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Talita Estelle on the successes and challenges of ecommerce

Talita Estelle is the founder of online women’s store, Esther and Co, which she launched in 2004 as a bricks-and-mortar store and has since transformed into a pureplay online marketplace, offering fashion, homewares, accessories and beauty from an array of Australian brands with a focus on affordable luxury. Esther and Co also recently launched an in-house wedding range, Esther Luxe, aimed at offering customers bridesmaid dresses under $200.

Inside Retail Weekly editor Jo-Anne Hui Miller caught up with Estelle, below is an excerpt of a broader story that appeared in Inside Retail Weekly.

Jo-Anne Hui Miller: What have been some of the highlights for in the past year?

TE: Last year, we launched Esther Luxe, a bridesmaid range produced by us. It went absolutely crazy. We’ve repeated the styles and we can’t keep up [with demand]. We’re selling them on the The Iconic as well, which has been huge for us – combining with another brand to promote our in-house brands has been exciting. Then we have the other side, where we’re buying from suppliers and producing our own daywear, too. It’s a nice mix. 

Last year, there was a focus on product and honing in on what our customer wants and who she is. That changes over time, so we spent a lot of time researching what our customer wants and looking at how we can provide that for her. It’s been so good for us, because the last four months have been record breaking – we’ve doubled business and it’s exploded. It’s got a lot to do with our marketing strategies.

I think we’re acquiring new people to the site and a new customer. There are also existing customers who are growing up and getting engaged, and now there’s new things they can buy on the site, we’re able to offer them [bridal pieces]. Some of our new customers want an affordable bridesmaid dress under $200 and now we can cater to that.

JHM: Last year was a big year for the site as well, because of the launch of your marketplace. Can you tell me about that?

TE: Two years ago, I had an idea that I wanted to be as it is now, but also a marketplace. I love the Esther brand and clothing, but I also want shoes and accessories, so I put myself in the customer’s mind and imagined that Esther could offer a handpicked array of brands and products that suit her, all on the one site.

I thought I could stock this stuff myself, so I could go heavier into shoes and jewellery, but with any new product category, it takes time and you need to assess it – it’s like starting a whole new business. I thought, ‘Why don’t I just approach the people who have done it really well and look at getting brands in a marketplace structure, charge a commission and just charge for space on our site?’

It took about a year to get going – there wasn’t much tech out there allowing us to do it. People were charging $1 million for the tech for a marketplace, it was ridiculous.

We eventually found a tech company in the UK and we custom-built a marketplace platform with them. Say you’re a jewellery brand and want to sell your product on Esther. If you’re on Magento or Shopify, we can link into your site and your products will upload into our backend and the orders will go directly to your inventory, instead of having a subsite that you have to log in and manage. So you’ll get orders throughout the day just like normal, but they’ll be coming from Esther and we’ll charge a commission.

It took a year and a half to get the marketplace spot-on, but we’ve got over 40 brands on board, which is fantastic. The brands are ecstatic and we are getting a 30 per cent in rise in orders per week, because our traffic is so huge and the brands are getting massive exposure. Our site is getting around 100,000 visitors a week. From an Esther point of view, we don’t have the time and resources to expand into other product categories, because we’re focusing on what’s doing well for us. So the marketplace is like killing two birds with one stone.

Our aim is to get at least up to 300 brands by the end of this year, more of which will have a designer focus. We’ll stick to fast fashion that’s under $100, then we’ll have a designer section, which will be the marketplace site, with brands like Bec and Bridge with that kind of price point.

JHM: What have been some of the challenges over the past year for the business?

TE: For us, it’s been about keeping up with demand. We run our own warehouse, we have our own dispatch team and then obviously an office team as well, but we were so busy and we kept rehiring. Online retail ebbs and flows, so every week was different but because of all this growth, we were finding we couldn’t keep up with getting orders out on time. It’s a good problem to have, but delivery doesn’t affect just one part of the business – there’s a flow-on effect if orders don’t come out on time. It affects customer care, our brand, all of it.

