Nick Pearce is one third of the founding team behind HoMie, a Melbourne-based retail business that uses the profit it generates from selling a range of contemporary streetwear to help people experiencing homelessness.
The concept evolved from an anti-child-trafficking fundraising bike ride Pearce took from Vietnam to Cambodia in 2013, where he met fellow Aussie Marcus Crook. After returning to Melbourne, the two were inspired to make a difference in their local community and landed on homelessness as a pervasive and complex issue.
Pearce and Crook initially started a Facebook page that chronicled the stories of people experiencing homelessness, but when they stumbled across a South African initiative aimed at providing a dignified shopping experience to people living rough, they realised they wanted to do more.
Pearce’s friend Rob Gillies joined their efforts, and together the three launched Australia’s first pop-up ‘Street Store’ in Federation Square in Melbourne. Supporters donated brand new or good quality clothing, and local homelessness services were invited to bring their clients to the store, where they could shop for free, visit a barber and enjoy food and drink.
Since then, Pearce and his fellow co-founders have turned the fledgling concept into a permanent bricks-and-mortar store. They continue to invite people living rough to shop for free, and they offer a retail training program aimed at helping young people gain work experience.
At just 25 years old, Pearce is at the beginning of his career, but that hasn’t stopped the retailer from thinking big.
Inside Retail Weekly: How did you go from running a Facebook page to raise awareness about homelessness in Melbourne to running a retail business?
Nick Pearce: We wanted to make it easy and cool for our friends to contribute towards homelessness, which can sometimes be portrayed as an ugly topic. We came up with the idea for a clothing store that uses a one-for-one model, so when customers buy a T-shirt, we give a T-shirt to someone experiencing homelessness through our VIP shopping days, where we invite homelessness services to bring their clients in for a dignified shopping experience.
They can pick out any five items they want for free, and we have barbers and food and coffee there as well. We were able to crowdfund around $20,000 and signed a pop-up lease agreement at Melbourne Central.
We walked into a space that was about 175sqm and didn’t have any stock, or fixtures or fittings, but we got lucky. I had worked previously as a manny – a male nanny – and one of the families I worked for was quite high up at Target. They managed to source some fixtures and fittings for us pro bono, which was awesome, and then some brands like Stussy and Cotton On donated some of their products. That was also how we ended up selling our own products. When you do crowdfunding you have to provide rewards for people who pledge, so we started printing our logo on T-shirts [as rewards], and that’s how the HoMie brand was born.
The pop-up was supposed to be four weeks but it ended up being a year. It was really popular and successful, but we came to find that clothing can’t solve homelessness. We were getting a lot of feedback from youth who came into our store, who told us how hard it was to get a job because they didn’t have work experience and people didn’t trust them. So we started providing volunteer opportunities for youth experiencing homelessness to work as casual staff members. I was teaching staff to fold clothing and provide customer service as I was learning to do it myself.
We started diversifying our HoMie brand offering, and eventually it got to the point where we were able to provide paid work to young people, which was awesome. We really saw the benefits in terms of self-confidence and self-belief. And in a way, it also helped us find
our calling. At that point in time, we were focusing on homelessness in general, but we decided to really focus on youth homelessness.
People under the age of 25 make up the biggest percentage of people experiencing homelessness, and we decided it was a really logical place to deploy our efforts. We moved from Melbourne Central to our flagship store on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy [Melbourne] about two to three years ago now. The store is fully stocked with only HoMie apparel; our tagline is “a label for the streets”, which is a play on streetwear clothing and homelessness. The idea of the brand is to make caring cool.
We developed our training program into the HoMie Pathway Alliance, which gives young people experiencing homelessness or hardship an opportunity to have six months of quality training and support to be successful in future jobs and find a career and all the rest. We work really collaboratively with services to ensure that each young person has a really strong network of support, and we partner with an RTO [registered training authority] to deliver certifications in retail. The program is very considered; it’s the first of its kind in retail in Australia.
