Fancy dress, the two words most people love to hear, but others shy away from. Elliott Peckett is very much in the former crowd, having spent his whole life surrounded by costumes and outfits.
Elliott’s family have owned Smiffys, “the global organisation with over a century of heritage in dress up”, ever since he was a little boy.
Now the Director of the increasingly popular family business, he spoke to me about growing up with Smiffys, the pressures of Brexit on such a multinational business, and the reasons behind our love of fancy dress.
KW: Talk us through your Smiffys journey so far…
EP: My school holidays were largely spent in the business. From the age of 7, I’d go in to sweep the yard and paint and, when I turned 10, I was trusted with picking orders.
I actually remember working with some people that are still part of the business today. There was a guy employed in the warehouse when I was a kid who is now the head of our global logistics!
KW: So how did you become Director?
EP: After I finished university, I did a couple of years working in a dull banking job in the city, but that turned out to be a bit of a misnomer. When Smiffys began to grow from supporting just my parents to all four of my siblings, I became more involved.
2001 was when things really started to change. We had a strong year after we rolled the dice and borrowed a lot of money to buy more stock. That proved to pay off thanks to the likes of millennium parties, opening the door to more opportunities.
I worked my way up from telesales and field sales to repping in London and taking charge of the Smiffys UK sales team. Shortly afterwards, I took on the export sales team.
Without any expert training courses, I made it up as I went along, but I had the passion and knowledge of the business on my side.
KW: How has your role changed over the years?
EP: At first, my role would entail everything from how much toilet roll we needed to the levels of stock we planned on bringing in throughout the year. We obviously needed more structure, which is why we brought in a few external, experienced managers and directors.
I learned a lot from these people, and their arrival gave me more time to plan and manage the business with them. I took a year out in 2013 to do an MBA at Nottingham University Business School, which has helped me to strategise and prepare for anything arriving in the next 3 or 4 years.
It’s my job to ensure we don’t simply wait for an inevitability to happen and that we instead make the necessary changes now.
KW: What are some of the things you’re preparing for at the moment?
EP: Well, the state of the economy and the weakness of the pound means that retail is difficult. We saw just the other day that Debenhams went into administration; everybody is feeling the pain.
In recent years, we’ve operated with £1 giving you $1.60 in China. We’re now at $1.30 – that’s around a 25% increase in the cost of goods. There are also similar problems and pressures on the independent perspective with people moving their spend online.
Price is the common denominator online: everybody is looking for more discounts and cheaper pricing and we’ve got to ensure that we embrace the likes of Amazon and work hard to ensure they want our products.
KW: Speaking of the state of the economy… As a company that ships and sells overseas, how do you prepare for Brexit?
EP: Brexit is of course one of the key things we’ve been planning for. A third of our revenue comes from Europe, and if that was jeopardised, it would be catastrophic for us. This is why we opened a Dutch limited company in 2015 before the referendum: so that we were prepared for both scenarios (leave or remain).
The biggest danger to our business is based around import duty. As a member of the EU, we have tariffs set on Chinese products, the average of which for our products sits at around 8.4%.
The EU determines the value of this stock from the last transaction price prior to it entering the EU; this would be our purchase in China. However, post-Brexit if we don’t operate as a proper EU business, this would be the transaction between Smiffys UK and the sale to our customers. This would mean that we’d be paying 8.4% of our selling price, not our costs.
So, in order to avoid paying £1m more in import duty, which would come straight off the profit line and cause job losses and reduced corporation tax, we’ve had to create this new company in the Netherlands.
Since 2016, the huge drop in the pound cost us millions in profits, simply because you cannot take that level of cost of your business so quickly. Because of this, we’ve had to make redundancies and let staff go, which is the worst part of the job, without a shadow of a doubt.
KW: Despite Brexit and the new head office in the Netherlands, how important is your status as a UK business?
EP: It’s very important to note that we’re not moving from the UK; the UK is still very much a part of our future and we’ll continue to have warehouses and offices here, as we do in other areas of the world.
We’re not forgetting our heritage and the UK is a hugely important part of our business.
KW: What is the best, most realistic scenario you can hope for with Brexit now?
EP: A Customs Union and the ability for goods to move through customs seamlessly with no delays or tariffs.
When we send a box to Germany from Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, I can get it there tomorrow. If I sent the same thing to America, it would take a week. That’s not a week’s travel time, but the time taken up by our customs entering theirs, so having that harmonisation would be massive for us.
KW: What are some of the core values that have helped Smiffys become such an established name?
