Little Citizens Boutique is a children's clothing and toy shop that operates part-time from a retail unit in Holywood, though most of its sales are conducted online. "We started the shop in June of last year," explains its owner Alicia Peyrano.
Initially the unit was rented on a short term basis as a 'pop-up shop', located on the first floor on the High Street, above the fashion boutique Red Ruby Rouge. It is a good location, given that both businesses focus on cultural diversity, striking design and high quality, though in different market sectors.
"At first we thought it would just be a pop-up and we would focus online," explains Alicia. "But now it has become a bit of a showroom. I am still focusing online really. This is a nice place because I keep my overheads down, while I keep growing the business slowly."
Alicia had previously been in TV production, but when she moved to Northern Ireland she was seven months pregnant and decided she needed to have more flexible working arrangements. Given her international background – she was born in Boston, Massachusetts, of parents from Argentina and Venezuela and has lived in many other countries – it was natural for Alicia to bring this cultural diversity together.
As a young mother, it was equally natural for Alicia to apply this interest to children's clothes and toys. "I am selling the clothes and toys that I would want to buy for my child if I were living in Paris, London or New York," she explains.
"A lot of companies we represent are artistically-led or design-led. It is not the big companies that are licensing characters from TV. We have great small brands that have stories about their brands, which we send out in newsletters to our customers."
The brands are also chosen for their ethics, with particular attention placed on ensuring that materials used are not damaging to children's health.
Sourcing has largely been about finding good quality designs through online research and then emailing and phoning design houses. "In TV production I had lots of experience of cold calling and researching," says Alicia. "That came in handy. I do a lot of trawling of the internet. Nowadays everybody is online, so you do find them."
Another useful past experience for Alicia was writing the consumer shopping section of Time Out magazine in Buenos Aires. This gave her a strong understanding of the sector and some useful contacts. It has made it much easier for her to find the right brands for her business.
But she has also travelled to find designs and designers she likes, including going to markets in Paris. "I represent quite a few French companies because I love French toys," Alicia explains. "I also use some US-based companies, from Texas, from Los Angeles, from New York. I have a Canadian supplier. I am getting in a German and a second Swedish company. I have a designer who works in Hong Kong."
Similarly, the business has a broad international customer base. About 60% of sales are outside the UK and about 70% are online – the website is www.littlecitizensboutique.com.
"I have customers in Australia in the middle of nowhere because they connect with the toys and clothes that we carry," she says.
"We have built up a really nice following online. There are some competitors who would not even tell you who the brand is that they are selling. But we tell the stories of the brands. Many of the designers are mothers who had children and made things for their kids and then turned that into a business."
Impressively, Little Citizens Boutique has been built with minimal advertising, apart from sponsorship of a few websites.
"I have done this on a very low budget and put very little money into marketing," argues Alicia. "You have to be clear what role marketing will play. People will get to know your brand through good service.
"Online is very exciting. You can be sleeping and you are getting sales. It's very slow burn, but you hope it will grow exponentially and you look for partnerships with people."
For the future Alicia would like to connect her business more firmly with the arts and she is intending to create short term pop-up shops in the run up to Christmas, including one in London. She is also interested in creating a pop-up shop in Belfast if she can locate suitable premises.
Little Citizens Boutique is a small business. "I pretty well do everything on my own, but I do have friends, teenagers and family members who help me sometimes," says Alicia.
But, as she says, it has the potential to grow exponentially as the online word spreads.