Like most industries and indeed the rest of the world, the window furnishings sector has been left reeling at the sudden and unprecedented impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. But WFA has discovered a rich seam of resourcefulness in which many businesses have used the crisis as an opportunity for innovation, improvement, collaboration and community.
The Fashionline Group continues to look for ways to lead industry amid the unprecedented and highly challenging Covid 19 business environment.
“Make no mistake, the global pandemic hit our industry quickly and hard, from panic buying one minute to restrictions on how and where we could trade the next,” a group spokesperson told WFA. “States across Australia reacted differently and so did customers. There was no way to predict how this all was going to play out; management decisions were being made daily in big and small businesses. As one blind industry professional put it: ‘I have decision fatigue!’.”
Within days of the outbreak taking hold in the local market, The Fashionline Group, comprising over 30 independent business owners, saw a unique opportunity to step up and lead. The committee pulled members together for weekly conference calls and drew on collective knowledge as a strength in challenging times. Members shared their challenges, successes and their interpretations of government stimulus packages. They shared ways to cut costs, deal with staff and to pivot their business to keep trading.
“Being able to call on the experience of a group of business owners who share the same questions or concerns made a big difference for us as business owners, and this also impacts how we run our business, and how we lead our business,” said Luke Vandeligt, who, with his brother Glenn owns and operates Clark’s Blinds and Screens in Pakenham, Victoria.
Jay Mansbridge commented: “There is so much ‘doom and gloom’ in the news, talking to other businesses helps us sort through all the information and work on what’s relevant to us. It’s great to hear about how others are handling issues as they arise.” Jay and his wife Bronwyn operate Ede Shade Solutions in Townsville, Queensland, which has been servicing north Queensland for over 100 years.
The Fashionline Group created a think tank conference call with Australia’s leading industry suppliers. Participants like Somfy Oceania’s, Key Account Manager – Jodie Featherstone, said: “I thought it was a really innovative idea to involve suppliers in the think tank conference call with Fashionline. The bottom line is, everyone wants to work together and get through this. As suppliers we can help by being flexible and transparent, so our customers can make smart decisions moving forward.
A look into the future was provided by Bay Blinds in New Zealand, where full lock-down was implemented for a month in early April. “We had three days’ notice to get everything in order”. said Gail Christie, Bay Blinds Director. “We can’t leave our homes, not even to post fabric swatches. Everything went virtual almost instantly.” Sharon Tieman of Premier Shades said she felt it was a blessing to have a New Zealand company in the
Fashionline group. “Gail and Paul have given us great insight into what lockdown really looked like for our industry. At one stage, I was overwhelmed, and I just wanted the indecision to stop lockdown seemed like the only option. It was good hearing the reality of what that looks like.”
Fashionline also runs private Facebook groups for members to share information, which have been filled with updates and information from state and federal governments, and industry.
Dyson Wood, who sits on the Fashionline Board as Vice- Chairperson, commented: “We’re proud of our group and how its members have stepped up at this time. I’ve enjoyed the open discussions; from tips on rotating and
distancing staff, to changes in turnover, challenges with installations, and impacts of actions by the different state governments.” He operates Scorpio Screens and Blinds on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Scorpio is a well established
local business, celebrating its 40th birthday this year.
These insights and comments reflect an important truth, and one that Fashionline believes in strongly: Now is the time for the leaders of industry around Australia to band together and find a pathwaythrough to a new future.
“These are unprecedented times, with no ‘How-To’ manual existing for a situation of this magnitude,” says Blindware Managing Director Grant Norton. For Blindware, the objective has been to hold steady during the turbulence, providing stability for its customers and staff and to trade through the crisis as best as possible, he says.
“We have been planning for all possible eventualities while hoping for a positive and expedited resolution to the COVID-19 crisis. To ensure operations can continue as seamlessly as possible for customers, while protecting the well-being of staff and the business, one of the first actions we implemented by Blindware was a split of staff into two teams, each working completely separate days and hours, ensuring so contact is made. While Team A works in the office and warehouse, Team B works from home. This ensures customer needs can be fulfilled and operations maintained as seamlessly as possible, even in the event that someone is infected with COVID-19. Hygiene is kept up, with the work areas being thoroughly cleaned throughout each shift and between team changeovers.”
