About 400 km south of Sydney – or 600 km north of Melbourne, if you prefer – lies an unlikely fashion success story: a bricks and mortar retailer reported to be turning over $20 million a year.
Cooma (population 8000) is home to Birdsnest, an independent boutique owned by Jane Cay, a youthful-looking blonde who followed her heart to the country and fell in love with a farmer. While Birdsnest began as a boutique, its online presence is the real – and remarkable – business driver.
Chatting to Jane Cay about Birdsnest, she was refreshingly honest and candid about her business, her thoughts about retail and online trading, and the benefits in creating a flexible workplace for women with families.
Jane, how did it all begin?
It all started when I fell in love – true story! After a whirlwind IT career in the city, I fell in love with a farmer and had a tree change, landing in the NSW Snowy Mountains. It is here in Cooma that I bought a successful country town fashion store. Four years later, in 2008, we created birdsnest.com.au and took this little clothing store from the street to the sky.
Everyone thought I was crazy and that no one would buy clothing online, but thankfully it worked. There were huge sighs of relief when the first order came through that wasn’t from friends or family!
When we first started out there were four of us and today we have a team of 100. We send an average of 500 parcels a day to all corners of Australia and stock over 200 brands, including five of our own labels. Even though our online store now represents over 94% of sales, our physical store is still an important part of our business. We are also experimenting with pop-up stores.
It sounds really basic but we are truly committed to customer service and everything we do comes back to our customer – we buy for her, style outfits for her and design our site to make shopping easy for her. We do everything we can to inspire confidence in her style and to make her shopping experience a personal one.
The Birdsnest story is a fun one, which should give hope to many small, independent businesses out there that are trying adapt to this global and technology-led world.
Your background in IT has obviously contributed to some of your success, do you think you could have built Birdsnest so successfully without it?
Yes, I did have a background in e-business which was an unusual combination with fashion retail at the time. It certainly reduced the barriers I had to explore new territory when many didn’t believe that online shopping would take off. Luck always plays a part in a successful business and we were in the right place at the right time. A lack of IT knowledge should not hold others back, though. Everyone brings a unique set of skills to their business and then fills the gaps.
Like any businesses, there are highs and lows. What have been some of the major hurdles in the business?
Most of the major hurdles we have experienced have been our best learning curves. Many have been quality problems like growing too quickly for our processes to keep up or running out of space. Others have been confronting at the time, like when we realised that ultimately all our suppliers would also become our retail competition; however, once we accepted the reality, those hurdles have become gifts.
Birdsnest has won many awards for online retail, but recently you have made moves to ensure Birdsnest is a flexible working place for women. What sort of initiatives do you have in place to create a great working environment for staff?
Our most recent (and potentially exciting!) award has been from BRW which named us the 8th ‘best place to work’ for a business our size. I really believe that our team culture has defined our success and it is no coincidence that a happy team delivers fantastic customer experiences. Over 80% of our revenue comes from repeat customers and we have a Net Promoter Score of over 90.
One key element of building a culture of trust is giving people control of their lifestyles. We are able to provide flexible working hours for parents, students and any team member who has commitments important to them. We have some people who work one day a week, quite a few who work school hours and we have recently introduced a night shift to allow people to go home, have a few hours with their family and then do a few extra hours in the evening.
Another foundation of a great work environment is having common values that build the confidence of the team and hence the customers. We have defined our values in our ‘birdsong’, where each letter stands for a different value and we recruit, induct and appraise the team based on these principles. This year we have introduced a mindfulness program in the Nest, which has been really powerful in helping bring our ‘birdsong’ into our everyday awareness. The daily meditation practices and new communication tools we have in the business around being more mindful have resulted in a more creative, compassionate, fun and focused work environment.
Can you give me a breakdown of sales that are interstate or overseas?
Our sales are pretty much in line with how the population is spread throughout Australia. Our biggest state is NSW, followed by Victoria, then Queensland. We have a large regional following which is probably attributable to the fact that we are regional so we promoted ourselves to this audience, and they have been fabulous at spreading the word (thanks little birdies)!
International orders are just under 2% with New Zealand the leader in this area. We haven’t ever promoted our business internationally, but we are, of course, very happy to fulfil international orders.
Is a large percentage of sales also coming from social media; if so, which platform do you find the most effective?
We have a really engaged and supportive social community that we have grown organically. Facebook is our strongest social platform and our Instagram is growing as more women in our market take up this channel. This is an area that is constantly evolving, meaning that we need to continually test new ideas to stay relevant and effective. It sometimes seems daunting, but ultimately it is just a way of having a conversation with your customers. Authenticity is key.
Your Australian Wool campaign for Winter 15 was beautiful – a very personal combination of combining the heritage of your husband’s business, your family and Birdsnest. What inspired you to do that movie? Did you get a good response from your customers?
The video was very spontaneous. We were filming the winter campaign at our home and the idea of catching Oli in his everyday life on the farm was born. He is so passionate about the wool industry that I think our customers and the general community really responded to his authenticity. We were thrilled when many of the industry players also starting spreading the word, such as AWI tweeting the link out.
WATCH THE BIRDNEST AN AUSTRALIAN WOOL STORY 2015 CAMPAIGN BELOW
Do you think those wanting to start an online store need to invest a lot of money initially to have a good online business, as many retailers don’t have that much to invest? Is it something you can grow in time?
We have grown very organically over time and always within our means. We have never borrowed money to fund the online business. We have re-invested profits as we have gone along. Many take another path; however, this road has worked for us so I’m sure it could for others.
What are your tips for having a successful online business?
An online business has the same principles for success as any other business. If you can solve your customer’s problem in a unique way then you will succeed. A differentiation is just as important in the online space as it is in a suburb or row of shops. Just putting your sign up and hoping that people will visit doesn’t work online or offline.
Fast Facts about Birdsnest
#8 in BRW Great Places to Work 2015 for business with less than 100 employees.
2015 Online Retail Industry Award (ORIA) for Best Online Customer Service
80% of sales come from return customers.
95% of sales are online; 5% from the Cooma store.
10% is spent on marketing
Birdsnest opened a store in Thredbo for winter 2015. The store will open for winter 2016 and over the summer holiday periods.
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