At the start of 2020, when the country was blissfully unaware of the damage coronavirus would wreak on our lives, one Welsh entrepreneur was already planning for Halloween.
Jack Lear, a 27-year-old man from Pembrokeshire, had just ordered 200,000 costumes for his fancy dress business Bodysocks.
But as the whispers about the impending pandemic grew to become reality Jack quickly realised his market was shrinking by the day with widespread cancellations of parties and celebrations across the country. By Halloween his market would be virtually non-existent.
In true entrepreneur spirit Jack looked around at what he could replace his fancy dress business with and noted Amazon had somehow managed to take on an extra 10,000 staff despite the national lockdown.
It sparked an idea and he invested £500,000 to launch BargainFox.com in March, an online sales platform specialising in discounted consumer goods based in Pembroke Dock. Beard trimmers were the first product to take off, mainly because barbers had closed their doors for lockdown.
Jack found he had latched onto a promising business that quite simply took off and is expecting to hit turnover close to £2.5m just seven months later.
Not bad for someone who dropped out of school at the start of his A-levels to pursue his own dreams of setting up a business.
"I had already committed to the 200,000 costumes and signed contracts," said Jack, recalling the moment he realised he was going to be lumped with his stock.
"I realised I'd dug myself into a pretty big hole with no market to sell them. I could try and weather the storm, which is what most people have done, or I could gamble and start a new business."
He chose the latter after taking a "logical look" at the skills his small eight-man team had. He realised they were good at digital marketing and had a useful knowledge of the workings of a warehouse. Like many of his best ideas the concept came on one of his long walks in the Pembrokeshire countryside, which he uses to find "peacefulness and clarity" when he's at a crossroads.
"I saw a report that Amazon had taken on 10,000 staff," he continued. "They were doing well – selling costumes wasn't doing well." He initially stocked beard trimmers but has now expanded the range to more than 50,000 different products across everything from household goods to baby products to sport and leisure gear.
"It's mind-blowing how big the range is," he says, stood in his original costume warehouse at the family home. "I look at Amazon and I guess that's what we're trying to aspire to."
It's not just his product range which has expanded though. He's more than quadrupled his staff numbers to 35 and is looking to take on 12 more in the run up to Christmas.
He admits he took out the biggest loan he could and rented the biggest warehouse he could afford. The house he was building has also stalled while all of his resources are ploughed into the business. He has far from "made it" but he is well on his way, he adds.
"It was a bigger risk to do nothing at all. I would rather fail trying than sit back and watch the business die," he says with a wry smile.
"We haven't weathered the storm yet – we're still in the middle of it."
BargainFox draws on much of the experience he has gained from running Bodysocks but its reach is much more ambitious – while the fancy dress goods market worldwide is worth billions consumer and household goods is worth trillions.
“We are taking inspiration from Amazon, one of the best warehousing companies in the world,’’ says Jack, a former pupil of Greenhill School, Tenby. BargainFox has contracts with retailers to take customer returns and liquidation stock – items that are new or "as new" but sometimes with damaged packaging. On average the thousands of items are discounted by 40% from the recommended retail price.
He started out buying and selling on eBay when we was still a schoolboy and was making enough money to justify his decision to quit his A-levels. His mum wasn't overly impressed but he won her over.
By his 20s he was drawing up designs for fancy dress costumes on Clip Art and sending them to be made in a factory in China.
"I didn't have the ability to invent a new product but I hit on fancy dress because the costumes are quite basic, the design element is quite straightforward and simplistic," Jack says.
Jack is taking on at the moment and so are other businesses. Look up jobs near you using this tool:
The process has become a little more sophisticated since those early days and some of his designs have been copyrighted across the world. Halloween costumes account for nearly half of his entire yearly sales and 35% of his business goes to America. While the UK market has stalled sales in the US are on course to match last year, which he says he will take as a "small victory" given the circumstances.
What has really been the defining line between failure and success is Jack’s decision in July 2019 to buy the contents of a Manchester-based warehouse run by a failed party goods company. He suddenly found he owned more than 20,000 products and had to quickly learn to catalogue each and every item and put them into a database.
“There were 200,000 products in that warehouse with 15,000 different product codes. We had to update our software to manage that level of stock,’’ he says.
“That gave us the skill to process tens of thousands of products and to be able to locate each of those individually in a warehouse.’’
BargainFox now has a slick operation where each item is individually checked, photographed, and uploaded to the website by the team of processors.
There are also pickers who collect the items from the floor-to-ceiling shelving with two electric order pickers that have sufficient elevation to reach the top shelf, packers to prepare orders, and a restocking team.
His team is mostly a "young squad" and he took on locals looking for work during a summer hit by lockdown. "Lots of people were looking for work," he says. "I managed to take on the RNLI lifeguards who couldn't work as usual."
All items have a 45-day quality guarantee, there is a 10% cashback offering on the first order available as a cash balance on a customer’s account, and there is no delivery charge on orders over the value of £20. There is also a click and collect service from the warehouse in London Road, Pembroke Dock.
Jack sums up his typical customer type as a bargain hunter. “They don’t mind a damaged box – they are interested in what is inside and that they are getting it at a heavily discounted price,’’ he says.
And has he finally won his mum over? "Yeah, she's pretty proud," he laughs.