The arrival of COVID-19 brought with it many challenges for my retail fashion business. Before our first lockdown in early 2020, Carolina Lifestyle was very much a traditional bricks-and-mortar model, with 80 per cent of my sales coming through my stores across the Sydney and Melbourne area. Business was booming, and as a result, our online store was not our focus. Then along came COVID-19, and it was as though someone had turned off the tap. Our stores were instantly closed, and with everybody stuck at home with nowhere to go, we were lucky if we were getting a handful of online sales each week.
I was eight months pregnant with my daughter and bedridden with stress. After a week of what can only be described as absolute wallowing, I realised this was my sink or swim moment. I could let my lifelong dream of running a successful Australian business wash down the drain overnight. Or I could look to transform my business model, flipping it on its head so that online sales became the core of the business to compensate for the lack of in-store sales.
Oh, and I needed to do it urgently. With a newborn baby due imminently.
Fast forward to late 2021 and I’m relieved to say that we did it. We reinvented ourselves, and are now a successful online retailer, with a highly engaged online customer base and an online team that has grown from one person to a staff of 25. With over 80 per cent of our sales now driven through our e-store, we were protected when the latest round of lockdowns happened. In fact, during the Sydney and Melbourne lockdowns of 2021, we grew the business 150 per cent, despite our stores being closed!
When I look at what the secret of our success (or, in this case, survival) was, I attribute a large part of it to Instagram and how we utilised the platform’s features to drive visibility of our brand, and subsequently attract customers to our online store and keep them coming back again and again.
It has been a journey of trial and error, but here are my top tips for getting the most out of Instagram as a business tool.
Use the ‘Gram’ and all its features
Instagram can be a daunting platform for a small business owner but understanding the features and how the algorithm works have paid dividends, helping us grow our community of followers and drive traffic to our site.
Instagram is no longer about grid posts and hashtags (don’t get me wrong, they play an important role, too), but about creating content that resonates in both long and short-form videos.
By introducing a combination of Instagram Lives, where we host real-time styling sessions in combination with long-form reels and stories showcasing our latest seasonal releases, we have engaged with a broader audience than foot traffic to our stores could offer.
And the stats don’t lie. Following an Instagram live, the ripple effect across our channels is near immediate. Our website traffic more than quadruples, and our sales peak within a few hours, showing the true impact of the platform’s reach when maximising the available features.
With the platform favouring video content over still photography, we’ve also started to develop fun and light-hearted content that we know not only makes people smile but inspires them to get out of their athleisure wear, even if they’re only working from their home office.
I always thought my brand had a personal feel. I was always a smiling face in my boutiques and my staff were like family. But perhaps one of the greatest lessons I have learnt in the last 18 months is that your customers really want to know you; they want to understand that even if you ‘seem successful’ and have it all together that you too are a busy, working parent that’s just trying to get through the workday before rushing home to feed the kids by 5 pm.
It might seem contradictory to build connection through a screen, but by putting myself out there on our online channels, hosting our Instagram lives, launching Coffee With Carolina – a conversational chat with well-known Aussies – I’ve enabled our community to get to know me as a person, resonate with my struggles as a business owner and a mother, and truly connect and get behind the brand at a time when we needed it the most.
With our customer retention rate growing to a whopping 70 per cent over the last 12 months, the value of being vulnerable and sharing the journey has enabled me to connect with women in ways I mightn’t have had the chance to do otherwise.
Influence in a meaningful way
We all know that influencers are the buzz tactic for social media marketing but getting value when it comes to influencers can be hit and miss. While it’s great to engage with influencers to drive brand awareness, it can be a costly exercise with little reward if you aren’t strategic with your approach.
Connecting with influencers who represent your ideal customer, whose values align with yours, and who understand how to connect to their audience in a meaningful and authentic way are all important ingredients in executing a successful influencer campaign. Whether you’ve got a budget of $50 or $5,000, there is little point in paying an influencer if they don’t influence their audience. Or if their audience is not appropriate to your brand.
Don’t be afraid to ask them for screenshots of their demographics so you can see exactly where their followers live, how old they are and whether they’re male or female.
It’s also OK if you don’t have the budget to back a showstopping influencer. Start small and gift them with product. A thoughtfully put together package of goodies and a handwritten note is sometimes the most powerful tactic in your toolkit when it comes to effective influencer marketing.
Perhaps one of the biggest risks I took over the last 12 months was aggressively investing in targeted social advertising. When our stores closed during lockdown in 2020 and our income reduced to next to nothing overnight, spending when we were quickly running dry felt particularly counterintuitive. I’m not going to lie; it was scary pouring money into paid social advertising. Still, with a thoughtful plan and a deep understanding of our customers, we were able to recoup the benefits of our investment through online sales, helping to flip from a majority bricks and mortar model to a booming online store.