“To ensure operations can continue as seamlessly as possible for customers, while protecting the well-being of staff and the business, one of the first actions we implemented by Blindware was a split of staff into two teams, each working completely separate days and hours, ensuring so contact is made. While Team A works in the office and warehouse, Team B works from home. This ensures customer needs can be fulfilled and operations maintained as seamlessly as possible, even in the event that someone is infected with COVID-19.” Grant Norton, Managing Director, Blindware.
Norton also confirms that the company’s stock position is solid, having placed larger than normal orders in advance of the Chinese New Year shut down, which has allowed the business to fulfil almost all customer orders fully as they are received. Supply of components and fabrics from the company’s many suppliers continue to operate normally, and distribution within Australia is so far unaffected.
Blindware was acquired by global window coverings leader Hunter Douglas in 2019, and while there are undoubtedly challenging times ahead for the industry, Norton says that the security of this backing gives Blindware confidence it can weather this storm and come out the other side with a viable business.
GOODEARL & BAILEY
Goodearl & Bailey has implemented a number of measures to assist customers and business colleagues through the current crisis, including waiving credit card surcharges for all accounts and proformas paid within terms, commencing April and for the subsequent five months. And for three months the company will also be waiving its small order surcharge, usually applicable to small orders under $100 excl GST. Meanwhile Goodearl & Bailey is maintaining its sampling program, with fabric cuttings continuing to be mailed to clients following emailed requests. The company also advises its industry colleagues to stay connected with clients via virtual online meetings, and adds that its state-of-the-art website is a highly effective sales tool to “show and share” with clients during the fabric selection process.
Jack McDonald, National Sales & Marketing Manager for Ozroll, says the company has been taking all recommended measures to ensure safety for staff and their families. “That’s the number one priority. This includes a range of increased sanitation in and around the premises, with education provided to staff on infection awareness and prevention techniques,” he says. New visitation rules were put in place, which apply to customers, suppliers, delivery drivers and anyone else who enters the facility, he adds. “Effectively, there is a check-in process where we ask the big three questions (Have you travelled? Do you know anyone who has travelled? Do you feel in any way unwell) and they will be heat tested. We are actually heat testing every employee on site, every day, to check for a fever.”
“As far as operations go, we are well stocked and we are actually experiencing the true benefit of procuring locally as much as possible. All of our extrusions and a high percentage of our fixings come from within Australia and we haven’t had any significant hold-ups in that regard. Our slat coil is European and, while the docks have been very busy after China re-opened, we weren’t impacted by any shut downs during the early part of the financial year. We did take all travelling staff off the road well before the governments shut the borders, for their safety and the safety of those who they visit. They’re all still employed full time however, helping customers with day-to-day enquiries and even training using digital platforms.
“We are totally committed to staying open as long as possible, for all stakeholders,” says McDonald. “We want to keep our staff in a job, we want to keep our customers supplied and we want to support our suppliers. If there is product to make, we will be here to make it, barring any government enforced restrictions. So far, we have been somewhat lucky in South Australia, with a relatively low number of cases and already we are seeing what looks to be slowing in the spread of infections. The optimist in all of us says, if we can get a hold of the infection rate and keep people’s health and finances stable, they are likely to gain confidence to spend. With everyone trapped at home, it’s likely they will consider home improvements. In that sense, our industry could be one of the better performers in the months to come.”
“We are totally committed to staying open as long as possible, for all stakeholders,” says McDonald. “We want to keep our staff in a job, we want to keep our customers supplied and we want to support our suppliers. If there is product to make, we will be here to make it, barring any government enforced restrictions.” Jack McDonald, National Sales & Marketing Manager, Ozroll.
HUNTER DOUGLAS / LUXAFLEX
Vera Meharg, Marketing Communications Manager, Luxaflex Window Fashions, indicates parent company Hunter Douglas Australia has reframed the current crisis as an opportunity to innovate.
