The Body Shop started in Kensington Gardens

Photo:Anita Roddick

Anita Roddick

Photo by Joel Anderson

My first shop was in North Laine

By Anita Roddick (1942-2007)

 A scented trail to my shop

Shopkeepers in Kensington Gardens opening up for business in the spring of 1976 had cause to sniff the air, then pause and scratch their heads at the curious sight of this odd woman in dungarees with unruly dark hair walking down the street intently spraying strawberry essence onto the pavement. It was not a madwoman - it was me, laying a scented trail to the door of the Body Shop in the hope that potential customers would follow it!

Exotic perfume

Believe me, I was prepared to try anything in those early days to get customers into my shop. I wanted to get passers-by to stop, so I put big, old-fashioned sandwich boards outside and got local art students to make posters promoting one or another of the products. I drenched the front of the shop in the most exotic perfume oils so that it always smelled wonderful as you approached. Inside I hung huge branches of dried flowers from the ceiling and there was fragrant pot pourri everywhere.

Never behind the counter

Once I had got people inside it was all down to me. I never sold anything to anyone, at least not in the way that selling was then understood - it was not my style to be a pushy saleswoman. In the retail trade sales staff tend to use counters as a refuge to avoid making contact with customers. That was not me - I was never behind the counter. I would be tidying a shelf next to someone and I would dab something like the Glycerine and Rosewater Lotion on the back of my hand and say: "Umm, I love the smell of this. Here, try it. What do you think?"

I adored the process of trading

The only time I was uncomfortable with this new trade of mine was if I thought whoever was buying could not really afford it. Then I tried to encourage them to take the smallest size or to bring in their own bottle for a squirt of something at 10 pence. Otherwise I adored the whole process of trading, of watching someone come into the shop and looking along the shelves. Sometimes I found myself literally holding my breath, waiting for the moment when they would reach out and choose something. I thought it was wonderful to have a shop full of products that people actually wanted (it still is!).

Different kinds of customer

Without my understanding it and certainly without my planning it, the shop seemed to appeal to lots of different kinds of customer - to students, young mothers, day trippers, foreign visitors - even guys liked to come in and look around. Women of my Mum's age liked the notion of returnable bottles, perhaps because it reminded them of those thrifty days during and after the war. It was classless, friendly and stylish; people felt comfortable even if they were only browsing.

Some people were lonely

Being in the shop every day was also an education for me, because I realised that some people came in just to have someone to talk to. It was a shock to discover that there was a lot of loneliness out there, loneliness that could be temporarily alleviated by simple gestures, by talking, touching and bonding.

I tried to keep busy

The best times were when the shop was full of people and I was run off my feet. The worst times were when there was no-one to talk to - the days when no-one came into the shop at all. I paid, I expiated my sins on those days, staring out into the street and praying for someone, anyone to come in. Working alone in 3000 sq ft of retail space can be the most frustrating experience in the world. I would try to keep busy by housekeeping or rearranging a display or bottling at the back of the shop, but in the end you are left with absolutely nothing to do... except to stand there and worry and get varicose veins.

No clue about business

In many ways I should not have succeeded because I didn't have a clue about business. The extent of my business acumen was that Gordon said I had to take £300 a week to survive. There were many weeks when I was well short. I tried openng on Sundays and going out in the evenings, with a selection of products loaded in my van, to talk to schools or evening institutes or anyone who would have me. Still, some weeks I was lucky if I made £150.

Aesthetics ruled everything

My interest in financial matters did not extend much beyond making enough money to keep going - if I was short of cash to pay a bill, I simply kept the shop open later. I only had the vaguest idea of how to keep accounts; aesthetics were far more important to me than accounts. Aesthetics ruled everything. When I was a teacher, I was obsessed with the style and detail in my classroom - now it was the same with my shop. I wanted to create the right atmosphere and sense of style. I made up my mind that I didn't want one of those ghastly modern tills, so I used to stuff the money into the pockets of my dungarees (silver in one pocket, coppers in another, with notes in the front bib) and count out the change like a barrow boy.

We used the wrong ink

It was clearly evident to everyone that the Body Shop was a hick little cottage industry and therein, I think, lay a lot of its attraction. But it also created problems. I was very pleased with the folksy, hand-written labels on the bottles, for example, but we used the wrong ink. People who left my products in steamy bathrooms - and most did - soon discovered that the ink began to run. After a few days the label was completely illegible, so they couldn't see what they had bought. Customers started bringing containers back and asking me if I could tell them what was inside, although there was never any bad feeling.

Combining playtime, theatre and fun!

I could not afford to put perfumes in the products because they cost such a lot of money, so I set up a little 'perfume bar'. I filled a typesetter's tray with a selection of perfume oils - musk, apple blossom, frangipani, honeysuckle, patchouli, jasmine and so on - and let customers choose their own fragrance to mix with whatever products they were buying. If they wanted to make their own eau de toilette I told them to mix it with vodka. It all added to the wonderful smell in the shop and gave people the opportunity to experiment and create their own individual products. No-one had ever done that before and it was enormously popular. It was a combination of playtime, theatre and a bit of fun!

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 101, January/February 1993; reproduced in the September/October 2007 issue, No 188, in Anita's memory after she died on 10th September 2007 aged 64]

This page was added on 21/07/2008.
Comments/reviews:

I remember the first Body Shop in the very early '80s in Kensington Gardens. I was there just this Saturday (29/12/2012) telling my son's girlfriend and she could barely believe it. I used to love the fact that you could take your bottle back and get it refilled - true green reuse philosophy!

By Susan
On 07/01/2013

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