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Who on earth opens a retail store during a pandemic?

WORDS BY JORDAN DRUMMOND

A tale of persistence and resilience.

You could argue that Julia McCarthy is a little mad. The founder of outerwear label Friends with Frank has just opened her first brick-and-mortar store during a pandemic, which is nothing if not brave (and extremely ballsy).

Like most industries, the already struggling fashion and retail sectors have been hit hard by COVID-19. With the announcement last week that around half of Target stores are closing in Australia, the news that David Jones is speeding up store closures, and with the Business of Fashion estimating that the fashion industry has lost 30 per cent of revenue during the pandemic, we’re not short of a grim headline.

Enter Friends with Frank – our good news fashion story. With a background in retail and buying, Friends with Frank was born when Julia was on the hunt for an affordable fur jacket.

“I always really loved retail, which sounds weird. No one loves retail. But I really loved selling, buying, selling customer interactions. I took it upon myself to source the ideal coat I wanted, and then it just kind of grew from there. Selling to my sisters, my sister’s friends and family, it eventually turned into a business.”

Aptly named the ‘Frank’ coat, Julia’s foray into fur eight years ago has since seen her nurture the label from a Facebook-led, side hustle to her full-time gig, taking the leap when the juggle became too difficult.

“We started getting a lot of interest in wholesaling into fashion boutiques and because I was at my job nine to five, I wasn’t able to answer phone calls on Friends With Frank, or get back to emails until the evening.

“My boyfriend at the time – who’s now my husband and business partner – and I were packing wholesale orders until one o’clock in the morning and then going in to work the next day, so it just wasn’t sustainable.”

Friends with Frank now stocks other less contentious materials like coats made from 100 per cent Australian wool, however it was the fur-loving shoppers that got the label off the ground.

“From where we began with our range, we’re reducing the amount of fur we’re selling. But we’ve always had a very loyal customer base when it comes to the furs, so that’s why it’s stayed from the very beginning.

“We’re really open to having an honest conversation about where our materials are sourced from and why we believe real fur is a relevant material. We’ve also got a pretty extensive section on our website, which explains our design production and sustainability ethos, so we’re trying to be as transparent as possible.”

A major milestone for the brand was due to be reached in March this year: the opening of the first Friends with Frank retail shopfront. But along came COVID-19, and like so many best-laid plans, the weight of a global pandemic came crashing down on them.

“The goal to open a brick-and-mortar was in the pipeline for the last 12 months. We had always been an online store, working out of a warehouse and we just didn’t have that customer-facing space. I think it was literally like the week we planned to open when the restrictions came into full force.”

A pivot was required, and with Australian retailers seeing an 87 per cent drop in in-store sales during the pandemic, opening a storefront became very risky business.

“The intention was never to open during COVID. If we’d had a crystal ball, we probably wouldn’t have gone to the effort we did, because you know, it was a huge investment. We had planned a launch party and we were going to do trading hours.”

The easing of restrictions in May saw a renewed sense of opportunity and with the help of plenty of hand sanitiser, Julia was able to open her Richmond boutique for one-on-one appointments.

“We had to adapt and when we felt the time was right, we decided to just give it a go. We definitely had to rethink how we were going to launch a retail space during this time, as well as what our messaging would be. So we decided to implement a booking system for 30-minute appointments, one-on-one with us and the customer.”

The intimate customer experience has been met with resounding success, so much so that Julia may never go back to a walk-in shop front. Shoppers are clearly looking for a more personalised in-store service, a play that perhaps other retailers could learn from. 

“I feel like the appointment just allows them to come into a safe environment, and customers are really enjoying it at the moment because it might be their one outing for the day… because of the time we’re living in now with COVID, people really appreciate the one-on-one nature of it.”

Julia is optimistic about the post-pandemic future, welcoming the possibility of a shift in the seasonality of fashion and traditions being challenged.

“The retail seasons are a big bugbear for us because we’re expected to drop autumn in February and then the season ends in July and spring gets dropped when really that’s the middle of winter for us and we still have another two months of cold weather.

“So I think if the seasons were to shift, that would take a lot of pressure off retailers, particularly small businesses like ours because we wouldn’t have to go on sale just because everyone else is.”

Like many business owners, Julia is well versed in the art of resilience and persistence, something that has served her well in this challenging time.

“I think what I’ve learned is when we do get hit with a blow, how to come back from that, not [to] let it beat you up and make you want to throw in the towel. Because there will always be a kind of win at the end of it. You don’t know when that win will come, but somehow it does. And it’s because you put so much hard work and grit into it, that those wins do come in the end.”

Take it from a woman who opened her first retail store during a pandemic.

You can book your one-on-one appointment at the Friends with Frank Richmond Showroom here.

friendswithfrank.com

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