Screeching to a stop
This past year has been a whirlwind of emotions.
The year began with the bushfires preventing us from attending our much loved and well attended Springwood and Blackheath Markets out in the Blue Mountains. Normally a beautiful, picturesque site for our stores with lovely locals, it was heart-breaking for us to see the suffering they were going through, and to hear the halls that we normally would sell in turn into refuge centres for those displaced by the fires.
When COVID hit in March, it wasn’t just the Blue Mountains’ markets that had to stop. Our entire way of business came to a complete stop. Shopping centres. Cancelled. Markets. Cancelled. Office lobbies. Cancelled. This was tough on us and our team, and led to a month or two of being at a loss of how to move forward without government support.
Building the virtual shop
Like many other small businesses, we had to move online to keep going. This meant we had to face the technical challenge of setting up a digital business. With almost no income coming in, we didn’t want to pay someone to build it for us, so we chose to do it ourselves.
Our first go at a website was clunky, slow, and hard for customers to navigate, but was enough to get us through Easter sales. Learning our lessons we did more research, found a new platform (ending up on Shopify), and rebuilt it again from scratch to ensure that the purchasing experience was as smooth as possible. It amazes us how easy it is these days to set up a quality online store with reward programs, chatbots, and management of products across many devices.
We also very quickly discovered how Google and Facebook can make so much money when our online advertising costs went through the roof! At the same time, the tools they provide to help target the right people were top notch. Having an awareness of the kinds of tools available to large enterprises, we were astounded by the level of tools available to us as a small business.
Attracting customers online
Up until this point, we had only sold our goods in person. Selling in person meant people could try and taste our products, as well as see the size and quality of our goods for the price they were paying. It was simple to show the difference premium French chocolate makes to the overall experience. We had years of experience talking about it face-to-face.
Instead, we learnt how competitive the digital market is, and how hard it is to convey taste, size, and quality through pictures and words. Traditional products that sold really well in person faced too much competition online. For example, our premium rocky road is our hottest product in person. Online? Barely sold at all.
In a saturated market, where no one knew us, we had to find a new differentiator that didn’t rely on taste, size or quality of ingredients. We needed to find something that would appeal to people with their eyes that still brought our premium nature to it, yet kept our core artisan simplicity.
After a few months of disappointing online sales and following the major website revamp, we found this differentiator in the form of our Ultimate Toolkit. Premium French chocolate and great Australian ingredients in the form of handyman tools – a hammer, a saw, pliers, and more, all cast in different flavours – Captain Morgan’s Rum & Raisin, Roasted Hazelnut, Raspberry & Pistachio, to name a few.
What we expected to be just a few online sales turned into hundreds of orders in the days leading up to Father’s Day. Suffice to say as a small business, we weren’t ready for it! To produce the goods and get them posted in time we had to call in extra hands and work through a few intense nights.
Even better, the product not only found its mark for Father’s Day, but generally as a great gift for birthdays, for corporate clients congratulating their clients on refinancing loans, and other corporates thanking other artisan brands for their services. We even received some custom orders to design tools we weren’t advertising including a trowel and a piano. We were excited that we had created a gift that was meaningful and affordable, that inspired the imagination of others who could request gifts designed for their loved ones.
We were able to extend this idea further at Christmas, through our rocky road tree, flavoured messages like 'Thank You' and 'Merry Xmas', and more. This time round, we were prepared for the orders!
Attracting an online audience turned out to be a tough time, but it was far better than the alternative.
Solving operational challenges
With great success came more challenges to solve.
We learnt about online delivery the hard way. With a few late deliveries, and some broken or melted pieces on arrival, this understandably lead to a few unhappy customers – challenges you don’t face when sales are in-person.
As a small business in a tough season, every customer counts. We worked quickly first to refund/replace to ensure we could recover their experience where we could. We then ran a number of experiments with different packaging setups, couriers, and chocolate design to minimise future issues.
One of our most interesting experiments was to solve the melting-during-delivery problem. Using a set of wireless thermometers, we tested how hot it could get inside the packaging depending on outside temperature and sun. Using foil-insulated wrapping was sufficient when the package was indoors or in the shade on hot days, but how would it go if it was a hot day and left on a porch in the sun?
We decided to test it out on a hot 40 degree day. Leaving the package in the sun, within 10 minutes the outside of the box had reached 60 degrees, and the heat had conducted itself through two layers of foil and bubble wrapped insulation to a searing 40 degrees where the chocolate would have been – keep in mind that chocolate melts at 27 degrees! Ice packs could help delay it, but not for very long at those high temperatures, especially if the package was left for several hours in the sun. This meant in hot weather, we learnt we couldn’t afford to run the risk of leaving packages on porches – all parcels had to be signed for upon delivery.
These challenges set us up for the Christmas season and ensured we had a far smoother sailing experience.
With the COVID situation coming largely under control in Sydney (even with the current Northern Beaches outbreak), some of our markets and shopping centres came back to normal. For us, this was a great relief to have not only our in-person popup stores back up and running to a certain extent, but in turn also allowed us to establish the Crows Nest kitchen and storefront for the next year.
This meant for us our new COVID normal wasn’t entirely about living with restrictions – our normal had given us the freedom to not only sell our great products to Sydney-siders, but all around Australia. We relish and are thankful for the opportunity that we have been given to expand our business at a time where we know that many other businesses have retracted.
Reflecting on the year
When we look back at this year and recognise that even though there were so many events out of control that affected our business, we also found that there were also many things we could do to move forward to support our customers – you!
We hope that our artisan gifts helped you to either indulge yourselves during this difficult time and provided you with some peace from the chaos, or helped provide meaningful artisan gifts for your friends, family, and clients.
We know even as we had our difficulties adjusting to the new climate, so did many of you. We hope that by sharing some of what we learned and experienced this year, it may encourage you to keep moving forward, as we have been encouraged to keep moving forward.
We look towards 2021 with far more work to do to grow our range, improve your experience, and give you the best chocolate we can.
Of course, our business wouldn’t exist without our staff, who tirelessly make everything work and bring out the energy to the everyday.
Ayak – one of the most agile team members – jumping in from the production kitchen to the pop up stores at the drop of a hat.
Liv - for being the friendly face of the Turramurra community and for being readily available even at 6 in the morning.
Arielle – our newest recruit, who hit the ground running during this recent Christmas season.
Karina – a superstar young lady who broke her jaw two weeks prior to Christmas and still insisted on selling at one of her favourite pop up stores (if you saw her at Stockland Balgowlah that is why she was probably holding her jaw as she was selling to you!).
Huw – our digital consultant who guided us through making the online store work as well as our overall business strategy.
Andrew – our in-house accountant, courier, analytics guy, spreadsheet number cruncher, dish washer and box folder – all the less glamorous jobs that keep the business going.
And we thank God, the one who sustains us always through every trouble and strife and blesses us with all good things.
And to you, who receive our newsletters, follow us on social media, have tried or gifted our products, and read this far. Thank you for your support this year. Without you, we would be another business that could have just given up. We look forward to a new year with new ideas, and where we just need to adjust to the new Covid normal.
Wishing you and your families a safe and Happy New Year.
Owner of Artisanale Chocolate