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From party wear to PPE: How Beginning Boutique pivoted into medical supplies

When online fashion retailer Sarah Timmerman heard healthcare workers were facing a shortage of basic protective supplies, she rose to the challenge. She shares how strong supplier and partner relationships enabled the launch of her new online medical supply store in just two weeks.

Key points

  • Beginning Boutique kept staff employed and frontline workers protected by adapting quickly.
  • Having the right team and partners helped them meet shifting customer demands.
  • Continually listening to customer needs is key to growth.

In March 2020, Sarah Timmerman was planning Beginning Boutique’s Coachella range. As the go-to party wear destination for Generation Z and millennials, her Queensland-based online store is one of Australia’s most successful fast fashion sites and has a core customer base in the US.

Then COVID-19 came along, and festivals – along with many other things in life – were being cancelled.

“When I saw how it was impacting our sales, it was pretty terrifying,” admits Sarah, the CEO and founder of Beginning Boutique. “We had never experienced anything like this before. So I just put aside everything else and focused on what else we could do.”

At the same time, Sarah’s sister shared her own concerns. As a junior doctor, she was worried about the shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. By that time, the number of COVID-19 cases was slowly climbing in Australia and the nation was preparing for an imminent lockdown.

Sarah was concerned front line workers could be entering high-risk workplaces without adequate protection. So she decided to take matters into her own hands – and created a whole new business.

“I thrive on solving problems, and this was just another product to source. I worked with my trusted suppliers to bring in essential items as quickly as possible.”

AU Medic Supply launched in early April with basic protective supplies, including face masks, gloves, face shields and hand sanitiser. All products, except the hand sanitiser, are available for express shipping locally and internationally.

Sarah had taken the business from idea to delivery in just two weeks. “It started out as a need to help my sister find masks, because there were simply none available, then expanded,” Sarah says. “My other primary objective was to keep our staff busy and employed.”

She says demand still comes in waves. “At first orders were mainly from medical professionals, the general public, and businesses – including beauticians as they prepared to reopen after lockdown. We sold out of masks again quickly when Victoria went back into lockdown in July.”

AU Medic Supply’s masks are also now sold directly to her loyal fashion customers through the Beginning Boutique website.

Creating under pressure

Launching an online business during a pandemic is no small undertaking, but going from concept to delivery in a fortnight is close to impossible – unless you have the deep online retail experience and trusted relationships that Sarah does.

Having launched Beginning Boutique at the age of 21 during the Global Financial Crisis, she learned to listen to people’s needs, procure products from the right suppliers, process orders quickly and communicate clearly. Equally importantly, she already had the right people on her team and solid partnerships to get the idea off the ground.

"This has been an incredible experiment of what you can get done under pressure,” she says. “We are an excellent retail team with exceptional capability in this space. Ultimately, this was yet another product line for us. It was a mammoth effort but everyone saw why this needed to be done."

The power of partnerships

Sarah had the retail aspect of AU Medic Supply down pat. But the freight requirements around shipping hand sanitisers and PPE proved quite different to packaging up party wear.

Under the new COVID-19 guidelines, flammable liquids up to 500ml were fine to move through Australia Post’s network. However, AU Medic Supply’s hand sanitiser came in 1 litre bottles – and within a few hours of launch they had an order for 200 bottles. Sarah’s Australia Post account manager recommended they use StarTrack Express to move the shipment.

New contracts were organised overnight, and Australia Post worked with Sarah’s team to calculate the maximum quantity permitted on a truck – which amounted to 1,000 bottles.

“It was incredible how Australia Post also adapted,” Sarah says.

“The hardest part for everyone was working amidst the uncertainty but they really helped figure out how to best move our products.”

Sarah has also brought forward the opening date for her new warehouse to this year, and says she feels lucky to have hands on support from her Australia Post account management team with that move – which will also put her closer to their delivery hub.

“Australia Post is an indispensable partner for my business, because from a customer’s perspective we are one and the same. It’s this big circle, where the better the communication is between us, the better the experience is for our customers.”

Staying close to the customer

At the same time as launching a completely new medical supply business, Sarah was also managing a re-think of her entire fashion range by shifting to loungewear as self-isolation started. It’s been challenging, she says, but good retailers know how to listen to customers to find out what they need.

“It’s been a really interesting shift, because we’re now seeing our customer move back into more formal outfits. We try to move with her as fast as we can. You need to be super connected to your customer, because everything could change in a heartbeat.”

She believes the pandemic has taught her team how to be truly flexible, and focus on giving customers what they need and want. “They’ve done an exceptional job of rising to the challenge.”

“We’ve launched so many different product lines that we'd never considered before. And with the huge shift to shopping online, I feel really confident about my business. We’ve got a loyal customer base, and strong growth. We just need to stay true to what we’re doing, and make sure we don’t take anything for granted.”

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