We’ve combatted that by hiring 3PL two weeks ago, so now we won’t have anything to do with picking, packing or returns – it will all be done by 3PL, which will revolutionise us as a brand and a team. Our focus is going on marketing now that we have a marketing manager, as well as more overseas expansion. In the meantime, we’re running around like mad chooks, we’ve got 60 boxes of stock coming in every day – it’s crazy, but fun.

We signed on with Emarsys recently. They offer such a great customer experience and they’re so detailed, so our marketing campaigns are top-notch. We’ve only really started sending out with them in the last month – it took four months to get started with them and get our tech up to scratch. That’s been huge for us.

JHM: What are some of the areas of focus for Esther and Co this year?

TE: Going to 3PL, which is giving us time to focus solely on marketplace and building it into the Esther brand. Esther itself and the products we offer are spot-on, but it’s about keeping up with demand and offering our own products with Esther Luxe. This year is about the marketplace, getting more brands on board, having a designer focus, as well as a focus on maternity, pet products, beauty, magazine subscriptions, intimates, sleepwear – anything you can think of in terms of boutique categories.

I am handpicking beautiful brands our customer will love and they’ll get everything in a one-stop shop.

JHM: How has the business changed since you first launched Esther?

TE: We started out quite early when there were only a few players in the Australian market, but we’re busier than six years ago when we launched. I’m so proud of that, because you never know what’s going to happen in this space.

As the CEO, I have to be aware of what we’re offering and what customers want, but make sure we have a point of difference as well. I always strive to not be same-same. I’m always looking at our competitors – not because I want to beat them, but because I want to be different.

I don’t want to be doing the same thing as everyone else, because then it’s about a price war. I’m not passionate about that as a business – it’s not about price for us. It’s a legacy that we’re building in the company. It’s about trying to make sure we’re offering quality products at a decent price point and having a good selection. If we see that we’re becoming like everyone else, we’ll take a different direction.

We’re not focusing on a super young market anymore. A lot of our loyal customers have been younger, but they’re growing with the brand, so they’re getting more mature and looking for a different style of clothing. We’re acquiring new customers who fit into that space as well. It’s classy, modern clothing – nothing that’s too revealing, it’s not who we are as a brand or who are our customer is.

I think if people are starting out in online now, it’s all about getting your name out there – it’s so expensive now and social media isn’t what it used to be. We started when there was just MySpace, then Facebook. We didn’t pay for advertising, we were running competitions and people were sharing our content. Now there are limitations around social media and in the Adword space, there’s so much competition.

You have to put a lot more into your advertising these days, especially when you’re starting out and you’re not yet a popular brand. If you’re not getting that traction, you have to put more money and effort into making sure you can sustain your traffic and customer. It’s a very competitive and expensive space.

I stared Esther when I was 18. I had a bricks-and-mortar store for five years, then I opened a second store. Then I launched online in 2004 and in the first week, it was doing more in a day than the store would in a week [the physical Esther stores eventually closed]. It just went absolutely crazy.

One of the things that propelled us back then was Pinterest – we were one of the first Australian stores to pin images to Pinterest. We were the highest pinned Australian store ever and one of our pins had over 80,000 repins, and that was just on one product. It went viral in the US. They just loved our look and overnight, we exploded. That was really exciting – we didn’t actually pay for advertising until about a year ago.

JHM: Do you think Esther will stick to being a pureplay from now on?

TE: Yes, 100 per cent. But with our bridesmaid range, a lot of people want to try the dresses on, so maybe next year, we’ll rent a space in different bridal stores and put our range in them, then the stores would get a commission of what they sell and they can place orders with us. That would be the only avenue I would take in terms of going into physical retail.

I think bricks-and-mortar is good for brand awareness, but having been in retail for 10 years and with the way that online is going for us, it wouldn’t be worth it for us, given the time and energy it would take to go into bricks-and-mortar. Pop-ups aren’t really something we need to do right now, either.

The full piece is published here.

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