The 21st-century specialty store

Read time 10min 00sec

We all know them. Those quirky stores selling one-of-a-kind goods, discovered by chance or commendation. Unable to afford mega marketing budgets and rent in upscale malls, they often lounge in secluded spots or neighbourhood corners, their esteem spreading by word of mouth.

Now, getting a small, specialty business started doesn't have to involve a corner, street, or even a front door. With the reduced costs and logistics the Internet offers, along with a global audience, niche stores are increasingly breaking into the business world via the Web.

In a new five-part series, ITWeb Features speaks to a few of the local, out-of the-ordinary entrepreneurs setting up shop online.

Born to be wild

Kate Townshend stopped eating meat at 11. She couldn't stand the thought that something had to die so she could have a meal. Twelve years later, she went about setting up an animal ethics certification for the tourism sector called Fairly Wild, which would eventually lead to her latest venture.

“When I was little, all I really wanted was one shop with all the products that weren't tested on animals, because you'd always have to drive all the way to one place to get deodorant, and then to another to get toothpaste or whatever. So while I was waiting for Fairly Wild to get off the ground, I decided to start selling green, organic, cruelty-free certified products online.”

Townshend had three fundamentals in mind while searching for products: that they were organic, not harmful to the environment, and not tested on animals. “I spent about four months reading through all the pamphlets and product lines from various places - the US, UK, Australia. I got a booklet from Choose Cruelty Free Australia listing all the products not tested on animals, and also read through the Beauty Without Cruelty (BWC) SA and Leaping Bunny lists.

“I went through everything, kicked most of the products out, and only kept the most awesome ones.” She tried to get something of everything - scrubs, lotions, skin care, dental and baby products, finally settling on four brands: Sanctum, Eco-Dent, BWC and The Environmental Toothbrush.

“Then I went about getting exclusive distribution rights so I could sell the products as far and wide across the country as possible.”

Her favourite brand is Sanctum - a certified organic, certified cruelty-free, 100% naturally derived range developed in Byron Bay, Australia. Another much-loved item is the Environmental Toothbrush, a completely biodegradable brush made of Moso bamboo, a kind pandas don't rely on as a food source. It takes the super-speedy plant about four to five hours to grow the length of bamboo required for the toothbrush, says Townshend.

“It makes such a difference when you throw something away and know it's not going to clog up a landfill site.”

Townshend decided to go online for two major reasons. “Initially, I wanted to make cruelty-free shopping viable for everyone, because it's usually ridiculously expensive. The products are imported, so it's not something for absolutely everyone, but I've tried to keep the prices down as much as possible.”

The other reason was the hassle of going the traditional route. “Retail space is frighteningly expensive, and after searching around for a few months, I still hadn't found the right space.”

Shopping with a cause

* Visit Beauty Without Cruelty SA for more information on local animal testing.
* See Animal Right Africa for more detailed explanations of vivisection and the experiments involved.
* Read about consumer products tested on animals on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals site, and access its cruelty-free shopping guide at Caring consumer 101.
* Visit the Leaping Bunny site for more information on compassionate shopping.
* Find out more about the Harmless House brands: BWC, Eco-Dent, Sanctum, Environmental Toothbrush.

Getting a working Web site up and running, however, is not without its challenges. Townshend says finding the right Web designer was difficult, although after three attempts with the Fairly Wild site, she found someone “who just gets it”, and stuck with them.

She takes out a business card that reflects the ethos of Harmless House, pointing to a quirky green graphic depicting a tree surrounded by small, symbolic elements of nature.

“For the logo, I wanted a rabbit to take into account the fact that it's harmless towards animals, because it's cruelty-free certified and vegan; the little ladybugs to show it's harmless towards the earth, because it's green and biodegradable; and the birds to show it's harmless towards people, because it's natural and organic certified.”

While going online keeps the costs down, Townshend adds that selling beauty products over the Internet is difficult. “People want to try things and see how they look and feel. They don't want to buy it online and then get something different to what they expected.

“It's fine if it goes hand-in-hand with a shop, where people can see some of the items and then access the extended range online and order from there. Or if you're from out of town and see something you like in a little store somewhere, you can go online at home and order it.”

Townshend hopes the Web site will be up by end February and running at full force in a year's time. She says the Harmless House range will be sold in health shops in Gauteng and Cape Town, with plans to make it available in Durban at a later stage.

