“It’s like, if I’m going to be spending a lot more time at home during the day, then I want to be surrounded by stuff that I really like.”
At the same time, Welcome to Country is attracting new customers thanks to a competition it is running with PayPal, where millions of Australians have been invited to share photos that celebrate Indigenous heritage and capture this year’s NAIDOC Week theme ‘Heal Country!’ on Instagram or Facebook for a chance to win a $500 voucher.
It’s a remarkable turn of events for an online marketplace that didn’t even sell homewares this time last year.
Driving jobs and economic opportunities
Welcome to Country launched in 2018 as a place to find and book experiences with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tour operators. But when Covid-19 brought domestic and international travel to a halt last year, the team quickly launched an e-commerce site to give those businesses a way to stay afloat.
“As an organisation, our purpose is really to drive jobs and economic opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Eades said.
“Tourism was our chosen field, but we wanted to see what else we could do, and that’s where the idea of running an e-commerce store came from.”
Since soft launching the e-commerce site with a single product — Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country: A travel guide to Indigenous Australia — in May 2020, the platform has expanded to offer more than 1,000 products across fashion, food, beauty and homewares and more than 140 tourism experiences. Sales are currently up 20 per cent month on month, according to Eades.
While it is still reliant on private funding, the plan is for Welcome to Country to become self-sufficient. As a registered not-for-profit, its earnings will go towards its purpose of empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to create economic and well-being outcomes.
Building momentum for Indigenous brands
“There’s been building momentum in the country over the last decade around the positioning of Aboriginal businesses and providing them with opportunities,” Eades said, pointing to the government’s Indigenous procurement strategy and initiatives in the private sector like Supply Nation.
“In the last year, I think things really intensified.”
The killing of George Floyd by police in the US last year sparked protests against racial inequality and forced businesses to confront the lack of diversity in their employment practices, marketing and merchandising.
In Australia, it also led to a wave of support for Indigenous-owned businesses. Brands like Clothing the Gaps, which is known for its ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ and ‘Free the Flag’ t-shirts (the retailer recently had to change its name after losing a legal battle with Gap Inc), quickly sold out of merchandise.
“I think people were searching for ways in which they could make a meaningful impact, or understand at a deeper level what’s been going on,” Eades said.
“We saw a lot of people wanting to buy Black books and read and hear from Aboriginal authors about issues, but we also saw an emergence of people wanting to buy products from Aboriginal businesses and really support them.”
Supporting brands to grow
The timing of Welcome to Country’s launch has enabled it to cater to that demand, selling t-shirts and other apparel from emerging fashion labels like Clothing the Gaps and Aarli, bedding from the hugely successful collaboration between Kip & Co and the Bábbarra Women’s Centre on Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, as well as sauces and spices from the Torres Strait Islander-owned hospitality business Mabu Mabu, which has just signed a lease to open a restaurant in Melbourne’s Federation Square.
By bringing multiple Indigenous-owend brands together in one place, Welcome to Country is able to attract more traffic to its website than most brands would be able to on their own.
“It makes it easier to amplify your voice and gain traction,” Eades said.
But its success can be a double-edged sword for the small businesses and brands it works with.
“When you start to get the kind of sales that we’ve experienced at times, having a consistent supply of products can be really challenging,” Eades said. “It’s a working capital issue that all small businesses face.”
One customer, for instance, recently ordered 1800 items from Bush Balm, an Alice Springs-based social enterprise that sells through Welcome to Country, as a corporate gift.
“In some of those situations, we’ll put the cash upfront so they’re able to produce the product to the volume they need to supply, and that’s just us being realistic about [the businesses] we’re dealing with,” Eades said.
“For me, the fact that we have the capacity to do that means that we’re helping them develop and giving them that chance to grow.”
Eades, who is a co-owner of PwC Indigneous Consulting, is passionate about giving Indigenous business owners the confidence and skills to produce their own ranges, rather than needing to collaborate with non-Indigenous brands and retailers, as is often the case today.
“I’ve got all this expertise — I could actually give them something really tangible, teach them about the industry, where to go to get things manufactured and really enable them to go to the next level,” he said.
“It’s that more empowering position of allowing them to step into the spotlight and build their own name and profile as the maker of the product.”