Just like many businesses, Canberra’s beloved Handmade Market had to pivot their business in a breathtakingly short period of time when Covid-19 restrictions came into effect.

Handmade Canberra
Handmade Canberra
 Handmade Canberra
 Handmade Canberra
 Handmade Canberra
 Handmade Canberra
 Handmade Canberra
 Handmade Canberra
Handmade Canberra

“Our markets were cancelled 6 days out from the March event,” says founder Julie Nichols.
“The week before there was no indication that it was going to be cancelled, but then we got the call that the venue was going to be closed.
“Having to cancel an event 6 days beforehand meant we had already paid for everything - wages, advertising, everything.
“Our team got together to work out what we were going to do. As our website already had all our stallholders listed with links to their websites, we realised we already had most of the platform we needed to quickly turn the physical market into a virtual market without having to tweak too much.
“When something like this happens, every day matters, so we decided to run with it and the first Virtual Handmade Market went off like a firecracker with 29,000 unique views!” says Julie.

Lucky by Design

The Virtual Handmade Market came about out of necessity. However, Julie and the team at Handmade had been laying the groundwork for over 13 years that would allow them to pivot their entire business model in 6 short days. This relatively seamless transition was founded on three factors.

1. A strong sense of community

The Handmade Market has a loyal following both in terms of visitors to the markets, but also the 300+ designers that take part in the quarterly markets.
“We have been one of the few lifelines for designers and one of the few that have been profitable for them,” says Julie.
According to Julie, out of all the designers at the first market, only 11 didn’t recover all their costs. The advantage for stallholders is that there is no travel, no set-up costs, and they can sell from the comfort of their living room if they choose to.
“We know stallholders are struggling and we are only charging what it costs us to cover our expenses to get us through until things return to some form of normal”.

2. A clear understanding of the customer and an appealing value proposition

Covid-19 has changed the way we shop. People are becoming more comfortable with shopping online rather than simply browsing or searching for product information before buying from a physical store. As people have been forced to spend more time at home, we have seen increasing interest in shopping for homewares and products that make living and working from home more comfortable. Many of the Handmade designers sell beautiful homewares, textiles, ceramics and furniture. Another shopping trend is the interest in baking, gardening and gourmet food deliveries. Shoppers have moved from necessities like grocery shopping to looking for the little treats, indulgences or pandemic pick-me-ups that make the tough economic conditions more bearable. The Virtual Handmade Markets tick all these boxes as well as appealing to shoppers who wish to support Australian small businesses.

3. Flexible, innovative and quick to adjust to the changing landscape

According to Julie, Handmade Canberra has been investing in the changes to its website for some time, so it didn’t require a major investment to move to a virtual market.
“The website has a fairly technical backend that lets us manage things and this allowed us to transition to the Virtual Market in only 6 days.
“We had to get 300 designers to go online and add a special offer, discount or something special for the market. It wasn’t visible to anyone except them in the backend, but then when the market opened the site would click over and it would be visible to the public.

“A lot of markets and events didn’t have this functionality and they have had to scramble to get something up. They rely on a ‘we are open’ approach with no set time limits. There is no sense of urgency then and shoppers feel they can visit at any time. We differ in that we made it so that everyone had to shop between 9am and 9pm on a specific day after which the specials and deals would no longer be available,” said Julie.
Stallholders had two days to upload their specials.

“We then checked for typos and links and we were still checking up until midnight the night before the first market. We had the team ready with every type of device and every type of browser checking to make sure everything was working and running smoothly.

“We also had a team of people answering questions because as you can imagine with that number of people trying to go online at once it had the potential to be a nightmare”.

The Handmade Market has a reputation for quality and attention to detail and this is reinforced through the various processes that go into making the markets successful. The Virtual Markets needed to stay true to these values.

“Our process for stallholders hasn’t changed in terms of designers needing to submit an application,” says Julie.

“What we are finding though, is that now we have people wanting to register that we know will only ever want to do a virtual market and we are able to offer them this as an option now”.

Lessons Learned

1. A diversified offering - While Julie recognises that it is definitely easier to organise the Virtual Markets in comparison to the physical markets and the costs are significantly lower; the Virtual Markets are not intended to replace the popular quarterly market.
In many respects the Virtual Markets are just a means to an end for the organisation to get to the other side of the pandemic. Like many other businesses, moving online has only salvaged a fraction of their revenue. However, the Virtual Markets have had some surprising and beneficial outcomes that will ensure they remain a permanent fixture on the Handmade calendar beyond 2020 including diversifying their offering and spreading their risk.

2. Access to new markets - The Virtual Markets have allowed the Handmade Market to reach people who have found it difficult to get to or attend the markets in the past. And as economies open up, we are still going to see caution on the part of some shoppers. People with compromised immune systems or older Canberrans may be hesitant to attend a physical market that consistently attracts in excess of 22,000 visitors. The Virtual Market will ensure these groups don’t miss out and can still get their Handmade-fix on a regular basis.

The Virtual Markets have also allowed Handmade Canberra to access a new and different group of designers who will only ever choose to participate in a virtual market.

The Virtual Markets will also allow them to tap into peak shopping days, such as Mother’s Day, which is the second largest shopping experience in Australia. Traditionally there is no Handmade Market around Mother’s Day, but in 2021 they will run a Virtual Market.

3. The importance of ensuring innovation is a part of the organizational culture - “We have also come up with some really good ideas and have some new directions in the pipeline, that we had been throwing around but never had time to explore,” says Julie.

“We have spent a lot of time in the last 12 months revisiting our business plan, refining what we do, and making sure that our messaging speaks to our customers. However, the pandemic forced us to go back to the drawing board.
“We never really contemplated virtual markets and now that this is going so well, we thought maybe we need to revisit some of the other ideas we have had and one of them has really come to light as being a great idea, so watch this space!” laughs Julie.
The transition hasn’t been easy, however.
“It did bring out the best in some people and the worst in others,” says Julie.
“We have seen lots of people try to do something similar, but we think the key to our successful Virtual Market is having a strong community for starters.

4. Regularly testing assumptions and avoiding complacency - “Our advertising costs have been another surprise. We haven’t had money to spend on advertising the Virtual Markets and have had to rely on organic reach. What has been amazing is that our results have been nearly as good as in the past by simply relying on organic reach.
“That was a big wake-up call for us. We would have just kept spending more and more on advertising thinking that without it we wouldn’t keep achieving these great results. It really shows the value of having a strong community.
“Going forward we will definitely be looking at where we are spending our money and what we are spending it on.”

Going Forward

As the government considers the transition to opening up bigger events such as festivals and conferences, Handmade Canberra is hoping they will be able to go ahead with physical markets towards the end of the year.

According to Julie they will wait and see what the guidelines are and then the challenge will be how do they implement them and police them in a commercially viable way. If they can’t then the physical markets will have to wait, but the Virtual Markets will ensure Handmade fans and designers still have access to their favourite market.

The Winter Virtual Market will take place on Saturday the 11th July from 9am to 9pm, visit https://handmadecanberra.com.au/ to start your shopping list!

Photo credit: Handmade Canberra


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