Other challenges included implementing purchasing structures on the site. “The payment option is a big thing, because you need a secure page and a merchant account and number”. She ultimately decided on online payment gateway Netcash, but adds the entire process was long and complicated.

“The worst thing about setting everything up is getting a VAT number and importer's code. When you are filling out the forms, they require information and codes and proof of a business address and so on, which you don't have when you are starting out. And you can't get going and start out until you have all these things.”

It makes such a difference when you throw something away and know it's not going to clog up a landfill site.

Kate Townshend

After standing in the SARS queue for five hours, Townshend finally got to the front only to be told she couldn't register for an importer's code until the business had earned R200 000. “But that was impossible until I had the importer's code to bring the products into the country to sell - which I can't do without an importer's code.”

That's when she spoke to an accounting firm, which managed to sort everything out. The entire process took about three months. “The problem was that this was just dead time.”

Now that things are on track, Townshend is confident the product line, which includes tooth powder and an organic babies range, will appeal to those outside the green club.

“Even if consumers are not interested in the fact that the products are beneficial to the environment, they'll want to try it because it's a great product.

“SA is still a bit behind the times, so we don't have this kind of thing available here yet. It's been so great going on the Internet and finding products and thinking, 'I can sell this'.”

The dirty side of clean

Everyday, millions of people slather on soap and scrub their teeth, not realising many of these products have been tested on animals. 'Vivisection' refers to the cutting up of live animals for experimental purposes, although the term is now broadly used to refer to any experiments conducted on animals.

It's a reality Townshend came across by chance one day, and the powerful message drove her to change her already conscious habits even further.

“I've always cared for animals, and was aware of things from a young age. One day I got handed a bunch of pamphlets and one was about compassionate shopping. After reading it, I went through all my bathroom cupboards to see whether they contained products that were tested on animals.”

She describes one of the tests routinely done by major pharmaceutical and cleaning material companies: “The LD50, or lethal dose 50, involves force-feeding a group of animals to see how much of that substance is needed to kill half of them.

“So when you swallow your toothpaste and don't die, it's because 10 000 rabbits had to do the LD 50.” Animal Rights Africa adds that many of the animals die from ruptured organs as a result of the force feeding process and not from the test product. “There are alternatives, but it's more expensive,” adds Townshend.

“What I want is to get people to know what's in their regular shampoo and bar of soap.”

Townshend is quick to point out the difference between products branded 'cruelty-free' and 'cruelty-free certified'. “Anyone can slap on a label that says it's cruelty-free, but only if it's been the through the process and is certified cruelty-free do you know it actually is what it says it is.”

During the next few months, she'll focus on getting the online shop up and running and doing promotion work by partnering with animal networks like BWC. “I plan to network a lot and get it to spread via word of mouth. If I spend a whole pile on advertising then the price will go up, and I don't want to do that.”

Townshend notes that the other part of the thinking behind Harmless House was that it could support Fairly Wild financially.

“They work so well together; the people that go to these game farms and spas will want to buy products that are green and cruelty-free. It's a combination of the two things I'm really interested in. I know it'll take time, but I'm okay with that.”

Townshend says she knows she's lucky to have “very generous parents” who are funding the project until she can generate a turnover. “I have great faith in these products, and once people begin knowing what's in their products and start opening their minds, it can't fail.

“It's not about getting everyone to understand the whole spectrum of environmental issues, but about getting them to understand one aspect - to know what products they use, and what goes into them.”

She hopes Harmless House will both educate people about compassionate shopping, and give them the ability to act on it. “The little birds in the Harmless House logo also stand for freedom of choice; to choose the right option.”

In some ways, her story echoes the message found on the Environmental Toothbrush: “The hundreds of choices we make each day impact the environment. Sometimes it's a big decision... sometimes it's as small as changing your toothbrush.”

And sometimes it's taking the leap and starting a small but passion-driven business online.

In next week's 21st-century store feature, stay-at-home mom Mariam Bibi Sulliman reveals how a simple favour turned her into a domestic entrepreneur.

* Speak your mind: What would prompt you to buy products online? Post your comments via our feedback facility.

Lezette Engelbrecht
ITWeb online features editor

Lezette Engelbrecht is an ITWeb online features editor.

Have your say
a few seconds ago
Be the first to comment