Ecommerce insights

Three small Australian businesses turned themselves into global online retailers to meet the challenges of COVID-19. Here’s how they did it.

COVID-19 has fast-tracked the shift to online shopping and changed our shopping habits forever. Online shopping is no longer the future of retail – it’s the present. 

For small businesses, this has meant finding ways to adapt, pivot and tap into new markets. Regional businesses have become international brands and wholesalers have become global retailers. 

Today, small companies are finding global customers in a whole new way.

Dreamtime design

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Charmaine Saunders and her husband Denis Keeffe co-founders of Cairns-based Mainie Designer Fashion, knew they had to change their focus from wholesale to retail.

This Aboriginal-owned business helps Aboriginal women artists from some of the most remote and isolated desert communities in Central Australia to earn an independent income. It does this by supplying high-end fashion with Aboriginal Dreamtime designs. 

Before 2020, the Mainie label was stocked in more than 90 retail outlets. These were mostly located in high-end international tourist shopping precincts, and around 80% of products were bought by international visitors.

A pivot to digital retail

COVID-19 changed all that. Soon after Australia’s borders closed, Mainie lost most of its customers, and was forced to halt its retail and wholesale operations and stand down all staff. 

“This was a heartbreaking time for us, because we had invested everything we had into starting the business from scratch,” says Charmaine.

In response, Charmaine and Denis went digital. They re-hired essential staff under the Australian Government’s JobKeeper scheme, negotiated to reduce operational costs, and invested in website upgrades and digital marketing to reach new customers directly and get some revenue coming back in.

The company is now achieving a greater than 10 to 1 return on digital advertising spend and selling products through direct email campaigns. Mainie is also on track to enter the US market.

“We are very proud of the progress we have made to pivot our business from mainly wholesale distribution in Australia to becoming a global ecommerce seller,” says Charmaine.

Innovating in the face of adversity

The ability to adapt, embrace technology and focus on solutions is what saw Mainie survive this tough time. And it was the same for Nail Snail founder Julia Christie.

The Nail Snail is a multi-award–winning, patented nail trimmer for trimming the fingernails and toenails of babies and small children. Based on the Gold Coast, Julia had a team of four work-from-home mothers and a track record of selling out products and attracting strong interest at trade expos around Australia.

But when Australia went into lockdown, the business’s income dropped by 68%. Locals and overseas distributors stopped ordering. Australian trade expos were cancelled. Julia’s international expansion plans were halted.

“Managing lockdown, raising our families, home-schooling, the fear of the unknown – 2020 was our hardest year yet!” says Julia. 

An online store

So, Julia and her team turned to ecommerce, building a new website and online store, and launching Nail Snail on Amazon. With expert support, Julia invested in digital and email marketing. She and her team are also working with medical-based influencers such as midwives to increase credibility and exposure.

Through these efforts, Nail Snail is now reaching customers all over the world. The company doesn’t rely on expos alone and online sales are growing steadily.

Julia was even able to hire a new team member and now has big plans.

“It is so important to have resilience and be a good problem-solver,” she says. “There are going to be hard moments where you question all the hard work, but find the strength and perseverance to push through!

“Focusing on the reason why I invented the Nail Snail helps me to refocus and keep on climbing.”

Finding success close to home

In Byron Bay, another small business has thrived during tough times by refocusing its strategy from international wholesale growth to direct marketing to an Australian customer base.

Jewellery designer Sharona Harris relied on boutiques to sell her designs under her brand F+H Jewellery. In 2020 many were forced to close.

Sharona increased online sales by 250% by shifting the focus to retail sales, investing in marketing expertise and creating original online content to grow brand awareness. She also grew her team from 1 to 4 staff members.

She has now opened the first F+H Jewellery concept store and a head office in Byron Bay.

“We found success by valuing our customers and refocusing our efforts on direct communication and marketing with creative content,” says Sharona.

Her tip: customer knowledge. “Don't underestimate the importance of really knowing who your customer is and owning your own database so you can control your communication,” she says.

Keys to success

The lessons from these 3 small businesses are:

  • Invest in digital marketing and online advertising
  • Create a strong online presence
  • Seek expert support
  • Build your customer database
  • Get creative with marketing
  • Negotiate to minimise operating costs
  • Adapt, innovate and stay positive.

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