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How Canberra’s Handmade turned tragedy into staggering success

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In March 2020 Julie Nichols received just six days’ notice that her regular Handmade Canberra markets were cancelled, thanks to COVID-19.

“We’d organised everything—advertising, venues, wages, stallholders. Everything. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were on the line, so doing nothing wasn’t an option. I held a team meeting and we decided to host our market online.”

It was a monumental pivot.

“Our website had all our stallholders listed with links to their websites, so we had most of the platform we needed to turn the physical market into a virtual market,” Julie explains.

“It took us three days to physically check every listing and every link on our website, and to communicate with the stallholders and customers to let them know they could still shop online. We got it done and had 29,000 separate customers shop with us over that March weekend.”

Julie turned what could have been a tragedy—and possibly the end to her business—into a staggering success story, and one I had to share because her drive and determination goes to the heart of the ingenuity of Canberra’s business community during the COVID-19 crisis.

Julie launched the very first Handmade Market back in 2008. After years spent trawling through Australia’s best markets, and with experience running her own millinery stall, Julie saw an opportunity.

“Canberra had some great markets, but none that really catered just to handmade designers,” she explains. With a clear vision, a great business plan, but little cash, Julie launched her first market with 36 stallholders at the Albert Hall.

“Right from the start we had a clear criterion: no mass-produced stuff. It had to be a product that stallholders had made themselves or designed and had made.”

That first market was a “raging success” and attracted around 2,000 customers. “We could measure how many people came because there was only one door in and one door out,” she laughs.

The market soon outgrew the Albert Hall, then the Yarralumla Woolshed, the Kamberra Wine Company and the National Convention Centre, before finding its long-term home at Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC).

By the end of 2019, Handmade Canberra’s quarterly markets were pumping $20 million back into the local economy each year.

“We have over 900 registered stallholders and can attract 30,000 people over a weekend,” Julie explains.

But back to the pivot. Switching from a physical to an online market overnight was a massive task, but Julie had a secret weapon: a strong community of customers and shareholders who were all in it together.

“Markets are about product, but they’re also about building brand and community,” Julie explains.

“When you come to the market you will find the people who run the market. I’m there from five in the morning to seven at night. We’re on the ground, talking and listening to people. I’ve been the face of the market since the very first day—I’m not anonymous.”

Julie and her team—which numbers five today—works hard to foster a friendly and inclusive community.

“We host closed Facebook groups and have a large resource area on our website with tips for stallholders. Once the customers go home, we put on free drinks and food for our stallholders. They go out to dinner together. We’re a community.”

Handmade Canberra also has the largest database of Australian designers and producers in the country. This database, and its engaging website, were the foundation stones for the virtual market.

SEO workshops, online resources and three-week social media boot camps soon followed. Julie says Handmade Canberra is committed to building the skills of its entrepreneurial network.

“One stallholder didn’t cover the cost of her stall at the first online market, so we encouraged her to complete the online course. It helped her work out her target customer, and she was soon doing thousands of dollars in sales. Her product didn’t change, but the way she targeted her customer did.”

The virtual markets proved a lifeline for many designers during COVID-19, and in some cases has helped them tap into new international audiences.

“Many of our stallholders export extensively—in some cases 70 per cent of their business comes from international sales,” she says. In recognition of this, Julie’s brand has recently evolved to simply ‘Handmade’.

While Handmade’s physical market continues to rides the ups-and-downs of COVID, the virtual market continues to grow at a lightning pace. The November markets turned over $1.2 million.

“Our stats show a large percentage of our stallholders are doing as well, if not better, than before COVID hit. As much as it’s been a really difficult time, and at times I didn’t know if we would survive, we’re now describing this as one of our best years. Not so much financially, but we enjoyed it the most—the sense of community, the people supporting us and the people we’ve supported.”

So where to from here?

“We have some really big plans—some ‘blow your mind’ plans,” says Julie cryptically.

“We have more designers and producers registered with us than ever before. And all in all, the future is looking pretty good. So, watch this space.”

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