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Rouge Living has been around for just three years but thanks to a strong vision and dynamic team, it’s making a big impression, writes Rebecca Spicer

They’ve got one of the best stands at GHA’s trade fairs (and have the awards to prove it), yet Rouge Living is a relative newcomer to the gift and homewares industry.

The company officially launched its brand at the 2004 September Trade Fair, and so impressive was their stand, people kept asking the founders if they’d bought the distribution rights of another company. This was the response they wanted. "We got a stand-builder and launched with a custom-built stand. We didn’t want to look like we were new, we wanted to look like an established business," explains co-founder Tara Jarrett.

Tara and Evelyn Bourel actually started the business in 2003, but spent most of the first year researching the market, travelling to Europe to source product and suppliers, as well as establishing the brand.

"The main thing we wanted was a brand that had a European feel," says Tara. Hence the name Rouge. "We wanted a French word that Australians could actually pronounce, which had a luxurious sound to it as well. And we love the colour red, so it’s our signature colour.

"We also wanted a range of products that had an elegant feel, a European feel and a really beautiful, luxurious feel, but not over-the-top expensive. One of our catchcries is ‘affordable elegance’ which we feel we do really well."

When researching the market Tara and Evelyn were disappointed in the lack of variety, and believed sourcing quality product from Europe would give them a point of difference.

Prior to the launch of Rouge, Evelyn travelled extensively through Europe and lived in Paris for some time, so the contacts she made while there, especially in France and Greece, were a good starting point. "So we already had contacts through Evelyn, and basically we just expanded on those," says Tara. "We just went overseas and sought product we liked and then figured out how we could do it, and how we could keep it affordable."

The duo wanted Rouge to appeal to a broad range of consumers, so are constantly expanding the product range, which now includes everything from gift-wrapping to homewares, soft furnishings and lighting. Tara and Evelyn also design a lot of their own products, and either have them made overseas or import the fabrics for final manufacture in Australia.

"Our customer is everything from a florist through to a children’s store, through to the bigger stores such as Myer and Adairs, so it really is quite diverse," says Tara. The goal was to offer a range of products that would appeal to almost anyone. "So that for everyone who walks passed our stand, there is something for them to actually look at, something they could be interested in.

"One of the things we do pride ourselves on is we do supply everyone from Mrs Smith that puts in a $300 order to someone who puts in an order for tens of thousands of dollars."

The key to consistency, then, is in the branding, Tara explains. Rather than import other brands, the essential component of the business model was to create a brand, not just to sell product, "and to build a business that one day was going to be worth a lot of money and be a nationally and internationally recognised brand.

"Everything has to have the same feel, whether it’s our website or catalogue, we’re really conscious of being really true to the branding and it always has to have that same sort of elegant and luxurious feel no matter what we’re presenting. Even if it’s a small brochure or a card inviting people to the trade fair, it’s still always got that same Rouge Living feel."

  

Team Rouge

Tara and Evelyn come from vastly different backgrounds so their skill-set is diverse and the pair complements each other in the business. Evelyn is a professional photographer by trade—the friends actually met when Evelyn took the photos at Tara’s wedding—and Tara operated her own business in the fitness industry for 12 years, while also dabbling in property development and designing renovation projects with her husband.

"We’ve both got strong design ideas, which are very similar, but our strengths in terms of the business are very different," explains Tara. "I’m probably more involved in the business strategy aspect of it and Evelyn is more involved in direct sales and the creative aspects. We don’t cross over, we both have our specific roles in the business and it works really nicely. And we get along well, too, which helps," she laughs.

Another major advantage to the business has been Evelyn’s ability to speak both French and Greek, which has helped in fostering good relationships with overseas suppliers. "It isn’t essential we speak their language but it certainly helps, especially with the Greek suppliers, they seem happier to deal with us because Evelyn speaks their language."

But the road to making Rouge a success hasn’t all been smooth sailing and winning awards. "We’ve certainly learned along the way, we’ve made a lot of mistakes as well as had a lot of successes," admits Tara. "If people think it’ll be all very glamorous to start an importing and wholesaling business, they’ve really got to do their homework.

"I think the hardest thing for us to learn was to get our price points right. Working out exactly what product people are after. What we think will work and what really works is often a bit of a hit and miss, and we’ve developed that a lot better as time goes on. It’s probably taken us three years to work out exactly what the market wants."

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Rouge Living now has a team of five working in-house, and uses a third-party distributor in Australia to help with the larger orders. Overseas distributors in New Zealand help deliver into that market, but Tara says it’s really only been this year that they’ve been able to see all their hard work pay off. "All of the contacts we’ve made in that time, our customer base is growing, I think it’s taken three years for that to happen."