“Innovative and flexible, Hunter Douglas thought proactively as Covid-19 emerged. Rather than reacting, we endeavoured to tackle the pandemic head on to best equip our teams, and ensure business remained as fluid as possible,” says Meharg. “This started with adjusting our in-market campaign to reflect the conditions of the market. We developed a new, aspirational yet relatable campaign that focused on helping Australians to transform their homes during this hibernation period.”
In April, the brand embarked on a Brand Ambassadorship with celebrity Interior Design Expert, recognised Editor and TV personality, Neale Whitaker. Acting as the face of the brand, Neale’s engagement will see Luxaflex Window Fashions leverage his insights into the latest interior design trends to its audience, offering advice on choosing window furnishings to suit the homeowner’s style, needs and taste; a timely partnership that creates further dialogue with consumers around topics that matter.
Anticipating the country’s move to inflict strict social distancing guidelines, and to ensure the safety of both Luxaflex dealers and the community, appointment-only showroom viewings and the option of virtual consultations were introduced and actively promoted. A suite of social creative assets were provided for the Luxaflex dealer network to leverage across its own social media channels.
“We understand the importance of keeping our dealers active, safe and engaged during this time. Many of them are small, family-owned business operations, so maintaining sales is imperative to keeping their doors open.”
“Communication is key right now. We facilitate open conversation with them, including regular calls between dealers and Business Support Managers to ensure their wellbeing, offer assistance and guidance, and help with any needs they may have.”
Meharg confirms the business’ three local manufacturing facilities are continuing production, ensuring minimal wait times on orders and turning around installations as fast as possible. “Hunter Douglas Australia prioritise the safety and wellbeing of its staff and consumers, with premium quality control and safety measures instilled across the board.”
BLINDS BY PETER MEYER
“Looking at the Australian market, in particular in light of the current COVID 19 situation, we are seeing customers being more cautious with their spending,” confirms Managing Director Simon Meyer. “However this means that customers are looking for quality and value for money, rather than the cheapest price wins. This is certainly a good thing for Australian manufacturing and in particular, quality Australian made products. I think this is the real opportunity that we can see coming out of this; less reliance on Chinese manufacturing and a resurgence of support for Australian Made and supporting local family businesses.”
Norman Australia Sales & Marketing Manager Steve Payne comments: “We realise there are varying levels of product knowledge among our retail partners in respect to Norman’s range of shutters and blinds. This is often dependent on how long our partners have been buying Norman products. With many new partners and old partners returning to our business over the last year we can all add value to our businesses by spending time to refresh our knowledge on the Norman product ranges. This will ensure that all Norman products are marketed professionally, effectively and confidently with the best outcomes for Australian homeowners firmly in our minds.”
“While in no way trying to diminish the significance of our new reality, Norman Australia sees the resulting growth of free time as one silver lining of the current crisis as, allowing us to invite all our retail partners to join our daily web conferences via Zoom. We have been covering topics from product training, ordering on the Norman portal to sales and marketing tips.”
“Through this online format, we can stay connected with our customers and have continued our pursuit of educating our retail partners to the highest level. While this is great for those who can sit down and be with us for about 45 minutes, we know it doesn’t accommodate all schedules, which is why we are also recording these training sessions and taking the opportunity as a business to build up our educational library. What this time is showing us is, is that there are more efficient and lower-cost methods of delivering content.”
“More helpful than telling someone about our amazing Auto-Closing louvers in tandem with our 180-degree bifold, is learning about them and demonstrating them. There is nothing like discovery.
We aren’t only showing our retail partners the features and benefits, but skilling them up on the proper application, what it looks like, how to order it, and even how to install these products. We are raising the level of professionalism and expertise of our retail partners, and we have also used the opportunity of the change in work schedule and workload, to ensure that our internal staff members are up to date on everything we have to offer the market. Daily training sessions on various topics and products are the ‘new normal.’ This has been useful in also ensuring there is some regular social contact daily too. We know this increased level of knowledge will directly impact the level of assistance we can provide to our retail partners in a very positive way.”
