Urban Rituelle: How Leanne Haining took her Sydney market stall global

Urban Rituelle: How Leanne Haining took her Sydney market stall global

We chat to PowerPlayer and Premium member, Leanne Haining.

BY Business Chicks, 13 min READ

Premium member Leanne Haining is the co-founder and Creative Director of Urban Rituelle, a boutique brand of Australian made bath, body and home fragrance products. Established in 1999, Leanne’s products are now stocked in 1000+ boutiques across Australia, NZ, Asia, and there’s a fair chance you have one in your bathroom right now. We caught up with Leanne to find out how she took her Glebe market stall global. 

What were you doing before Urban Rituelle?

My first ‘real’ job was as a visual merchandiser at Just Jeans. I left that job to travel the world, returning to Sydney in 1995 to study a Bachelor of Visual Arts at Sydney College of the Arts.

Did you always know what you wanted to do?

I knew I always wanted to run my own business. I am from a family of entrepreneurs, so it just made sense to me to start my own business. I started my entrepreneurial journey travelling overseas, bringing back beads from India and cushions from Thailand to sell at Sydney’s Glebe markets. It was from these early days at Glebe markets that our business emerged.

How did Urban Rituelle come about?

I met my husband Scott, who is also my co-founder, travelling in southern Turkey in 1993. Our experiences travelling through the Middle East, India and South East Asia invigorated an appreciation of life’s simple pleasures. Upon our return to Sydney in 1995, this life-changing experience inspired us to start our own business creating a beautiful range of bath, body and home fragrance products that celebrate everyday rituals.

The initial success of the market stall and the product launch at the Sydney Gift and Homewares Fair in 1999, led Scott to leave his career in the film industry, committing fully to our common shared goal of establishing a company with an international brand status.

How did you first market Urban Rituelle? 

We attended the Reed Gift Fairs in 1999, which exposed Urban Rituelle to gift and homewares retailers from all over Australia. This initial launch introduced us to 50 new customers, some of whom we still do business with today. This was the beginning of our marketing strategy, and we have since attended over 100 trade fairs in both Australia and internationally.

What was the first thing you sold?

The first product we released was our Cocoa Butter Vegetable Soap range, which was first sold on our trestle table at Glebe markets in Sydney in 1996. It wasn’t long before the demand for the product outgrew the facilities in our family home, where each soap was hand wrapped and packaged, and the original timber display units lovingly assembled. This range remains one of our company’s most popular products today, with 12 fragrances available.

How did you first fund the business?

The business is 100% self-funded. We worked from home for the first few years and did everything ourselves. We had no staff, very low overheads and every cent was put back into the business.

Why do you think your business model has worked?

We have grown slowly and steadily over the last 18 years and continue to listen to our customers who provide us with the best feedback and inspiration. Over the last 18 years, we have reinvented ourselves many times! We are not the biggest players in the industry, but we remain proudly boutique with a genuine focus on our customer’s experience with our product and brand.

What has been your biggest challenge in business?

The biggest challenge we have dealt with to date was our expansion into the USA, just before the Global Financial Crisis hit. We had 80 road sales representatives selling our collections in the US, with eight trade fairs that we needed to attend per year. We had a warehouse in LA, and I had a 3-year-old and one-year-old all while running our Australian business AND then the GFC hit!

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?

Focus on your profit, not your sales.

Tell us about your design process. What’s your involvement?

I am very hands-on in the development of new products, formulations, and fragrances. I spend about 30% of my time working with my team in this area of the business. The ideas for each range start in my head. These are usually sketched out in pencil and pinned to my inspiration board. I also pull out pages from fashion and homewares magazines to get started, and of course, I now use Pinterest to collate my ideas. Once we have a mood board in place, we start mixing formulations, blending fragrances, and searching for new and interesting packaging. We then write the content for the boxes, and my graphic designer works her magic and brings it all together.

Your branding is stunning, how has that evolved over time?

When we were first starting out, our packaging was definitely not as particular or as detailed as what we’re doing now. We certainly couldn’t go out and design our own packaging, because we just didn’t have the buying power. When you’re starting out, and you go to a manufacturer to order a thousand boxes; an order of that size is just not worth doing for them.

When we were smaller there were restrictions, but even now there are restrictions; people ask, “Why don’t you design your own bottle? Why don’t you have your own boxes?” And what people don’t understand is that to do that we need to get 10,000 pieces, and we can’t hold 10,000 pieces. Plus you also have to wear that cost, you have to buy those cartons, say six months of brown cartons in advance, store them in a shipping container, and you have to manage your cash flow to enable you to do that. But as we slowly grew, we were able to increase our minimums and improve our packaging year after year.

How do you manage to keep your branding consistent across different packaging suppliers?

It’s a challenge. So when we’re printing, we may get labels printed at one supplier, tubes printed at another supplier, boxes printed at another supplier. It’s difficult, I would probably manage 10 to 20 packaging suppliers from glassware to tubes, to bottles, to pumps, to labels to boxes. That’s not including fragrance and raw ingredients, so that’s just the packaging supplies. What we try to do as much as possible is have one standard, but it doesn’t always go to plan!

So, just last month, we had some tubes printed, and the tubes didn’t match the boxes. The printers hadn’t waited for the boxes to be sent, so we got 5,000 tubes, and they weren’t right. We had to go back to them and say we can’t use them; we’re going to have to re-do it. So what we learned from that was making sure our communication is crystal clear. That our packaging printers cannot print until they have that standard to go by. So, we just have one box, and that one box gets sent to say three or four different people, and they all have to match back to that.

There is a level that you just have to accept because the material might be different; one’s printed on paper, one’s printed on plastic. You just have to have an acceptance of about 2-3%, and live with the fact that people won’t notice as much as we do. It’s just a 1% difference that we look at with hyper-magnifying glasses, so there’s got to be a bit of acceptance and tolerance too.

Urban Rituelle is an environmentally aware company; did you ever have to compromise on the look of the product for sustainability?

We have carefully considered our environmental footprint in every decision during the design process, with sustainability being at the top of the list. We use recyclable glass vessels, PET bottles and cardboard printed with natural inks to minimise waste. Our brand is very conscious of reducing excess waste, and we are always looking for ways to minimise the use of plastics, such as refusing to accept any packaging in polybags. I don’t believe there need be any compromise when being environmentally conscious; there are always solutions, you just need to work a bit harder.

What websites do you visit on a daily basis?

Urbanrituelle.com.au, Pinterest, and the bank!

What’s one thing no one else knows about you?

People are surprised when I tell them of my days spent travelling – some of the experiences I had were truly phenomenal. Highlights would have to be the time I spend sailing on the Nile in a tiny felucca, trekking the Himalayas and sleeping in caves on the side of a mountain, and playing cards in the desert of far western Jaisalmer by moonlight.

Wow, we’ve just added those to our travel wish lists. So … what’s next for Urban Rituelle?

This year brings lots of exciting new opportunities for our business in Asia and as well as online. In 2018, we will celebrate 19 years in business, and we remain driven to continue to expand our business with plans for further growth in Australia and international markets.

We’re also working on new online marketing strategies to help us “tell our story” and build brand awareness. We also have a sweet new collection launching at the Sydney Gift Fair this month.

This interview is in association with our partnership with Australia Post. Find out more about Australia Post Small Business and their solutions to help you start and grow your online business here.

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