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Victoria Lewis’ colourful approach to retailing Freckles

Work experience and motherhood gave Victoria Lewis the idea for Freckles, a colourful homewares range for kids. But Lewis had no idea she’d soon be exporting Freckles to several international retail markets.

Bright colours. That’s what came to mind when I first heard the name Freckles—perhaps because the candy-topped chocolate drops of the same name were almost a staple in my childhood. Entering the kids@home showroom in Sydney’s Brookvale, I’m not disappointed by the displays of bright, colourful bedroom settings. While writing a mental shopping list of indulgences for my two-year-old niece, I’m joined by founder Victoria Lewis who explains the evolution of this dazzling success story.

Thanks to years working in sales and marketing roles for large companies, such as David Jones and Sheridan, Lewis knew a lot about homewares, the retail sector, what makes people tick and where to find gaps in the market. But before making use of that knowledge, she took a well-earned break from the corporate world to enjoy being mum after the birth of her second daughter, giving her even more insight into a possible business opportunity.

“Having children helps you understand what’s good for kids,” explains Lewis. “There was a huge opening in the children’s homewares arena for something bright and fun and inviting for kids. We set out to put a range together that was a story for kids. It started off with seven designs that embraced heaps of colour, heaps of fun and something both parents and children would respond to.”

Lewis and her husband launched kids@home in November 2003, with Freckles being their key product range. Drawing on her retail contacts, Lewis went straight to the major players: David Jones, My House and Adairs. “They responded very favourably to the range and we thought we’d got quite good orders,” she says.

There was a huge sigh of relief after the first shipment went out. Little did Lewis know that peace wouldn’t last long and she’s still shocked about the response. “All of a sudden the phone started ringing and the fax started going with people saying they wanted more.”

Growing the Business

Word of mouth spread fast and coupled with some successful marketing in industry magazines and increased publicity, the kids@home consumer and wholesale base grew rapidly. “We’ve
had phenomenal growth in a very short period,” says Lewis. “We started off in about 60 stores around Australia, and now we’re in about 200.”

After their first full year of trading, Lewis says kids@home doubled the amount of business they were anticipating. But, as good as it sounds, such growth brings challenges, including managing cash flow and keeping up with demand. “Cash flow is the biggest problem of our growth factor. The difficulty for me is analysing cash flow and doing core planning rather than doing what I really should be doing: getting out there, marketing the brand and selling the product.”

At first, she explains, demand is about how quickly you can pour money into the business to fund the product. Then it’s about getting the product made and having enough available to meet the demand. And despite achieving its goals for this past financial year, with more stock, kids@home could have increased its turnover by half a million dollars, Lewis adds, acknowledging lost opportunities.

Since its initial success, the Freckles range has expanded from bed linen products into complementary bedroom and homewares, and at the beginning of this year they opened a concept store within the Baby’s Ark store in Sydney’s Randwick. “This allowed us to establish our own identity and we can now display the merchandise properly in-store,” Lewis says.

Opportunities also continue to present themselves in the international arena. Through the Freckles website, they initially received several requests from retailers and consumers in New Zealand, and only a year after the business started they began exporting. “We then decided to appoint a distributor in New Zealand and we now have representation in about 55 stores, so that’s probably our biggest export market.”

Shortly after they began exporting, they were approached by smaller overseas markets, and now also supply Sweden, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia. “We decided it was worthwhile embracing those markets probably a little earlier than we would have liked. But in reality it’s like anything, if you don’t seize that opportunity at the time, you often miss out.”

Their most recent success has been with US and Canadian markets where they’ve secured licensees to expand the label in those countries. And there’s so much more potential for the business, according to Lewis. “We’ve got an opportunity to gather about another 100 stores here in Australia. We would like to expand our export market and we would like to bed down licence agreements in the UK and also in Spain. Then, we would ultimately like to move into other product categories with the Freckles brand, and we’d love to open some more retail stores.”

While Lewis would love to get the ball rolling on all this now, she also realises it can only be done one step at a time. “We’ll normally embrace any opportunities that come along, but there’s a point when we need to pull in the reins and consolidate the base before moving forward again.”

And then there’s the matter of trying to achieve some work/life balance, which Lewis admits is a challenge while getting established. “It’s a challenge particularly if you want the business to grow and you want it to grow with any kind of speed or magnitude. There are a lot of sacrifices that are made and you underestimate what those sacrifices will be and just how much you have to do. But we’ve learnt a lot, and on the whole we’ve enjoyed the ride and we’ll keep going at it.”

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Rebecca Spicer

Rebecca Spicer

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