We’re now looking to invite more retail businesses and other workplaces to participate in the program because, while our business is growing, we only have one bricks-and-mortar store, and we want to make a meaningful impact. Our hope is to engage with as many workplaces as possible, where they provide the training environment – we’re already working with Cotton On – and we provide the support, the network and the insight to ensure that the workplace is well equipped to engage with these people. We’ve come to find that these guys are hard-working and have so much to give because they know what it’s like to be on the other end.
IRW: What was it like to make the jump from a pop-up store to a fairly prominent bricks-and-mortar location?
NP: It was actually quite risky. We weren’t in that strong of a financial position, but we just had this belief that it was the right place for us to be, and it has certainly paid dividends. We bear all the usual expenses any business would, and we have to operate as a business first and foremost because without profit, there is no purpose – we wouldn’t be able to support our program.
Not having extensive experience, we’ve relied on the professional insight from our board of directors to navigate that [financial] space.
Our brand is the vehicle that drives a large amount of revenue, and we’ve made some good decisions recently in regards to our sourcing practices. All our garments are now made in Melbourne, the cotton is grown in NSW, so hopefully our offering to the consumer is flawless, in that they’re buying an item that is sourced in an ethical and sustainable manner and their purchase has an
impact. There’s real credibility behind the brand, and that has helped us grow and be successful. As everyone knows, retail fluctuates, it’s unpredictable, but it’s an amazing industry to be in, as it’s the biggest employer of young people, and I really believe we can utilise it as a vehicle to make a significant contribution to ending homelessness.
IRW: It sounds like your business concept evolved over time. You didn’t necessarily start out with the vision to have your own clothing label and offer a retail training program. What has that process been like?
NP: We’ve always had a general sense of what we’re trying to achieve and some really strong core values around transparency,
integrity and respect, which came from the experience we had fundraising overseas. Those values have helped guide us in our
thinking about how to add value to this conversation around homelessness. We knew we wanted to go against the grain and
take a different – quite guerilla – tactic.
There have been a lot of pivot points and learnings, but what has held us in good stead is the fact we’ve always had the beneficiary,
the young person we’re trying to support, and what’s good for them at the forefront. We’re always refining our processes, because if the people we support don’t believe that what we are doing is right, then we need to change. Being really agile and nimble has been
a real strength. The most important thing is having core values, understanding your “why” and being able to make those changes.
IRW: At the moment, HoMie products are available online and through your bricks-and-mortar store. Would you ever consider selling items through other retail outlets?
NP: It’s something we’re constantly reflecting on and exploring, but we also want to retain creative control. We’re conscious of the
fact that our brand has a strong identity and we don’t want to taint that. We do a lot of brand collaborations and provide short runs for
a limited time, so it feels special for people. We love collaborations not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also when it comes to
aligning the views and values of different organisations.
One of the ones we’ve done recently is with a local Melbourne brand called Candy. We’ve also done a lot of collaborations with local artists. We’re really focused on doing stuff that’s grassroots and at the community level. People really love the notion of being part of something. Our hashtag is #beahomie. We define a “homie” as a person who looks out for others. It doesn’t just have to be someone who supports the HoMie brand, it can be about helping someone cross the road, or going out of your way to support someone else.
We hold events and host an annual laneway party. It’s bigger than just the brand, it’s a movement. We talk about being a family because that’s what HoMie is to these young people. It’s a place where they feel safe, welcome and empowered. And similarly our
supporters are part of our family.
IRW: Who is the typical HoMie customer?
NP: Our customer base is predominantly 18- to 35-year-olds, with a 60-40 female to male split. We have a really directional range at
times, so we try to ensure we balance that with our core range of staples. I must say we have a really diverse range of people coming through our doors. We get a lot of tourists to our bricks-and-mortar site. Brunswick Street has become a really iconic destination for tourists, and we also have parents buying for their kids and kids who bring their parents in after we do one of our school talks. We like to think that HoMie is really for anyone, all shapes and sizes, any sort of background, sexual orientation or gender identity…that’s a really big part of our ethos.
IRW: How big is the company now?
