Ingrid Webb: Social enterprises joining SIS Retail Academy reap the benefits

Members of the workforce at the Shetland Soap Company
Members of the workforce at the Shetland Soap Company
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Shetland Soap Company was established over 17 years ago by the social enterprise COPE Ltd with the belief that everyone, regardless of disability, should have the opportunity to work. Shetland Soap Company is one of five organisations owned by COPE, providing employment and skills development for adults with learning difficulties or autism spectrum disorders, with all profits raised being reinvested to achieve this vision.

Despite creating an excellent range of products, after ten years we were struggling to achieve our retail potential. We were still heavily reliant on grant funding – which is something we desperately wanted to move away from. When it came to securing new customers, we found that our packaging wasn’t quite hitting the mark. 
It was going to be a challenge to take Shetland Soap Company to the next level. Not only did we have to upskill our team, but our product needed a brand refresh.

We were at a crossroads; we had a quality product, which had the potential to deliver an even greater impact for those we had set out to support, however, to do this we had several hurdles to overcome including broadening our retail market – and this was something we were unsure of how to progress.

Participating in the SIS Retail Academy

In 2016, we heard news that Social Investment Scotland (SIS) were working in partnership with Asda on their first Retail Academy. The Academy aims to help social enterprises scale up their businesses with the aim of increasing the availability of ethical products. The Academy offers a select group of social enterprises an intensive programme of support and advice to help them propel their products to a wider market of socially-conscious consumers.

Our application was successful and Shetland Soap Company was part of the first ever SIS Retail Academy alongside social enterprises including Brewgooder and Heroes Vodka. This was a pivotal moment for Shetland Soap Company – the Academy was the opportunity we were looking for if we stood any chance of moving forward.

From the outset we could tell the Academy was going to be hugely beneficial. We were able to learn from the other social enterprises in attendance, on where they were in their own journeys and the lessons they had learned along the way.

The representatives from Asda were more inspiring and generous with their knowledge and information than I thought they would be. We had the opportunity to meet with their corporate buyers who provided feedback and advice on our products. They provided us with insight into their customer base and their 
customers’ needs, they took us through trend forecasting and gave us the skills and knowledge that we needed to transform Shetland Soap Company.

We didn’t secure a listing during the course – we knew ourselves we weren’t at that stage. However, the Academy taught us to focus on our USP, to evaluate our customer base and the importance of research. We thought we knew our customer base before, but now through extensive research, we really know who our customers are and, more importantly, we know what their habits are and we know what they want.

Since the Academy, Shetland Soap Company has gone from strength to strength. We are in the final stages of a rebrand – with our new website due to launch very soon. Our customer base has grown in Shetland and also across Scotland. More recently, we have also started working alongside Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), to look specifically at sales and pitching our products to the wider market and as a result we have grown our presence across Scotland.

The past three years have been transformational for Shetland Soap Company and we have been able to make the most of it due to the retail insight and marketing knowledge we’ve gained through the Academy. Had it not been for the SIS Retail Academy, we would have made several fundamental mistakes and we wouldn’t be where we are now.

We are looking forward to returning to this year’s Retail Academy – to share our story with this year’s cohort. For any social enterprises considering applying, I would urge them to do so. The Academy can provide the opportunity to secure a retail listing with Asda and other retailers, but we discovered the Academy can help your enterprise grow regardless of the stage it is at.

Interested social enterprises have until 17 March 2019 to apply for a free place on this year’s Retail Academy. All information, and the online application form, is available through Social Investment Scotland’s website

Ingrid Webb, CEO, Shetland Soap Company