A few months ago we were excited to be asked to answer some questions relating to our transition to an e-commerce store for a feature in the Christmas edition of our buying group magazine. The following is our answers given to Frontline Stores Australia so that they could compile the article.
Give us an overview of your store, location and brief history?
We are located in Mullumbimby, which is part of the Byron Shire on the Far North Coast of NSW.
Stewarts Mercery was established in 1929 by Norman Stewart who was married to Audrey Barrett (the owner of the shop building).
The original menswear store also housed a billiards parlour and a barber shop. There was a change of ownership at one time to the owner of the billiards parlour, but Norman Stewart became the owner again in 1937 during the War.
Norman’s only son Tom Stewart and his wife Jean took over the business in 1955. Interestingly Jean was the daughter of F.I. Ward, the owner of the F.I. Ward Emporium next door.
Freehold to the property was passed to Tom in 1968 and the name was modernised to Stewart’s Menswear in 1980 when one of their sons, Bill Stewart took over the family business.
We bought the business from Bill (who was a member of Frontline Stores) when he retired in 2004. Gerard had worked for the Stewart family for 25 years and now has over 40 years’ experience in the menswear retail trade.
We were both born and raised in Mullumbimby, we love our community and it is a privilege to continue the tradition of local family ownership. We continue to offer the same friendly, personalised service that our locals have come to know and appreciate.
Give us brief highlights of your current business and challenges?
Staying competitive with current price inflations due to increases in the price of raw materials and shipping from overseas. There also comes with this, delays in receipt of stock.
Customer expectations are constantly evolving. With the internet at their fingertips 24/7, they are more informed than ever on products and comparison prices etc.
In our local area, there has been a Real Estate boom with many city dwellers moving to the country. They bring with them a sense of urgency and a different expectation of service which can be particularly challenging in our once laid-back town.
Because of the lockdowns people are simply buying the basics, there is no need for any going out or more formal attire, so fashion ranges have been slow to move. Who knew flannelette shirts would be the biggest seller of 2021!!
The uncertainty of COVID lockdowns has been a huge challenge this past few months. Last year during COVID, any business that was able to open was deemed essential, so although we had a downturn, there was little actual business interruption. As we are now on the “non-essential” list, when there is a lockdown, we are not able to physically open the store. A series of open/shut/open/shut is the biggest challenge we have faced this year. The looming restrictions on those who are unvaccinated entering non-essential business is a real concern right now. We are not sure how this will unfold for small businesses such as ours who do not have the manpower to police the store entrance.
What are your thoughts on your current industry and where it is headed?
Although we are seeing statistics of high e-commerce use by consumers, there is still very much a place for bricks and mortar stores, particularly independent stores like those in the Frontline membership base.
Our number one demographic is aged 45+, they prefer to shop in person rather than on-line. Even during lockdown, we have found that this age group prefers to phone through, have a chat and place their order. Even if an order is eventually placed on-line, they usually initiate Social Media contact or a phone conversation first.
We have many day trippers from the Gold Coast and Brisbane who prefer to shop in our type of store where they are likely to find something different to the clothing found in the shopping mall chain stores. Obviously, the QLD border closure has had a large impact on this demographic for us.
We have changed the way we buy, choosing those suppliers who have stock service lines that we can fill in as necessary, so we are able to do smaller orders more often.
People still like to look, feel, and try on their clothing. Even as a retailer this is true, missing out on the Frontline Buying Events can give retailers a lack of confidence in buying new, unseen ranges.
From a digital/Online perspective what do you do that has helped your business grow?
Where do I start. In January 2020, I started studying a Certificate IV in Bookkeeping and Accounting, the first study I had undertaken since leaving school in 1980!! I absolutely loved it and when COVID hit in March, I resigned from my part time job to work ON our business rather than simply IN it.
I undertook a Statement of Attainment in Digital Solutions for Sole Traders and Small Business Operators through TAFE NSW together with several other free courses through Business NSW.
I did a two-day course on Branding and Canva with our local adult education facility, Byron Community College and went on to do some paid courses with the teacher of that course through her personal business, Hello Media in Bangalow.
We received a Digital Marketing Grant from the NSW Government during 2020 and used it to have the Frontline digital team set up an e-commerce store for us which became live in October 2020.
I am now working full time on our business doing the bookkeeping, managing our Facebook and Instagram pages, email marketing and maintaining our e-commerce store.
We try to be entertaining and informative on our social pages rather than just trying to sell all the time and we are attracting followers who are engaged and interested in our Socials.
I continue to do group coaching with Hello Media and keep my eye out for any other free webinars being offered. Due to COVID, there are many available through Government and Industry groups right now.
How have your digital efforts helped you during Covid?
The cohesive look and feel of our social pages together with our website have increased our visibility in the on-line space. We are able to use our socials to drive traffic to our website by including links to blog posts and lead magnets, adding value for our customers not just selling to them. It has given us a platform to share information to a large audience without the expense of advertising in print media.
Ultimately, people buy from people so we include regular posts about ourselves, the story of Stewart’s Menswear and the history of Mullumbimby. The engagement on those posts is phenomenal compared with product posts.
We are so glad we had our website put in place well before these latest lockdowns, enabling us to iron out any hiccups with regular customers who were happy to be our on-line guinea pigs. Although our results were well down on previous years, we were able to drive reasonable sales through our website in the lead-up to Father’s Day. As our store was physically closed, we were able to give our time to providing extra service such as gift wrapping and home delivery, which resulted in satisfied customers leaving some valuable reviews on Google and Facebook.
What advice would you give to other retailers who are looking to improve their business by utilising the online space?
Get your branding sorted first. Not just your logo, but your colours and voice as well, so that all platforms share a cohesive look and feel. A look that customers will know and recognise at a glance. Carry this branding over to the packaging of your on-line orders, including a branded handwritten thank you note and stickers to seal your package. Make package opening a pleasant experience!!
Encourage your customers to leave a Google or Facebook review which you can then share on your socials and publish on your website. People trust what other people have to say!!
Make sure you have an email signup form on your website and actively grow your email list. Your email list is the most direct way to communicate with your customer base and unlike your Social pages, it belongs wholly to you.
My number one tip is naming every single photo on your website and social pages for SEO. It’s a great feeling when you do a google search for images and a page of photos from your website and socials pop up in google with direct links straight to your page!! It does take a minute or two, but if you start from the beginning you will never need to “go back” and do it all again.
Your e-commerce store really is entirely a whole other business, not just a side hustle!!