Toto, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore

When the COVID-19 pandemic really started to take effect it was a scary, anxiety-inducing time for everyone. Every aspect of life has been touched by this – our health and those of our family and friends, our social life, our daily habits. For business, the realisation that everything would change drastically, quickly and would be totally out of anyone’s control, is an overwhelming one to navigate. “Pivoting” really has become the buzzword of 2020, but for many, it was pivot or die.

Pandemic-induced pivoting

As I started to see so many brave small business owners start to make their moves to change their business models, I knew I wanted to do an interview series to share some of these stories.

My hope with this interview series is not to induce any dreaded brand shiny object syndrome, but to inspire other women in business dealing with difficult and uncertain times and generally to share some positive news stories. 

Let the people have their urban jungles in isolation

My first guest is Rhiannon Campbell of The Plant Lounge, a boutique nursery located in Nundah on Brisbane’s northside. Having taken over the business only 12 months ago, Rhi is still so early in her business journey and reliant on foot traffic into her physical store, driven by her exemplary use of social media. She absolutely takes a customer-centric view of her business, and focusses her energy on nurturing quality, long term relationships with her customers – just as she nurtures her plant babies ??

Rhi’s story has the highs and lows you’d expect, but shows tenacity, resilience and an approach to risk-taking that small business owners just have to have in order to survive. 

 

Watch the full interview here, or read on below.

 

 

 

Melissa:
Hi, Rhi, thank you so much for joining me for this interview series. You are my official plant dealer so I could think of no one better to interview first for this little series that I’m doing. Thank you for coming along. 

Rhiannon:
Thanks for having me. 

Melissa:
Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your business?

Rhiannon:
Sure, my name is Rhiannon or Rhi, and I own a plant store at Nundah called The Plant Lounge. We have indoor plants, artisan ports and beautiful little botanical wares, basically. We’ve been open for about 12 months in Nundah, which is Nundah Village, which is Northside in Brisbane.

Melissa:
Awesome. And who would you say is your ideal target audience?

Rhiannon:
I’m 40, so I think my target audience is probably women 25 to 45, but it definitely spins differently with some men and obviously women of other ages. But for me, my target market is basically 25 to 45 year old women.

Melissa:
You do such a great job on Instagram too and really leverage that platform to your advantage. Would you say you get a lot of traffic from there?

Rhiannon:
Absolutely, we get a lot of engagement on Instagram. We always make sure our imagery is really beautiful and people want to buy our products because of that imagery, which is really, really great. I have found, which I wasn’t expecting, that Facebook has actually been really good as well and we do actually get a bit more engagement there. I guess the thing is also that people can share, so when they like something they oftentimes will tag somebody and say, “this would be good for a Mother’s Day present or for you” or something like that, whereas you don’t get that so much on Instagram.

Melissa:
How interesting. It’s great that you’re using social like that and, you’re right, it is such a visual kind of thing and, of course, being a plant Mama, you want to share that visually.

Let’s take our minds back to when the shit really hit the fan.  You’ve got a physical store and rely on foot traffic. What was going through your mind when it became real?

Rhiannon:
Honestly, I just thought, “that’s it, we’re done.” I remember saying to my partner, this is just what’s going to happen and there’s not much we can do about it. At the end of the day, we had a good run, I’ve met some lovely people and it may be this is just what’s going to happen.  Basically, everyone’s in the same position so there’s not not much you can do about it.  So I guess I had almost resigned myself to the fact that maybe we wouldn’t be here in six months time.

Melissa:
Wow, how devastating.  Obviously you’ve made changes in your business, talk us through what that thought process was from that initial resigning yourself to “this is the end” to “no, I’ve still got fire in me”.  How did you get there?

Rhiannon:
That’s literally sort of how it felt.  I felt I needed to go through the process of almost mourning the fact that “okay, this is what might happen and this is the worst case scenario” to then pulling my socks up and saying “no, I’m not ready to see this end. I’m not ready to say goodbye to something that I’ve worked so very hard to get to”.  So I started looking to see what other people were doing. I felt like our politicians were about four weeks behind what the UK and even New Zealand were doing and so I looked at what was happening there.  They were doing lockdown, but were businesses still able to do anything and were they selling online?

 

I looked at flower deliveries because I thought the other thing that I can do is offer delivery, but how am I going to do that and what does that look like? These countries were four weeks ahead of us but businesses were still operating, albeit in a more limited way, by doing deliveries and click and collect and I decided “that’s it, that’s what we’re doing” and I closed the physical store.

Most people have asked me why I would close the shop when I don’t know what’s going to happen?  I have family members who are immunocompromised, I don’t want anybody to get sick and I don’t want my staff to get sick.  So I thought “you know what, let’s just do it.  Let’s close and then I can concentrate on getting the website up looking beautiful and get all my stock online as we haven’t actually stocked up in the last 12 months”.  I feel like a lot of people have said this, but we are getting to things that we hadn’t gotten to before and getting a better online situation happening.

