Jo Harris entered the retail industry more recently than most, having launched homewares business Hunting for George with her sister Lucy Glade-Wright in 2010. Prior to this, Harris was a trained nurse working at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
It is perhaps testament to online retail’s relatively low barriers to entry that the two sisters have built a thriving e-commerce business with no practical experience in running a retail business. In fact, Harris says she and Glade-Wright, whose From the Source interview appeared in IRW earlier this year, started out making decisions as if they were customers, rather than retailers.
This can be seen both in the tone of voice in their customer communications – which has led to an incredibly high level of engagement – and their product offering, which primarily includes new and interesting brands that few other retailers offer. It’s a risk, but one that is paying off.
Harris says the business is focussed on becoming more analytical and process-driven as it explores new avenues for growth in the year ahead.
Inside Retail Weekly: How have the last 12 months been for Hunting for George?
Jo Harris: Busy! We’ve spent most of this year working on the internal side of our business, making sure we have the processes and systems in place to manage further growth. We’ve moved very quickly in the last four years, so this year, we have prioritised being more analytical and process-driven.
IRW: Are you working to reach any major milestones in 2018?
JH: We are focused on doing more of the same, with our customers being our number one focus. Listening to what they want from us, so we can continue to focus product and content around what resonates with them. The remainder of this year is about identifying what works and securing internal processes and procedures to help us be more efficient across all aspects of our business. We want to be in a solid place process and data-wise to continue our rapid growth into 2019.
IRW: There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the ‘death of retail’. And while many experts believe the phrase is overblown, you can’t deny that many established retailers are struggling. As an online business, what do you think about the ‘death of retail’?
JH: Retail is changing but it’s certainly not dead.
People consume differently now and unless you’re price fighting or a necessity-driven business, brand is most important now more than ever. Customers want to feel connected and they want a great experience. Retailers that don’t understand that will struggle.
The challenge with any business is to remain relevant to your customer and evolve with them. Time doesn’t stand still, and nor should retail.
IRW: A retailer’s brand is more important today, as consumers have more choices. What do you think are the key elements of building a unique, desirable brand?
JH: As a brand you’re not going to be desirable to everyone, but you do want to be desirable to your customer. Work out who you are trying to attract and tailor your brand to suit. Being unique comes from being authentic and being desirable comes from having something that people want.
IRW: Hunting for George is known for its array of interesting, international brands that aren’t widely available in Australia. How do you source the brands on your site?
JH: In the beginning it was difficult to get brands to come on board, but it has become easier for every year we’ve been in business. Our checklist is quality, design and story. It’s really important for us and our customers that a brand has a unique story to tell, about their heritage or their materials.
IRW: There has been a lot of discussion lately about the way retail leases are calculated and whether it’s sustainable for tenants. Having recently experimented with your first bricks-and-mortar store, what’s your take on the cost-benefit of being in a shopping centre?
JH: We spent about six months researching both high street locations and shopping centres as potential locations for either a permanent or temporary physical space. The numbers vary a lot, but the traditional model of pricing at high traffic centres does seem to be tailored to the big international brands who can be a huge draw card for a centre. But that additional foot traffic doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in revenue across the board for all retailers.
Shopping centres are still relevant but they are no longer the only option. Retail is about creating a great experience for customers and it’s up to the retailers but also centre management to make sure this is happening.
I’d love to see more small business represented in shopping centres, as they are often the ones thinking outside of box, delivering great experiences and making the traditional retailers nervous. Small business and especially online businesses are extremely agile, which is a huge opportunity but much harder to replicate in today’s traditional retail environment.
Our Highpoint store was not on a fixed-term lease and we were very selective with our time frame in order to coincide with the Christmas trade. A year-round store with the current leases at this point in time probably doesn’t make sense for our business right now, we have more to achieve and deliver online and can achieve a lot with smaller activations with a quicker turnaround.
IRW: We’re beginning to see some retailers use augmented reality and virtual try-on tech to bring the “see and feel” aspect of bricks-and-mortar stores to the online space. How important do you think technology is to deliver a good customer experience online, given that Hunting for George takes a more old-school approach and offers a lot of customer support via email?