“Not only are we training our retail partners on our product and system, but we are also offering assistance with marketing, something that will help their businesses all year round. Often marketing is pushed to the back of a business’ priorities when they are busy, but this is an opportunity to consider what your company offers and to define your key points of difference. Marketing can often be a grudge purchase, which is why we are tailoring this information around low-cost or free marketing ideas. We know many of our retail partners may have not previously engaged in many marketing activities for a variety of reasons. To this end, we offer assistance on everything from how to create a social media presence for business use, to how to leverage freely available resources. Our extensive portfolio of photography is available to all our retail partners for use in their marketing material.”
“At Somfy, the welfare of our staff, their families and our customers, remains paramount during these challenging times. It is unfamiliar territory for everyone but our ability to support our customers when they need us most is of great importance to us.”
“We have enacted new protocols and procedures to keep our staff safe, in a secure environment and to minimise risk, in line with the advice from the Australian government. Today, the majority of our workforce is ‘tele-working’ (working from home) which has fast-tracked Somfy’s worldwide ambition to digitalise our business.”
“All other essential roles – Somfy supply chain, customer support and technical support – continue to operate from Rydalmere. The Somfy Sales team is still working closely with manufacturing and retail partners to ensure they have everything they need during this time.”
“We are focusing on business continuity and are grateful for our capability to adapt to the situation. Even though the circumstances are tough, they are the catalyst for us inventing new ways to work and strengthening our business agility. We have already seen many of our customers quickly adapt to the situation by running virtual consultations with consumers. Adopting such business practices in our technology-driven world will prove worthwhile even after the crisis.”
“Our company, our industry, and all of us individually have built incredible resilience, and we will continue to be there for each other, long after we emerge from the current COVID-19 crisis.”
BLINDS BY BORONIA GROUP
“In late January I recall sitting back in my office marvelling at how well business was going,” says Sales Manager Michelle Macready. “It was hard to imagine anything but 2020 being a great year for expansion and growth. We hadn’t banked on Covid19 virus to have such a devastating effect on the world as we knew it. Fast forward to the beginning of April and things were not exactly what I had thought, however there have been some lovely positives to come out of a very stressful situation.”
“Our customers have rallied and kept busy pushing through last minute orders to try and make their clients’ homes as comfortable as possible for the impending lock downs. We continued to plough through with our production and fulfilling orders as quickly as possible to ensure our retail customers could proceed with their businesses with as little disruption as possible.”
“Our customers have rallied and kept busy pushing through last minute orders to try and make their clients’ homes as comfortable as possible for the impending lock downs. We continued to plough through with our production and fulfilling orders as quickly as possible to ensure our retail customers could proceed with their businesses with as little disruption as possible.” Michelle Macready, Sales Manager, Blinds by Boronia Group.
“The changes have also highlighted the emphasis that the Blinds by Boronia Group has always placed on our staff and customers’ wellbeing. Where we would have held bi-monthly workplace health and safety meetings where all our available staff members from all three brands (Blinds by Boronia, ESR Blinds & Skins N More) could come together to learn about our responsibilities and risk management, suddenly we are meeting almost daily. We’ve worked hard to build a rapport with our staff, to help keep them informed about the many changes that we’ve implemented on a rolling basis in order to keep them and our customers safe.”
“Emphasis has rightly been placed on hygiene, however we are also highlighting the impact that such uncertainty can have on mental health. We have adopted an ‘R U Okay?’ approach ensuring that all our leaders are equipped to help those that are suffering from anxiety and stress. Our aim is to keep our employees and customers well informed of any changes as quickly as they occur. This includes at times, daily meetings in order to respond to changes. We have also adopted a very collaborative approach, where we hold open forums making everyone comfortable to ask questions for clarification if required.”
“Having our team come together on such a regular basis has highlighted the importance of caring for one another. We have seen some lovely gestures of kindness and friendship during these difficult times. Whatever this crisis brings, we know that we will emerge from this with a renewed appreciation for all the little things that we had once taken for granted.”