 

So, that’s what we did, basically, we shut the shop and then a lot of the major retailers then shut their shops maybe that same week. 

We did a massive stocktake, got everything online and then just started promoting that we were doing click and collect and delivery.  I got my staff members that usually help out in the shop to start doing deliveries to people, which they were obviously all on board with as they kept their jobs as well.  I’ve managed to have somebody who was only working one day a week to now be able to work 35 hours a week with me.  I know her and her partner had lost her job so it made me feel good and made me want to push harder to make sure that we’re still here, still relevant and we’re still operating and that those people still had a job as well.

Melissa:
That’s so wonderful to hear, because I think that’s a really rare story at the moment.

Rhiannon:
Absolutely, and I know that we’re in a very lucky position as well, although I still have thoughts about whether it’s gonna last and so I’m still a bit hesitant about what’s going to happen. So there’s that thing where you feel like “okay, great, I’ve pivoted, I’ve done a great thing, but it’s not going to be enough”.  So you have to keep pushing forward and keep pushing the brand as well.

Melissa:
What gave you the motivation to keep pushing?  You’ve spoken about keeping the staff going and obviously your business afloat, but emotionally and psychologically there’s so much to deal with.  Did you have something that just kept you moving?

Rhiannon:
I think I’ve also thought about the fact that I believe that my product is a good product for people in this environment as well. So when we’re talking about being indoors, a lot more plants are actually helpful and beneficial as well. So why not continue to let people know about what the benefits are of having plants in the home, how they make you feel good, how they remove the toxins in the air, and all those types of things.  I think that helped me and also my customer base.  You’re one of my customers and now my friend and I have that same relationship with a lot of my customers so, for me, it was about being able to keep seeing my friends as well.

Melissa:
That’s very special and so unique and, you’re right, your offer translates to this environment so perfectly that it’s not a hard sell to try. That’s really wonderful that that was your motivation. Did you test anything before you started this or did you just launch right into it? 

Rhiannon:
I’m not a tester, I’m a throw it up in the air and hope it works kinda person, which is why you have to come back from making mistakes and errors in judgment as well. So I threw it all up in the air and hoped that it worked, because I guess I knew that if it didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world and I could always go and do something else if it doesn’t work out and I still think that now.

Melissa:
Of course, and when you’ve got that as your backup plan, I guess it makes it a little bit easier to take a few more risks and experiment?

Rhiannon:
Yeah, absolutely.

Melissa:
It sounds to me like what you’ve done is all based on an educated guess if you like.  You just researched, you knew what the model would look like and it was something that you’d wanted to do for your business anyway and now it’s just about executing it quickly. 

Rhiannon:
Yeah, and I am a researcher in general, even when it comes to shopping, I always pre-shop before I go and purchase something. I do a bit of research and I talk to a lot of people as well, get their opinions and find out what they think is a good idea. I don’t always take those ideas on board, but I like to find out what other people are thinking and any objections that they might have that I haven’t considered as well.

Melissa:
Were there any tools or resource hurdles that you had to overcome as obviously suddenly doing something online is a big kind of feat? Did you have existing skills and tools at your disposal, or is it a ‘you’re learning as you go’ kind of situation?

 

 

Rhiannon:
I had a basic idea of how to work my website, but to be honest, I’m a bit clunky!  I know the basics of most things but nothing too involved, so it was definitely a learning process having to work out how to do it all. At the end of the day, once you’ve done something once or twice, it becomes easy enough to do it over and over.  The website was easy enough, it just took a long time, but then by the same token, I wasn’t going into the shop so I was able to spend all my time doing it and there wasn’t really a timeframe. I put a timeframe on it myself purely because I just wanted to get it done as soon as possible so that we weren’t we weren’t off air for a long time 

Melissa:
From the outside looking in, you weren’t, you didn’t skip a beat. It was seamless, from one week the website was done and the next you were doing online delivery. So, from a customer experience, it did look seamless, although I imagine there’s a lot of scramble going on in the background.

Rhiannon:
Yes, I just thought on the Friday that this is where we’re going. On the Saturday, I said “ we’re doing 25% off everything” and we sold pretty much the entire stock in the shop.

One of the other things that I should note too is that I knew that I still had stock coming in.  I had thousands and thousands of dollars worth of stock that I’d purchased months before. And oftentimes, if you’re a retailer, you know how it works, it’s a cycle where it takes a long while for those new ranges to come in  So I was waiting for those things to come in that I’d already paid for and I thought “I’ve got to get rid of the stuff that I have in the shop in ready, in readiness for this stuff to come in”. We were expecting that the next week anyway, so it gave us a chance to do a stocktake on the stuff that we already had, which we hadn’t done before, which was a good start.