EP: What we do is create, achieve, innovate and take pride in our performance. And we do this by valuing people, doing the right thing, being one team and working in our local communities.
We play our part in the community by working with homeless charities and food banks, as well as providing food and stock to schools. This way, the kids don’t go hungry and any pressure on parents having to fork out to ensure their children look the best in class on World Book Day is alleviated.
KW: Being a family business must appeal to a lot of consumers too?
EP: Absolutely, family goes a long way – we’re not a corporate, heartless brand. My father is the chairman, and my older sister and younger brother also work here. That intangible passion is so important, but it can be difficult to escape at times, especially when Sunday lunches with the family turn into business discussions.
I can always remember sitting on the beach with my father and we had the laptop actually on the sand looking at sales charts, measuring the success and performance of the business.
Customers buy into us because they know we’re passionate. They love the fact that we, as a family, attend the trade and road shows and speak to customers while we’re there. When they know that they’re speaking to the organ grinders, it forms a connection.
KW: You won the Midlands Family Business of the Year in 2014, so you must be doing something right! As the business has grown over the years, how do you ensure those family values are retained?
EP: There are people who have been here for 20-25 years, and that’s a testament to the culture we’ve created. Those people will remember the business as it was back in the day and know it’s truly a family business. How do you ensure that culture remains? Just by being fair to people and treating them how they want to be treated.
Everybody is here to do the right thing, so why not make it enjoyable and make them feel part of our journey and share some of that family spirit?
KW: What’s the best thing about being Director at Smiffys?
EP: Seeing and influencing positive change. Being a part of the work and effort and seeing it come to fruition is great. I still get an absolute buzz when we get a new account or hit a sales target; there’s no better feeling in business for me.
It’s also fantastic to have ideas about products and costumes and seeing them come to life. That’s a really enjoyable part of the business.
KW: How do the research team find emerging fancy dress trends?
EP: Usually, trends revolve around fashion and the catwalk, input from customers, and what’s on at the cinema. The likes of eBay and Amazon also provide us with insights into popular products.
KW: What have been some memorable trends?
EP: A few years ago, animals had quite a large input on the catwalk, and that spread into fancy dress. There was also Pirates of the Caribbean; when that came onto the scene, we had a huge increase in pirate product sales.
Recently, The Greatest Showman has given inspiration to lots of circus-style designs. Right now, we’re putting more focus into creating family-friendly costumes and collections so that mum, dad and the children can go as characters following the same theme.
KW: So, what’s your favourite fancy dress option, Elliott?
EP: I’m a big fan of Teen Wolf so I regularly wear that at Halloween. Or any form of scary clown; that always works as it looks really sinister! Working at Smiffys, the pressure is on. It’s a poor show if you don’t put the effort in.
We go to a Halloween event every year and we really go to town on the makeup; my family loves it.
KW: It must be amazing having parents involved in the fancy dress industry, something you’ve experienced yourself and can now share with your own children…
EP: It really is. My kids have probably got the biggest costume collection out of anyone. Every day, my four year old asks me to bring him some costumes home. He’ll sit and look through the catalogue for hours just collecting them.
It’s lovely to see their eyes light up when I bring home a costume or the new catalogue.
KW: So why do we love fancy dress so much?
EP: I think it’s a few different things. As a kid, you want to be an astronaut or an army man, and to actually have the opportunity to dress as one, with all the gear to go with it, you are living your dream and ambition.
Fancy dress breaks the ice and makes the party that much better. Some people use it as escapism and others play up to it and become their alter-ego. It’s become synonymous with having fun. If you go on a night out and look at people dressing up, they tend to be having more fun than most.
Over the years, fancy dress has tended to be recession-proof. You may hold back on buying that new dishwasher, upgrading your car or going on a family holiday for a year, but a fun night out does not tend to suffer.
As retail changes, it’s more about making memories now, and fancy dress really switches into that.
The most refreshing thing about speaking with Elliott is not the undoubtedly interesting insights into Brexit or business or processes, but his enthusiasm towards and dedication to people and connections.
When speaking of Brexit, he was most pained not in the financial losses, but in the effect it has had on the staff he has had to reluctantly let go of.
When speaking of products, he does not see them merely as stock, but as opportunities to make memories and light up the eyes of his own children or those in the classroom.
When speaking of business, he focuses on the value of relationships, on the importance of doing the right thing and treating people as they want to be treated.
When listening to Elliott talk, it’s hard to deny the magic of fancy dress. Next time you put on that Elvis costume or pirate outfit, make sure you’re living your dream, even if it’s just for one night or party. Who knows, maybe you’ll have Elliott to thank for the memories…