NP: We have about 15 employees in total, including on-the-floor staff and management. We have about 10 people work back-ofhouse,
but only about four full-timers. We’re still very much in that startup phase, but we’ve come a long way from being those three guys who had a vision. It’s really cool that we’re attracting and retaining talent. It is a challenging industry, and hopefully we have
another string in our bow with the impact we’re providing, but you still have to be ahead of the game. Last financial year, we
came in just under $1 million. That was really awesome for us. The bricks-and-mortar store has been performing really strong, and now we can turn our attention to online domination. We want to become the equivalent of an Asos in terms of having such a prominent presence online.
IRW: When did you launch online?
NP: We did the online store in conjunction with our pop-up in Melbourne Central. Most people would probably open an online store first, which makes a lot of sense. The challenge for us is how do we emulate the experience someone has when they come into the shop and ensure they know that they’ve made a real contribution? That’s what we’re working on now, so when a customer buys from us online, they know exactly what they’ve done through that purchase.
IRW: What have you learned about customer service through your VIP shopping days, when you invite homeless services to bring their clients to shop at your store for free?
NP: One message we really push is that no one’s a homeless person, they are a person who is experiencing homelessness. With our VIP customers, it’s really important to make it a special occasion for them. Our approach for those events is not to bombard people, but to just make sure we’re there for that friendly conversation.
Obviously, the clothing is fantastic – it’s brand new stuff that they get to choose at their own discretion – but what people appreciate
the most is the genuine service and interaction and conversation. Every experience needs to be special. The people coming through the doors aren’t numbers to us, they’re people. Part of our job and purpose is to instil in them the belief that there are people who care about them and are interested in them.
IRW: How many young people have you trained through the HoMie Pathway Alliance so far?
NP: We’ve had six graduates of the program so far. It was initially run in-house at HoMie and called the Pathway Project, but we’ve expanded it out to provide opportunities to train with other businesses, so now it’s called the Alliance. We have seven young people coming through the Alliance right now between our store and Cotton On. One of our graduates is training to be a manager at
a Cotton On store, and another has become the head “genius” at an Apple store, so we’ve had some really great success.
It’s amazing what that small investment can do. I think it’s really important to note that we don’t do everything, and we make sure
we have the program aligned with professional services that we can’t provide, which is why it works so well. Every partner in the Alliance is playing to their respective strengths, so the young person has a really comprehensive approach to their health and well-being.
IRW: It sounds like it’s more of a “slow and steady” approach.
NP: We definitely don’t want to compromise on quality. The reason it has been so successful is that it’s been slow and steady. That’s
the approach that needs to be taken – one person at a time on a case by case basis. It can’t be a one-off, band-aid solution. I’m always conscious of greater numbers, and we absolutely want to achieve that, but the quality is the most important thing. We wouldn’t go to a workplace and say, “We’re going to give you 100 young people.” It’s not the best outcome for anybody. We need to grow consciously.
Right now, our major partner is Cotton On, and we’re in the process of signing on some new and well-known brands to participate in the next intake at the start of 2019. We see a lot of opportunity [for training] in retail because it’s not just working on the floor. There are so many young people who may not be comfortable working face-to-face with customers, but there’s inventory management, there’s e-commerce, there’s production and design. We want to try and diversify in that way as well. We’re really optimistic about the future of the program, but it’s about ensuring whoever engages with it does so with quality, care and diligence.
IRW: Having been named the National Retail Association’s Young Retailer of the Year for 2018, what advice would you give to those who have been in the industry for many years, if not decades?
NP: A quality product is obviously your first, second and third consideration, but after that, it needs to be a really memorable experience. Whether that’s through customer service and having really engaging staff or additional offerings. We have a really unique
offering with the nature of our business and the people we employ and train, but I recently went to the Toms store on Abbot Kinney
Boulevard in Los Angeles, which was really cool.
You walk in and they’ve got a coffee machine and co-working space, where people can sit and just hang out all day. The products are around and you can try them on if you want, but I think we really need to be progressive in terms of our understanding of the store. It’s becoming more of a lifestyle thing. It needs to be about more than just having products; it’s about creating a memorable experience for each and every customer who comes into your shop or shops with you online. Otherwise, you’ll be left in the dust.