After that I worked out delivery cycles and all that sort of thing. Behind the scenes, it wasn’t particularly seamless, it was a lot of trial and error and working out. You know what we were doing but it’s nice that you thought that.

Melissa:
It’s the duck on water thing, right? Just looks fine from the surface, but underneath….

Rhiannon:
It’s all fine!

Melissa:
I think I think we’re all doing that at the moment. It looks fantastic online and what you see as an observer, but it’s sleepless nights and all that kind of stuff going on in the background, so well done.

Obviously these changes were something that you wanted to do anyway, you wanted to make the business available online. How do you see now that these changes will affect your business in the future?

Rhiannon:
That’s interesting.  I know that we’re going to keep the online offerings, and we’re certainly going to continue with the delivery and click and collect. That’s something that would have taken some time to implement and I’m not a procrastinator, but by the same token, if it’s something that seems insurmountable, which I think this would have seemed insurmountable for me, it would have taken me a long time to do. Whereas given the short time frame and the readiness to do it, that helped a lot. So we’re definitely going to keep those things and I think it just opens up our market a bit more as well, because it allows us to do click and collect and offer delivery to people who maybe wouldn’t be able to get into the shop usually. We have customers on the other side of town that probably haven’t ever been into our shop before, but can now have the opportunity to purchase some of our boards and have that experience as well, which is great.

Melissa:
Awesome. I love that, and you’re right about the whole timeframe thing.  It would have taken you so much longer if this hadn’t happened.. 

Rhiannon:
Yeah, it would be one of those things that would be on my to do list that I would like to get to, but eventually I probably would, but it just pushed me a little bit quicker.

Melissa:
The other thing is during this time, you’ve actually educated your audience about shopping in this way for plants that they might not have done before because going to shop for plants is a very physical experience.  So they get the visual from the social media and then they can obviously explore that more on your website.

Rhiannon:
I do think that, as you would know, too, that buying a plant is really also about looking, feeling and chatting about it. That’s something that we really miss in the shop as well. We really miss being able to chat to our customers, and giving them advice and help and so we’ve been utilising Instagram and Facebook messaging, as well as our emails, to enable us to do that online.

We often have a lot of questions before we purchase and we might also have situations where somebody says, “I’ve got this space, I need this, this is my budget”, and so we’re able to help them with that as well which is really good too.  We’re offering FaceTime consultations to be able to do that as well, so if you’ve got a big space that you want us to fill and if you’ve got a budget and, we can do that with FaceTime which is just as good as doing it in person.

Melissa:
So good! How brilliant because you think you wouldn’t actually be able to deliver that same level of service because you’d have to imagine it, you wouldn’t be able to see it in person. So it’s even a level up, how cool is that? Like personally curated?

Rhiannon:
Yeah absolutely!

Melissa:
Amazing, a “plant stylist”.

Do you have any other advice for women in business who are looking to make changes and are just feeling that overwhelm or desperation?

Rhiannon:
I know that feeling of desperation and it’s an awful, awful feeling, so I think my main advice would be to do the research, have a chat to some people, but then just do it. Just throw everything up in the air and just do it because if you don’t do it, you’re going to regret it later and that’s something that I think is a mantra for myself anyway, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a risk taker, but in the last couple of years I’ve really become a risk taker and the outcomes of being a risk taker are so much better and more fulfilling than just saying. “I don’t know. I’ll just leave it and see what happens.”

Melissa:
I love that energy. You’re right, if you’ve got nothing left to lose anyway, as you perceive it, then why not just throw everything at it and see what happens. That’s really great advice, I love it.  Thank you so much for this chat. I really enjoyed it. 

Where can people find you?

Rhiannon:
On Instagram we are @theplantlounge and on Facebook we are The Plant Lounge Nundah.

Melissa:
Awesome and online obviously for online deliveries and purchases…

Rhiannon:
Yeah, our website is www.theplantlounge.com.au

Melissa:
Amazing Rhi, thank you so much. I’m looking at all these beautiful plants behind you and creating my Mother’s Day shopping list as we speak. 

Rhiannon:
Oh my god, I’m so excited. We’ve got some beautiful stuff coming in. Just FYI.

Melissa:
Love it. Love it. Thank you so much again for your time.

 

So there you have it. Rhi was able to quickly adapt to the changes COVID-19 presented her with by moving into a distribution channel she otherwise may have procrastinated on. She’s accessed new potential customers and created ongoing value for her customers with her online delivery, click and collect options and customised plant styling services.

If you’re Brisbane based, I obviously personally recommend The Plant Lounge for all your urban jungle needs. If you’re a plant lover but aren’t local to Brisbane, follow @theplantlounge for a gorgeously green feed and helpful tips for indoor plant care. 

 

If you like to do your research like Rhi did before making her move, but are stuck on whether your pivot is right for your brand and business, the 50 Prompts For Pivoting workbook might help.

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