The Shoe Dilemma

What do you do when you live in an isolated rural community and can’t find shoes for your toddler?  Well, if you’re Andrea Harrison from Birchip, you start up your own online business importing children’s shoes and clothing.  Then you start manufacturing your own lines, collaborate on a specialist baby range with selected retail stores and introduce an upmarket point of sale system to cater for even more growth. And that’s just in the first nine years!

It all began when Andrea, a young mother and wife of a dryland farmer, wrestled with the shoe dilemma. 

“I started thinking that probably many other parents in rural areas were also experiencing the same issues,” says Andrea who didn’t just stop at sourcing shoes.  After experimenting with eBay, in 2007 she launched her online business, Kawaii Kids, selling children’s clothing and accessories imported from Japan, Korea and China. 

At this period in time online businesses in the rural sector were a rarity and won her a local business award as well as a Victorian Regional Achievement & Community Award in 2011.

Operating from the family home, clothes were stored in industrial containers in the back yard and a laptop on a small desk in the hallway acted as her business hub.  Birchip’s post office suddenly had a lot more throughput.  Recognising she was on a winner, Andrea started planning for growth when she was barely 12 months into the business.

Much has been achieved in almost a decade since launching her business career.

Her next step was to free up the family home by opening a retail store in Birchip.  A few years later it was relocated to the larger regional city of Horsham.  After being approached by a new shopping centre developer, Kawaii Kids then moved into the brand new Gateway Shopping Centre in Horsham in prime position next to Target.

“I was aware that it takes people 18 months to change their shopping habits and our landlord helped in many ways to us get through that initial period in the shopping centre,” says Andrea.

During this period she also worked a lot of days in the store to save on wages which gave her great insight into the shopping habits of customers.

“One big lesson I learned in retail was to stop listening to what people say and go with my own gut which is generally right,” she says.  “Shoppers are really savvy now and compare your products with online prices.  The big chain stores have copied a lot of the designer brands and saturated them online making it hard for the smaller stores.  My strategy is to stock brands that don’t have a big online presence. That is my main point of difference.”

As part of that point of difference Andrea has also started manufacturing her own line of children’s clothing under the Curious Wonderland brand which required her to take on a second lease when the adjacent store space became available.  Removal of the dividing wall allowed staff to service both businesses.

As always Andrea put a lot of thought and research into her new venture making the decision to rebrand away from Kawaii Kids so that either of the businesses could be sold separately in the future.

After being approached by one of her contacts in China about the possibility of manufacturing her own line of clothing, Andrea quickly leapt at the opportunity but it did come with some challenges, the first being finance. 

Instead of just buying a certain number of items off the rack she now had to commit to large quantities to make it viable.  Without a credit history – she had self-funded all her business activities to date – the banks would not consider a business loan despite the impressive cash flow figures she presented to them.  It was a bitter lesson for someone who had worked hard to prove her worth in the business world.

“We had to sell everything we possibly could, including the family car, to fund it. We really jumped in the deep end.”

Ironically, 12 months on with the new business proving its worth, the banks are finally starting to show interest.

The Curious Wonderland line was successfully launched at the Sydney Trade Show in February 2015 picking up 23 retailers on the spot.  It was a huge relief to Andrea who had considered the possibility that her own children may have to wear these clothes forever!

Another challenge was the uncertainty of whether customers would like what Andrea designed.  Based on her own children’s preferences (by now she had three) and following her own gut instincts, Andrea sketched out her own designs before passing them on to a graphic designer to prepare for the manufacturing stage.  Attention to detail on the Pantene colours and interpretation of the smaller design details were crucial.  Samples were scrutinised and evaluated by the ever vigilant Andrea.

“I’m very fussy and what I’m doing is very different to what everyone else is doing.  They’re getting to know me,” she laughs.

As always Andrea relentlessly researched every aspect of manufacturing in China during the lead up.

“I just hopped online to do my own research and joined retail groups on Facebook. I asked lots of questions about labeling and manufacturing,” says Andrea.  “You have to be aware of what chemicals are used in China that aren’t allowed in Australia. It would be devastating to have it pulled up in Customs.”

Despite being a great success overall, there has been a few expensive lessons along the way.  In Andrea’s words, “it’s been a huge learning curve.”

 A line of denim clothing ordered through a separate manufacturer was delayed by extended Chinese holidays missing delivery for the last winter season and resulting in cancelled orders. 

“I remember driving down to the docks in pouring rain aware that I had just thrown $55,000 down the toilet despite putting my heart and soul into it,” Andrea admits.  “I learnt the value of staying with just the one production run.”  She now understands the Chinese holiday system a bit better as well.

In her latest project manufacturing a range of baby clothes, Andrea has opted to minimise the risk by sharing the cost with seven other retailers who will get to exclusively stock the products.

“We’ve all agreed on the designs and prepared to try it out.  It’s not so risky and we don’t have to commit to such high quantities when the order is split between seven of us.  So far, so good.”

Andrea was strategic about who she invited into this collaboration, asking for expressions of interest through an online retail forum.  Selected store owners from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria have agreed to pool their ideas and knowledge.

With growth in mind Andrea has also committed to Retail Express, a point of sale system that has the capacity to track inventory over multiple businesses, both instore and online.

“It will bring everything together and allow me to oversee all my businesses from home.”

Balancing family and seasonal farm priorities has been an ongoing challenge for Andrea who is grateful to have the support of her partner, Daniel.

“I’ve got so much I want to do,” she admits with a hint of frustration.  “My business is now contributing to the family income which is a relief given the number of dry years we’ve had.  It’s good not to have all our eggs in the one basket. I just have to be flexible and fit in with when Daniel is available to help out.”

With the latest arrival in April of Ava, their fourth child, one could be forgiven for thinking that Andrea has slowed down but this appears not to be the case.

“I wish I was wired differently and could sit down and relax. I really envy people who can do that,” she admits.

Fortunately with three trusted staff to run the two combined Horsham stores, Andrea has the flexibility of running the online sales and monitoring the store from her laptop on the kitchen bench.

It goes without saying that she is also exploring new ideas. 

“I research everything I want to do just in case I can do it one day,” she says with a hint of defiance. 

Knowing Andrea, she probably will.

Andrea’s top business tips:

  • Be proactive and stay ahead of your competitors.  Find a point of difference.
  • Ask for referrals and interview other customers before committing to large cost items or services for your business.
  • Understand overseas cultures and potential impact on your production and delivery processes.
  • Research, research, research!

BREAKING NEWS!

Andrea Harrison is one of our guest speakers celebrating International Rural Women's Day in Cohuna on Sunday 15 October, 2017.  Please join us for a great conversation.  MORE INFORMATION

Kawaii Kids Website 

Curious Wonderland Website 

KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, philanthropist and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry Anderson is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE