Rock Paper Scissors - Opening a shop during a pandemic

Rock Paper Scissors represents an extraordinary example of resilience, care for the local community and business innovation.

Opening its doors in October 2020 in the heart of the historic town of Canterbury, England, Rock Paper Scissors is a truly bucking business. In a time where small retailers and shops struggle to remain open, the little Canterbury-based craft shop represents an exceptional example of business resilience.

Opening a shop during a pandemic: a crazy idea?


Opening its doors in October 2020 in the heart of the historic town of Canterbury, England, Rock Paper Scissors is a truly bucking business. In a time where small retailers and shops struggle to remain open, the little Canterbury-based craft shop represents an exceptional example of business resilience.

Born from the idea of Liz Wellstead, a local screen printer and college teacher, and Charlie Wilkie, a Canterbury-born executive with experience in building successful businesses, the shop is a place where local creative makers can promote their craft and sell their unique pieces of work.

The idea is that a craft shop doesn't live on its own and is not a place disconnected from the territory. On the contrary, it is made of the sum of the efforts and abilities of all the makers within the region. It is a place for the community, where people should be able to display their products and at the same time grow their activity.

By adopting a community-empowered strategy, the shop has become a driver of growth and development for the local community in a time of uncertainty.

The story: the pandemic as a starting point

Back in October 2019 Liz, a talented screen printer teaching at the Canterbury College, was divided between teaching and developing different exciting projects. Collaborating with businesses and working in different pop-up stores across the region, she was looking at the future with optimism and drive.

In March 2020 unfortunately, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck the country, all her projects have been forced to vanish almost overnight. Staying at home during the lockdown she took time to think about the future. Just around that time, her cousin Charlie moved back to Canterbury from New York with his family: for the first time in many years, they had the opportunity to spend some time together.

Liz told Charlie the difficulties makers like her were facing, as craft shops were forced to close and exhibitions and events were cancelled. Rather than focusing on their art, many were completely absorbed from the business side of things, desperately trying to turn things around. It was dramatic for Charlie to hear from Liz stories of incredibly talented makers struggling to make a living.

The more Liz and Charlie were chatting, the more they developed the idea to create something that could help Liz and these makers to find a way out of this. They initially thought about opening a shop that could showcase their work, but they soon realised that to be successful they should build something different: they should build a community space. The idea was simple: offering everyone the opportunity to rent a space to promote and sell their art at an affordable price so that creatives and makers could finally focus on their work.

Liz was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response of local makers to this idea, and thanks to the help of more than fifty people who worked tirelessly for six weeks to build the space, Rock Paper Scissors was born.

The mission - creating value for the local community

Rock Paper Scissors was born with a mission: helping the local community of talented makers by giving them an affordable space to showcase and sell their unique crafts to the public. Especially, Rock Paper Scissors wants to allow those young and creative talents who are struggling to find career opportunities within the creative industry.

As the pandemic struck the country, many retailers were forced to close and creative makers found themselves relying solely on their own strength to drive revenue to their activity. Being so much focused on the business side of things, they were struggling to do their own creative work. It was a vicious cycle that on one side was absorbing a lot of energy and on the other side was slowing down their creative work.

I see how the lack of opportunities can be such a barrier for students looking to move into the creative industries. - Liz Wellstead, co-founder

Having experienced these difficulties herself, Liz came up with the idea of a space that could relieve creatives from the hurdles and pains of opening their own business and that could allow them to focus more on their craft.

Liz's decision to team up with her cousin Charlie represented the perfect combination to turn things around: with her vast knowledge of art, sense of taste and local connections, Liz could provide a solid foundation to the business whether Charlie, with his extensive experience in businesses coaching, marketing and digital could provide the strategic mindset necessary to drive the business to success.

A community-centred business

Opening up a shop in the middle of a pandemic may sound like a crazy idea at first: the inherent risks of business failure given by the uncertainty of the consumer market and the fixed operating costs seem insurmountable obstacles for anyone willing to open a shop. Liz and Charlie soon realised that to succeed they needed to develop something different from a traditional shop.

This was the moment when they had a brilliant intuition: what if the pandemic could be an opportunity to join forces? Thinking about the community of independent creatives struggling with the business side of things, they came up with the idea of a shop made by the sum of many small financial efforts of its shareholders.

Photo by Rock Paper Scissors

To do so, the two co-founders took inspiration from the concept of micro-retailing and pop-up shops. Micro-retailing is a retail concept that includes the opening of downsized retail units displaying a selected assortment of goods as opposed to larger shops. Pop-up shops on the other hand are short-term sales spaces lasting for days or weeks before closing down or moving onto a different place.

