Going digital helps Halls Gap business woo new customers

Carly FlecknoeFind out how one Grampians retail outlet flipped its business model and went online.

Invariably, opening a new store brings a buzz of excitement when you hang an ‘open for business’ sign on the front door for the first time. And there’s often a honeymoon period of solid sales as new customers visit to get a feel for your shop and see your product range.

But sometimes, the reality doesn’t quite meet the expectation.

Life, as they say, can get in the way.

Carly Flecknoe found that to be the case when physical distancing came into place just four days after her Halls Gap shop, Dot and Frankie – named after her two “super sassy” mini pet pigs that live in her five-acre backyard – opened its doors for the first time in March.

The pressure was on: she needed to rapidly rethink the primarily bricks and mortar model. Her shop is framed by towering eucalypts and the Grampian mountain ranges, selling Australian-made reusable, sustainable and ethical fashion, skin care, body care and home products.

“I’ve had to turn a largely storefront business into an online business very fast,” states Carly, a Pomonol local who along with two staff, launched the shop after previous stints working in retail, events, communications and marketing. For the past five years, she and husband Richard ran a café and accommodation venture, Harvest Halls Gap, before deciding to launch her retail offering.

Despite coronavirus (COVID-19), Carly knows her business offer a powerful point of difference: a sustainability focus.

“I was already an ethical shopper, using a few websites to purchase skin care, body products and reusables,” she says. “But living in a regional area, I didn’t have a store I could visit where I could actually touch and smell what I wanted to buy, and I certainly had nowhere to shop for ethical fashion. When I knew a retail space was becoming available, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to take the leap and create a store of my own to do just that. Our tag line is ‘Lux wares that don’t cost the Earth’. When seeking suppliers, I made sure that what they produced felt, looked and smelled incredible, while also being good to the planet.”

A grant from the recently launched Business Support Fund has helped Dot and Frankie operate exclusively online until physical distancing regulations are relaxed.

The shift has worked: customers are enjoying the idea of shopping local virtually, says a somewhat relieved Carly. “It’s incredible to be supported by your local community and to know that you’re bringing them a product they appreciate. I have three brands made right here in the Grampians and am constantly on the lookout for more locally-produced items that fit the Dot and Frankie ethos: there’s so much untapped talent in regional areas."

The hardest part about going digital, Carly feels, was getting her head to want to make the shift to online. “I was most excited about having the opportunity to be face-to-face with my customers so I had to really change my own point of view about how to market my products."

She’s under no illusion that it’ll take a while to fully ramp up her online customer base, though. “It has been a slow start but that’s due to a couple of factors. I need to build brand awareness, and to do that in an organic and relatable way takes time. Also, people are cautious with their spending at the moment. But I’ve still been able to have genuine interactions with my online customers through email conversations and sending personal touches in the mail with their parcels. I’ve also just added local pick up to the online store to enable locals to purchase more easily.”

The biggest business lesson she is learning during this time is to give herself time to process and adapt. “It took me a couple of weeks to give in to the grief of closing my shopfront and working through how that felt. I didn’t want to fast forward that process because I knew that process was important in being able to transform into something that would work with what’s happening now. Businesses can feel like numbers, data and spreadsheets but every business is about people; and if you’re not looking after your staff and yourself, you’re no good to your business.”

The Victorian Government has a range of programs, advice and information to support business through the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19). These can be found on the Business Victoria website or by calling Business Victoria’s coronavirus hotline on 13 22 15.