18 August 2020

Wool retailers adapt to COVID-19 challenges

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By Joely Mitchell, Farm Weekly


Australian wool clothing retailers are adapting to the challenges COVID-19 has thrown their way and are setting themselves up to thrive post-pandemic.

Andrew Ross is the founder of Bluey Merino, a NSW-based active and outdoor clothing brand that produces their range in Australia using Merino wool sourced direct from local farms.

The Bluey Merino team select Merino wool suitable for layering, starting with the intimate 16.1 micron, the functional 18.3 micron and the more durable 19.5 micron.

Mr Ross said this made the products suitable for every outdoor activity, climactic condition and across all seasons.

He recalled February 20 as the day "everything stopped".

"We saw on that day that the world fell off the cliff," he said.

"Every outdoor agricultural event that we were going to go to started to get cancelled."

While this was initially a shock to the system, Mr Ross said they decided their strategy would be to sustain themselves through it.

They decided to pull themselves out of every event they had originally planned to attend to showcase their products, whether or not the event had been cancelled by its organisers.

"We said we're not going to support the transfer of COVID-19 in any way, so we won't go to any events," he said.

The world was headed online and a Tasmanian event's initiative to run in a virtual format ended up working in the company's favour.

"In May, Agfest was held online and they did a lot of promotion on social media, radio and TV, funneling customers to their virtual event," he said.

"Typically they published there would have been 50-100 people through their website a day but in the first three to four hours they had hundreds of thousands."

As a result, Bluey Merino saw impressive sales results on their products.

"We had about a 400 per cent increase in online traffic and 360pc increase in online sales," he said.

"It proved that that model worked for us."

Mr Ross said COVID-19 had also given the business an opportunity to anticipate future demand.

"We have been observing what is going to be needed longer term and re-aligning our capabilities around that," he said.

"We've restrained from developing face masks because everyone else seems to be going there."

Instead, they are investing in functional everyday fashion, which they think is the way of the future.

"People might be trying to manage their electricity bills in the cooler moths, decreasing the amount of washing they do, or might be working from home and needing to get outdoors," he said.

"You can wear Merino wool inside and outside and for multiple days, therefore we think lightweight, super soft, amazingly comfortable apparel is going to be very important going forward."

And he said having a digital vertically-integrated business meant they could pivot and innovate according to where they saw the market going.

"It allows us to turn up the speed and velocity of moving products to market, or slow them down because consumer demand is fickle," he said.

"Whereas bigger brands have less agility around this because they're doing their big forecasts a long way out and are still reliant on an ever-changing global supply chain.

"For us, it's about being responsive to the market."

Mr Ross said Bluey Merino had always been run online and he believed COVID-19 and its associated lockdown measures had proven that online integration with changing consumer demands was their only way to grow into the future.

He said other Australian brands had reached out to their parent company E&A Ventures, for support in their digital adaptability.

"We're a small brand that hasn't ventured into stores and that's because we've never felt that was going to be a sustainable direction for the brand, and that's definitely not going to be the future now," he said.

"COVID-19 has refined how we view the market and I think we're early days in very long-term, consumer-driven change."

One thing that hadn't changed was the company's desire to put Australian wool growers first.

"We pay above market price because we pay based on the cost of production," he said.

"Yes, we could take advantage of the market as it goes down but by doing so we wouldn't be supporting growers and the long-term sustainability of the industry."

Bluey Merino founder Andrew Ross said COVID-19 had forced retailers to adapt to the online world.
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