Rock Paper Scissors has cleverly merged these two approaches by creating 'micro pop-up units' within the shop. The shop is made of small retail sales spaces including multiple shelves, racks and walls where makers can display their craft against a small monthly rent.

Local designers, artists, ceramicists, illustrators and jewellers can rent a space for only £35 a month, with no other commitment other than renting the space for a minimum of 3 months. On top of the rent, the shop applies a further 10% fee on transactions to support the sales activities.

Photo by Rock Paper Scissors

This innovative way of conceiving a shop represents a true game-changer and a win-win situation for both the shop and the makers: on one side, the small but numerous rents ensure the shop stays open and on the other side creative makers get access to extremely affordable retail units to sell their crafts.

A comprehensive role

The role of Rock Paper Scissors though is not only limited to providing a physical space to makers but includes all the sales and marketing support activities to ensure the products are appealing to customers and marketable. By doing so, the shop takes the 'business' pressure off the makers, which are then free to focus 100% on their work.

Whilst Liz takes care of the visual side of things, arranging products displays together with every maker, Charlie is more active on the sales and marketing side of the business. Knowing the great opportunities given by e-commerce, which during the pandemic has seen exponential growth, he took care of the development of an effective website to boost sales and create awareness around the shop.

Both the shop and website are currently selling crafts from more than fifty different makers across the southeast of England, with expansion plans already on the pipeline given the success of the initiative and the good sales prospects.

Photo by Rock Paper Scissors

Storytelling and building experiences around products

Living in New York for almost ten years, a traditional breeding ground for product and marketing innovations, Charlie had the occasion to see innovative approaches to product placement and marketing. In particular, he understood the great potential given by storytelling and experiential marketing to add value to products and drive sales.

People don't buy product, they buy the story behind it. Millennials, for example, are currently spending more on experiences than products. - Charlie Wilkie, co-founder

Storytelling is the art of using a compelling narrative to convey a message to engage with the customer on a more personal level: people and their stories are at the core of the communication. On the other hand, experiential marketing leverages the emotional aspects connected to a product to bring added value to the customer.

Charlie has adopted these two techniques to develop the whole communication and marketing strategy around the unique products available for purchase both in-store and through the website e-commerce.

Photo by Rock Paper Scissors

The stories of creative makers are not only displayed on the store shelves in the form of short descriptions but are further developed into powerful visuals and text on both the company's website and social media channels.

By telling the stories of the people behind the products, made of their passions and struggles, Rock Paper Scissors can create personal connections between the maker and the customer, adding unique value to each piece of craft. Aligned with this philosophy the website displays regularly the 'maker of the week' featuring each week the story of a creative maker and his/her crafts.

Creating these meaningful connections between customers and makers allows the business to add experiential value to every product they sell, making it more appealing. When a customer buys a handmade piece of pottery, jewel or illustration he is not only buying the product but the story behind it.

Our hope is when somebody walks through our front door, like the wardrobe, they are entering an exciting new world - Liz Wellstead, co-founder

Buying a piece of craft also becomes a way to support local makers, and this adds further value to the product. With the pandemic sparking in people the need to come closer to each other and support the local community, the shop is leveraging on the value of social purchasing to inspire and give value to its customers.

Despite the importance of e-commerce, Charlie thinks the physical presence of the shop is even more important to create connections between customers and the makers. Also, he is convinced that having a physical shop allows people to interact with the products and give direct feedback to the maker, something that would not be possible online.

It's not all fun and games...

Putting into place such a comprehensive strategy it's not all fun and games though. Updating the website with stories about each maker, adding descriptions and pictures for every product is a highly time-consuming activity. On the other side, dealing with all makers and organising spaces within the shop is another challenging activity.

Being only two people working at Rock Paper Scissors these tasks require a full-time commitment and a good amount of extra work. Charlie thinks that as a short term approach it still works, but as operations will scale this will become more difficult. That's why he is still looking around to find ways to make this process more automated and pipelined.

Rock Paper Scissors represents an extraordinary example of resilience, care for the local community and business innovation. The shop took the pandemic as an opportunity to grow instead of a threat, leveraging on the power given by the union of forces and shared community interests. The shop is an example of how to jumpstart a project with a limited amount of resources, taking the best of two different business models and adapting them to the needs of the shareholders. Alongside an innovative business model, Rock Paper Scissors makes clever use of experiential marketing and storytelling techniques to add value to products, fostering customer loyalty and creating bonds between the customer and the producer.

Key Takeaways

Published on:
April 2020
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