Tara has even managed to find time to give birth to twin boys, but she says that’s just one of the advantages of running your own business—it’s flexible and you work your own hours (even if they are long at times). Tara has an assistant to help her out day-to-day, she and Evelyn only work four days a week, and there’s a policy to not work weekends and to clock off at 5pm. Tara admits the computer does go home with her at times, but having such a strict policy is essential for achieving some work–life balance.

Although the business is still very demanding on them, with the pair travelling overseas up to four times a year to meet with agents and suppliers, as well as go to trade fairs and make new contacts. "But it’s amazing what you can do with the internet now," says Tara. "We’ve just done a huge order with a company overseas, which is probably the biggest order we’ve ever done, and we’ve actually never physically met."

  

Fair Tactics

After doing their research and talking to others in the industry, Rouge Living joined as a member of GHA in early 2003 to capitalise on trade fair opportunities, as well as the special deals the Association offers its members.

Having exhibited at all but one trade fairs since September 2004, where Rouge clocked up Best New Exhibitor at the Stand Awards, the company has scored the overall Best Stand award twice, most recently at the February Trade Fair this year.

While the awards bring the business a degree of exposure at the fair, recognition that they’re doing the right thing is invaluable, as is the prize—a voucher towards exhibiting at a future trade fair. And as mentioned, it’s about standing tall and looking like a
well-established, reputable business. "I think the more effort you can put into your stand, I think it really makes a huge difference. I mean you’ve got to try everything you can to get people to stop and have a look," says Tara.

And the secrets to such an engaging stand? "Our stand is really heavily branded with our logo and our colours, it looks very beautiful and inviting and it’s elegant, and regardless of whether they had any intentions of buying anything or not, people always stop and have a look."

Tara says she and Evelyn designed the stand themselves, seeking inspiration from trade fairs in Paris. "We looked at all the beautiful stands over there, and took different components of those and basically used that to put our stand together.

"It’s a difficult stand to build. We start building on the Wednesday and we build right through until the Friday afternoon, and it takes a team of six or seven of us to do it. So it’s not an easy stand but it’s worthwhile to do and we can change the dimensions of it all the time. At the last fair our stand was a 16-by-3.5, whereas for August we’ve got an eight-by-six, but we use the same custom-built stand."

Preparation for the trade fairs is also important, Tara says, with the owners needing to establish a fine line between ordering too much and not enough product prior to the fair—one of the business’s biggest learning curves. "We try and land all of our product before the fair so that people aren’t waiting. We also do a catalogue launch in the month leading up to the trade fair and we send out an invitation to our major customers as well. So we’ve decided on and ordered our entire range for August, so it lands in July. We’re now starting to work on next year. You’re always a good six months to a year ahead."

It’s a fine line, especially for Rouge, because they import from Europe, which means allowing for a six to eight week freight time, plus the manufacturing time on top of that. "So planning is very important and it never stops."

Tara says working out how much to order really is the $60 million question. They meet the challenge by showing product samples to larger customers, who will then make pre-orders, and add on extra for the fair based on previous fair sales.

"That just comes with time," Tara adds. "In terms of just starting up and knowing exactly how much of something to order is really difficult. But we just went on advice of other people and we basically had a starting point. Under ordering is as big of a problem as over-ordering. You upset your customers a lot if they’re excited about a product and you just can’t supply it."

But Tara admits they’ve also had some products that were complete dead stock. "One of the mistakes we made is we held on to that stock and we said we’ll present it at the next fair and so on, but you can’t do that. If it just isn’t moving and it isn’t working, you’ve just got to get rid of that product. We have different ways of doing that in terms of sales and we do some online auctioning of different products, and basically we can get rid of our old lines as quickly as possible. We don’t keep anything for longer than six months."

Other advice Tara offers is for businesses to set budgets and targets from an early stage, and don’t grow too quickly. "And get as much advice as you can. We’ve had some great business mentors, so I’d recommend you go out there and actually source a mentor who is doing a similar thing." Rouge has also benefited from the help of a business coach, which Tara says has been incredibly valuable.

Overall she reports they’re excited about the business’s lifecycle. "We’ve got huge plans in terms of growth, and we’re only just starting to put those things into place now."

The goal is for Rouge to become a nationally recognised brand, as well as to expand the company’s international distribution. They’re even looking at licensing the brand overseas to establish Rouge concept stores in India and China.

The best part about everything, Tara says, is they’re in control of their own destiny. "Whether it actually ends up being a huge success or if it doesn’t, it’s our choice and it’s our baby. Evelyn and I love the fact that when we see a Rouge product sitting in a store, that came out of our head. We totally conceived it, from the name to the design to it actually being on the shelf. So we love that aspect of it, we totally have control of the company’s destiny."

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