JH: I’m not sure we’d be considered old school, technology exists in everything that we do. VR and AR are still a fun novelty at the moment. Until they advance to a point where they’re accepted in the mainstream and the cost to develop these features comes down, it will still be a value add, not the norm for online.
A brand with a younger demographic is probably going to pave the way with these types of technologies. Everyone sees how quickly younger people take to and engage with new technologies.
IRW: How did you build such a large and engaged online community? And how important has it been for your growth?
JH: We have a clear understanding of our customer, so when we communicate, it’s authentic. Engagement comes over time and is built through consistency and quality content.
Our community has been incredibly important to our business growth. Social media, especially Instagram is an incredibly powerful tool for our brand. We talk to over 1.5 million people every single week and that’s growing daily.
We can connect with our customers on a personal level through social media, and the more we engage with them, the more we understand what they want. And the more we understand them, the better we can tailor our content and products around that. Which then continues to enhance the engagement.
IRW: What if any impact have you seen since from using Instagram Shopping, since it launched in Australia?
JH: It’s good, but we haven’t really changed how we’re using Instagram, it’s more about measuring impact in a different way. We’ve always spoken about product and linked through to product and driven sales through Instagram, but now the ability to tag products has changed our analytics, the way it shows up in our Google Analytics and in our Instagram backend as well.
Instagram was one of those platforms that was never great for tracking, so you had to use a bit of a workaround. We’re just now waiting to see what they come out with…we think this has been an experiment for Instagram to collect data until they can figure out how to monetise it.
IRW: Do you have any qualms about the degree to which Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) control such an important customer communication channel today?
JH: Not really because we’ve always recognised that it’s a channel owned by someone else. It’s not our own channel, it’s not like our website, email list or customer data. It’s a platform and place we play that someone else owns and has control over. We know things will change and could disappear any day, so we adapt how we use it.
Facebook a really powerful platform, so you have to be aware of the rules and limitations of it and play by those rules. That’s why Facebook is so powerful. But you can never rely on one platform to support your business. We don’t rely on any channel 100 per cent that we don’t own ourselves.
IRW: What other social media platforms are you using or interested in using?
JH: Instagram is our main platform. It’s where our biggest audience is and where our customers are, but we repurpose our content across all platforms. We have plans to use more video this year. YouTube is a super exciting place. We’ve dabbled in it but haven’t really done a lot with it.
It’s a very exciting medium because of its reach and speed. There are creators on YouTube that have a bigger daily reach and fan base than movie stars and TV stars. Their reach is super powerful and influential, especially in the States but also in Australia. There are some great YouTube channels reaching huge audiences and they’re getting to so many people so quick. There’s a huge opportunity for brands to – if not work with them – do something themselves in that space.
But apart from influencers, I haven’t seen anything great from a brand perspective yet that is 100 per cent targeted on YouTube. The fast fashion guys and makeup people do a lot of donation stuff. But there’s a huge potential and it’s only getting bigger.
The one good Aussie example we talk about internally is Supercheap Auto, which have supported the YouTube channel Mighty Car Mods for years now. They’re probably Australia’s biggest YouTube channel and it’s a full-time gig for them, they do weekly uploads. And now, when you go into Supercheap Auto stores, they have TVs playing Mighty Car Mod videos in the stores, so there’s a two-way integration.
IRW: Hunting for George has dramatically reduced the amount of plastic it uses in packaging. Why have you done this, and what has the customer response been?
JH: It was purely something we decided to do as a team, it wasn’t driven by customer feedback or anything. We felt we had a responsibility to do better. I think everyone that deals at any level with packaging has a sense of responsibility to do whatever they can to reduce waste. We’re doing our small part.
In terms of how customers have responded, we haven’t had much because it isn’t something that we’ve communicated to them. But we have had customer feedback that they like the paper packaging itself.
I think you can always make anything look good. Good design is about working to a brief and being flexible and changing and adapting. Essentially that’s what a business is as well. Just because you did things one way for five years doesn’t mean you should keep doing the same today.