Ashley Russell and Lesley Reid, co-owners of Bellies and Bundles (286 Torbay Rd., St. John’s) are busy. Neither were parents when they started the business less than four years ago, but both are now, and both maintain careers apart from their store. Russell says they hope the store does well enough that it becomes the sole job they have. She spoke to the Telegram about why people choose cloth diapers and how she balances work, family and more work.
Who opened Bellies and Bundles, and when?
We opened it together, in November of 2009.
What does Bellies and Bundles do?
We sell maternity clothing. That was our primary reason to open. Then, the more research we did, we realized there was a niche in the market that wasn’t being filled for eco-friendly baby products and accessories, things like that. So we added that component to the store, and really beefed up the cloth diapering side of things too. We have the greatest selection of cloth diapers that you can find around town.
The environmental aspect of this, is this something that you practise yourself or was it just that there was a hole in the marketplace that you were looking to fill?
Lesley and I, neither one of us had children at the time, but we were very environmentally conscious, and we knew that if we were going to open a business, we wanted to make sure there was an eco-friendly side to it. We wanted the store to fit with our lifestyle. Lesley’s an environmental engineer and I work with (Multi-Materials Stewardship Board), which is an environmental agency for the province, so it was very fitting to our lifestyle and our careers. We still have those careers, actually, so we’re pretty busy.
And we knew that when we had children of our own, we wanted to make sure we’d have access to those kinds of products, and make sure that other people here in the area had access as well.
Any business background for either of you before you opened the store?
I have a business degree, and always had an idea that I wanted to open a business, just didn’t know what at the time. Lots of our friends were getting pregnant, but one of my good friends in particular, she got pregnant and I was searching for a gift to give her and I wanted something that brought out what her lifestyle’s all about, and I couldn’t find anything locally, so that sparked the idea, really.
Has Bellies and Bundles been in this location since you opened?
We wanted to make sure there was lots of access to easy parking, and the east end seems to be an area of town that’s growing, and there were like-minded businesses in the plaza: the Little Gym and the Dance Centre. And even Shakti Yoga has prenatal yoga, so it’s all very fitting. We promote each other whenever we can.
Who came up with the name?
We did it together. We wanted to make sure it was all-encompassing, talking about both types of products that we were selling. So bellies for maternity, and bundles for the little ones that arrive.
How many people work here?
Two. Two Nicoles (laughs) and myself and Lesley.
You’ve got a one-month-old baby, you’ve got another job, and you’ve got this business…
And I’ve got a two-year-old.
You must be quite busy. How do you juggle it all?
Well, we have great employees. That’s the most important thing, really. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do it. We also have very supportive families and husbands. Both of our husbands sometimes work out of town, so that’s not easy, but really the most important thing is to have good employees and be able to access things. They send us orders on email. We go through them on email. We’re always, constantly on the phone. There’s a good, open line of communication.
What sort of trends are you seeing in what people want for their pregnancies and once the bundle arrives?
For their pregnancies, they’re looking for comfortable stuff that’s going to last throughout multiple pregnancies. But stylish, for sure, too. If they wanted just cheap stuff, they could go somewhere else. They want to invest in something that they can even pass on to someone after they’re finished with it. They’re looking for stuff that’s trendy but classic at the same time. So we’re seeing a lot of people want tunics, which is a long shirt style with leggings that seems to be popular with everyone right now, whether you’re pregnant or not.
With baby products, we’re seeing the interest in cloth diapers is increasing exponentially every year. It’s excellent. When we started, we carried two brands but very little selection, and we now have four different brands and all of it is just super popular.
Is it environmental reasons? Is it budgetary reasons?
It’s everything, really. It’s definitely the environmental factor, but I think most people are drawn to it initially for the cost. It keeps things down. You can save $1,200 in a year for one baby if you’re using cloth diapers. … You’re also saving a lot from the landfill, and that’s becoming more and more important to people, especially young families, now. They want to leave the world a better place for their children when they grow up.
Is it difficult to keep up with all the different safety warnings? Health Canada, for example, recently said don’t put teething necklaces on your baby because they’re a choking hazard. How do you keep up with everything — phosphates, phthalates, whatever?
We want to make sure we’re providing something that our customers are looking for, first of all, so we continue to carry those teething necklaces, but people understand the risks, and we tell people to always make sure they’re never leaving their children alone with those on. Put them on the ankle instead of the neck and put a pair of pants down over it, and there’s no choking hazard then. And also taking it off at naptime and bedtime. We want to make sure that we let people know what the hazards are, for sure.
As for skin care, we did a lot of research when we first opened about different products, and we continue to do that, so the girls are always looking for new lines for us to bring in, especially Canadian brands if we can. For a lot of our products, we’re really trying to support Canadian. We’d support local if there was stuff available. … We started off with more (local products), but they couldn’t necessarily keep up with what we were trying to sell, because it was people doing it from their homes on the side, and we needed more of it. But we do have one woodmaker who sells his toys here.
Is St. John’s a business-friendly city? I mean getting a business licence, business regulations, that kind of thing.
It wasn’t too bad, to be honest with you. I thought it was going to be a little challenging. It was a little more challenging for us because we’re working in other positions, and we had to do everything on our lunch breaks (laughs). No, I found it pretty easy, actually. I wouldn’t say that’s a huge hurdle to overcome. We have a great landlord here, who gave us a lot of advice along the way.
What’s your biggest challenge as a business owner?
Bringing in customers (laughs). Making sure that people are aware of our store. We’re a small store that can’t afford a lot of promotion. Plus our clientele is always changing. We have a customer for up to nine months, so we want to get them at the beginning of their pregnancy and keep them, and hopefully they’ll return for the baby products once their baby’s born and come back for additional pregnancies, but it’s retaining that customer.
Have you had any problems with crime since you opened?
No. I know that there has been something here in the plaza — I think it was over the winter — but we haven’t had any issues here.
What are your plans for the future?
We definitely plan on staying here. It just seems like the right place to be, for sure. We would like to be able to expand our product lines and listen to our customers’ wants, needs, as much as we can, but I think that for now we need to continue to grow with what we have.