The SME Series - Willow & Huxley24/08/2017 By Piers Lee
Market Research for Business Start-Ups
Willow & Huxley is a multi-label boutique clothes store which sells niche, international brands that are not otherwise available in Singapore. Founded in 2010, like many other business start-ups they identified a gap in the market and sought to fill it. The founder, Susie Wallace, had previously worked as a finance director in a shipping company and found that she only spent a lot on clothes when she travelled outside of Singapore. She concluded that there must be many others like her who needed something a little different from clothes shopping in Singapore and so went on to found her first retail enterprise.
With over 200 shopping malls, one might think that Singapore retail has filled every niche in the market. But specific labels, exclusive designs, and certain sizes of clothing were still absent. But also by virtue of the dominance of shopping malls in Singapore, some segments of the market actually miss the ‘high street’ shopping experience.
Of all our SME series, Susie is perhaps the most enthusiastic adopter of market research and found innovative ways of getting the consumer insight she needed on a shoestring budget.
Initially, she convened focus groups to determine the gaps in shopping in Singapore and to verify some of her own hypotheses about gaps in the market. With the assistance of her business partners, she was able to study groups from various market segments including local Singaporean consumers and expats. Sometimes these groups were arranged by just ‘gatecrashing’ other gatherings, e.g. book clubs and social events, and hence did not incur the costs of recruitment or venue hire.
Not content with just the initial qualitative findings, Susie backed them up with a quantitative online survey. She solicited friends to complete a questionnaire that covered what they missed about shopping in Singapore, what they wanted in clothing but could not get and any other retail information that Susie needed to start planning her business. At the time, she used the now-popular store pop-ups (temporary retail facilities at strategic locations) to establish if the claimed needs of consumers within her survey would actually translate into sales – and indeed they did! In her first pop-up, she sold $30,000 of clothes in just a few days and made a $20,000 profit. These pop-ups not only formed an effective ‘market test’ of her products, they also helped to build her initial customer database that could then be targeted for repeat business.
Susie then established her first permanent store at Amoy Street in Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD). Not only was this in a ‘high street setting’ (within Chinatown), which her target segment wanted, but was conveniently located for business women working in the CBD who needed a retail facility on their doorstep – by being central to Singapore it also allowed people to commute in from all parts of the city.
This initial market research helped to manage the risks that so many small businesses face when starting their own enterprises. With a background in finance, Susie had an eye for managing costs – not only did she undertake research on a shoestring budget but her shop location meant significant savings in facilities costs compared to setting up shop in a mall, and she was able to act as her own company secretary and finance manager as well as store manager. Today she has five other full-time staff, each carefully recruited through word-of-mouth.
Today, Willow & Huxley continues to use market research with a DIY approach. Given that the shop is not in a mall, many people need to ‘find’ it – with each new customer who walks through the door, the staff will ask how they got to know about the shop. Sometimes it is through their advertising, and this feedback helps them to plan their media buying strategy. Expat Living has been one of the most successful advertising avenues, and while some argue that traditional media is dying, Susie points out that magazines stay lying around in reception areas for months and can be a highly effective way of attracting particular audiences. While Susie does a lot of research herself, she still appreciates the role of the consultant, and is currently seeking advice on how to reach out to new target markets, such as some segments of the youth market.
The secrets to Willow & Huxley’s success has been in its products, personal service and location, but market research has also helped enormously in determining the constructs of the former three. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs need to think differently – in an age of e-commerce, Susie has actually decided against developing an online business. Traditional retail is not dying, argues Susie. In this field (clothing), it is a tactile business and people want to feel the product. The ethos of the enterprise was also about bringing back the fun of shopping, where people can come together to enjoy the traditional retail experience. Long live traditional retail!
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