have been your strengths as a brand during the pandemic? 

Connie Nam: Building our community and emotional connection with customers rather than hard selling. The first thing a lot of brands did after the lockdown was go into discounting because they were so nervous about losing out on sales, but we actually didn't care about that. We wanted to make sure we were speaking to our audience in a very authentic way rather than trying to just make a quick buck. We decided to support Women’s Aid, which helps domestic abuse survivors and their dependents, by donating 100% of profits from our Rainbow Collection throughout May and June.

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How did forging a stronger customer connection help your business?

We saw an increase in sales of 160% [despite] cutting down our marketing budget by 90% and furloughing the majority of retail staff, because we nurtured our existing customers through community building and not doing a hard sell. We sent out a lot of messages around how to take care of yourself and your mental health during Mental Health Awareness Week, so just really talking to our audience to make sure that they got engaged and hooked into our content and community. I think that worked especially well during lockdown because people really needed that, and we constantly ask our audience what they want to hear about so we're giving them content that locks them in.

How have you adapted your marketing? 

We introduced online styling sessions with our store managers, so our loyal customers can see the faces of people they are familiar with. But we've also been getting a lot of new customers that have never been to our store who wanted to talk about our jewellery and get styling advice, so that's been really good. This is something that will probably continue to operate, even after the stores open. We’re mainly focusing on existing marketing channels like Instagram but currently we're building out our Tik Tok platform. So watch this space!

Astrid & Miyu re-opened its two Selfridges retail concessions and the King’s Road store. How is that working?

We’re only opening up one standalone store to test out using an appointment-based system, so we're un-furloughing around eight people to run these three locations. The next phase is opening up all our stores. I think it will happen very gradually; we're going to see what the customer demand is like and what additional safety measures we need to put in. Piercing still isn’t available but we are putting in a one-way system; only two customers are allowed to be in the store at the same time for 15 minutes max to allow more people to come in. 

We’ll have one member of staff at the entrance to guide the customer journey and one at the till at the end, so people can’t go back and forth. Jewellery displays are more category-based whereas before it was more story- and collection-based. This is a bit unfortunate because our whole brand ethos was for people to play with the jewellery but now we've implemented a no-touch policy. We are also going to be handing out gloves to customers, and visors and masks for our staff. We're obviously sanitising everything and doing daily deep cleaning.

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Model wearing Astrid & Miyu jewellery from the Vintage Collection

Tell us about your 2021 store expansion plans in Brighton, Manchester, Edinburgh and New York.

By the end of the year I'll definitely start looking at regional locations. I think there'll be opportunities with a lot of retailers going bust or hesitant to open physical stores, but I think we just need to make sure that we have the adjusted model right. Previously, we had really tiny shops that were always jam-packed but we can't do that anymore. Last year we did three pop-ups in New York and were supposed to open up a flagship store there, but it got stalled because of the pandemic. But this is something I'm definitely going to focus on once we come out of this lockdown and the pandemic.

What advice would you give to other businesses that have been affected by not only the lockdown but also the economic downturn?

Review the overall business model and define the sense of purpose for the brand. Make sure that you nurture your existing customers and figure out what's really special about the brand, and try to bring in some kind of experiential component for people to come into physical retail stores but obviously develop and nurture the online component too, because I think the world will shift towards more online. 

What inspired you to launch a business accelerator programme?

I saw so much goodwill and kindness during the pandemic and thought, “How can I contribute?” There's not a lot of support for entrepreneurs, it was such a lonely journey when I first started the business. There are so many question marks when you start your own business, so I thought it might be good for me to help budding entrepreneurs. I've had a couple of sessions with my three mentees already and it's so rewarding to see them flourish.

I also decided to launch an accelerator programme specifically for black entrepreneurs because, from speaking to my black friends and colleagues, I think there's definitely a sense of being underprivileged. We really need to pull them up so I launched this programme and am currently raising funds to support it. We’re going to select six black entrepreneurs to mentor for three months; I will run the programme along with the heads from all our departments and the co-founders of organic tampon brand, Ohne, who I’ve known since they started out. They are really passionate about giving back. Once the entrepreneurs have completed the three months, we will give them a grant of £3,000 each.

How important is recruitment and diversity in your workplace?

Diversity is the backbone of our business, being Korean and from an ethnic minority myself, I've always been conscious about diversity in our content as well as our jewellery, so I would say our business is very diverse but it's happened unconsciously. Now, in light of the Black Lives Matter, I'm trying to be a lot more conscious about it and put in KPIs around hiring BAME people.

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Model wearing Astrid & Miyu jewellery from the Vintage Collection

How are you preparing to return to Workspace and what do you miss about the office?

I miss the office gossip! I miss saying hi and meeting people in our kitchen, and I guess having an excuse to dress up as well because [now] I'm always in very loose dresses or my pyjamas or hoodies. From July, we will have a couple of people in from operations but we're only getting probably three people max in at a time so that everyone can social distance. We have created an allocated seating plan, with one employee seated to each island of desks (all separated by more than 2 metres). 

We have booked a virucidal fogging spray of our office and installed signage for handwashing, out-of-use areas and social distancing information. Communal spaces, furniture, cutlery, shared phones have all been packed away and/or marked as 'out of use'. Meeting rooms are out of use, we have a No External Visitors policy and accept only contactless deliveries. We’ve also installed hand sanitizers and antibacterial surface cleaners, paper towels, disposable gloves etc… at stations around the office space. 

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Astrid & Miyu is based at Workspace Edinburgh House in Kennington

Find helpful and up-to-date resources in our Back to Business hub to navigate your business through COVID-19 and beyond. Prepare to return to your Workspace office with these seven expert tips on getting back to the office safely.