Stitch in time saves time and money

With its classic 1950s clothing and love of all things quirky, Hoola Hoop is a hidden treasure in the historic town of Braidwood, NSW. Co-owner Michelle Watkins-Sully explains how the shop has used social media to grow a strong national fan base.

When people enter Hoola Hoop for the first time, it's often a step outside their comfort zone. They're simply not expecting this sort of thing in Braidwood.

From the polka-dotted dresses to a couch from the set of 'The Phantom', we've approached everything with a sense of fun.

However, we've had to overcome the serious challenges that come with operating a retail store in a small country town.

Firstly, Braidwood has a population of about 1100, which limits the number of sales we receive from locals.

Secondly, with the store located on the town's main street, business is also very weather-based. The wind and rain can turn customers away one day and draw them inside the next.

Lastly, classic clothing attracts a niche (but very stylish!) market, with a lot of potential customers scattered across the country.

Innovation through social media has helped us grow

We knew when we started the business three years ago that, because of these challenges, we would have to develop an online presence.

Initially, we were scared of getting on board with social media because we're not 'Generation Y' and weren't sure how it worked. But we gave it a go and tried to reflect the kind of service that customers receive in our store.

We now have about 7000 online fans and followers around Australia, who enjoy the personal touch we give to our social media presence.

Interestingly, people still prefer to do business over the phone, but our social media channels are great for spreading the word about us and reaching a national audience.  As a result, we've come to know a lot of our customers personally, even if they've never set foot inside the shop—we like to call it 'remote retail'.

In today's very competitive online shopping environment, it's an innovative way to maintain the relationship that traditional small businesses have had with their customers. In doing so, it's helped us build a loyal fanbase. 

Face-to-face customer service is still just as important

People will often drive an hour or more to visit the shop and we always like to make sure they get the complete Braidwood experience. We let them know where they should stay, where they should eat and where else they should shop. It's about helping other Braidwood businesses out as well because we're all in this together.

Three years ago, I never would have thought that we could develop such great friendships with our customers. For example, I recently had a spell in hospital and some of our regulars from Canberra came to visit and drop off food—it was just so lovely.

Developing good relationships with our customers is at the centre of our business. This involves constantly asking questions to improve what we do.

Innovation doesn't mean doing it on your own

We also ask for advice from other business owners in the area and have talked to the Queanbeyan Business Enterprise Centre, who gave us great advice when we needed it most.

Most importantly, we ask our customers for feedback regularly, particularly through our social media channels. We ask questions like, "What else would you like to see?", "What can we do better?" and "Is there something you'd like to see that we don't have?".

Similarly, we love receiving positive feedback because it tells us that we're doing something right! We often get customers commenting that their shopping experience at Hoola Hoop was unlike any other they've had - which is exactly the kind of feedback we want!

After all, this is our life. We run the shop seven days a week and will be doing so for a long time to come. So, whether it's online or offline, we may as well be ourselves and have a little fun with it—that's why we went into business in the first place!

Thanks for your feedback. If you have any ideas on how we can improve, we'd love to hear them.

Please provide your comments in the feedback form.

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