Q&A with Franny McInnes, President
Ted Vayos, BODY: Describe your store for our readers.
Franny McInnes: I established Breastmates in 2004, bringing together my passion for providing support to all mothers feeding babies, whether via breast or bottle, and my keen eye for high-quality, stylish maternity clothing and feeding accessories. Over the past decade, I’ve grown my business from selling just one product on Ebay as a hobby, to developing a respected brand and thriving website. My online store focuses on quality products for motherhood: Maternity clothes, gorgeous lingerie, nursing clothes, breast pumps and spare parts, bottle-feeding gear, and useful accessories for every stage of baby feeding. There are hundreds of products to choose from, and online shopping makes it easy for pregnant women and new moms because their order is delivered right to their door. I founded Breastmates to help mothers, and over the years, Breastmates has become not just an online store, but also a supportive community helping moms around the world with pregnancy, breastfeeding, and bottlefeeding advice and information. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that my little business is making waves not only in New Zealand, but also internationally.
The business is located online (I don’t have any “bricks and mortar” locations), because my original goal when I started Breastmates was to be self-employed and to create a sustainable business that could be operated from home with young children, while contributing a little income to our household. When Breastmates started nearly 10 years ago, every extra dollar I could bring in made a big difference to my family. Back then, I would never have imagined Breastmates would grow to be what it is now.
About four years into running my business, when things were starting to flourish, my family decided to move away from the big city to a small town in New Zealand which has only 20,000 residents, so that we could reduce our mortgage while upgrading our house and building on a larger plot of land. I was able to design and construct a customized headquarters comprising a warehouse, studio, and head office– all right next door to our family home. This has given me the space to store stock (I hold everything I sell onsite and it is picked, packed, and mailed from here directly to customers, as I don’t want to drop-ship) while also providing enough workspace for my employees to come in and help. Opening a retail store is not part of my business plan. I will continue to develop my website for easy online shopping (a convenience that many moms-to-be and new mothers appreciate, getting items delivered right to their door without having to leave the house).
Ted: What makes your store special?
Franny: Besides the online store, the website (breastmates.co.nz) provides articles about pregnancy, parenting, feeding and babies, as well as an encouraging, compassionate support network, so moms know they are not alone with the challenges they face. The Breastmates philosophy is to support and celebrate mothers in a non-judgemental manner - whether they are breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, regardless of whether they are customers or not. (This type of support is hard to find elsewhere.)
Ted: What do you look for in a brand?
Franny: I don’t really have any business training or skills when it comes to this, so I just use my gut instinct when taking on new brands, and this has yielded me good results in the past and I’ve learnt what my customers want. Sometimes I might ask questions of the moms on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/breastmates) so I can get the opinion of “real women”, which I highly value. The brands that have been important to my website over the years include QT Intimates Apparel, HOTmilk Lingerie, Cake Lingerie, and Bendon.When sourcing new products like maternity lingerie and swimwear, the most important aspect is the size range a brand offers. I look for items that offer “real women sizes” – that is, a good range of size options that preferably go up to at least an F cup or beyond (G, GG, H). It’s annoying if I find a gorgeous brand of nursing bra but then learn it only goes up to a D cup. It’s also important that I can source styles which are able to be easily replenished and of which top-up orders can be made. I’m not a fan of having to indent-order several seasons in advance; I always struggle with that, so prefer to take the easy route of replenishable styles. The selling price is also important, because my customers are often on a budget and looking for value and quality. I’m not looking for the most highend gear. My customers are mainly into everyday, practical items which will survive many cycles in the washing machine, so these are important characteristics of the brands I stock. Because I’m based in New Zealand and can’t get to wholesale trade shows very often, I also really appreciate when a potential supplier sends me a sample to touch and see in real life. For the sake of their postage (sending things to New Zealand can be expensive!) I quickly become a very loyal retailer, and will favor those suppliers rather than the ones who only share PDF files via email. The interaction with the supplier is also very important to me, perhaps even a little more important than the styles themselves. The supplier-retailer relationship builds up over time, and develops as styles come and go. I have one supplier (QT Intimates in USA) whom I have dealt with for many years. We have a little banter and chat via our messages, and although we have never met in real life, we have developed a great relationship. My contact there makes me feel like an important retailer, even though I’m so far away, and probably only doing a fraction of trade compared to his other stores. Ray Richmond and his company QT Intimates deserves great kudos – they meet so many of my most critical criteria of having a fundamental range of products for maternity and breastfeeding. It is because of this company that Breastmates has become well-known for the QT Intimates line of Sports Nursing Bras, which have been one of my key selling products for many years. I do get disappointed when suppliers don’t provide professionally modeled images for their products. Sometimes they only provide a sketch or a flat-lay image. This just means extra work for me, as I then have to commission a photo shoot before I can load their product on my website and start selling them. It can also be disappointing when a supplier has a great product, which might be a key seller for my store, but then they discontinue it without much prior notification. I do carry a large range of other products at Breastmates beside intimates and swimwear. I also provide a great selection of maternity clothes, breastfeeding clothes, breast pumps and related baby feeding products.
Ted: Describe the popular styles or trends in your store.
Franny: Down here in New Zealand, black is always a very popular colour for lingerie and swimwear, and nude is fashionable for bras in summer when people are wearing lighter garments. If I stock a black nursing bra with a little bit of colored trim on the straps or the elastic, that’s a very popular variation on basic black which my customers seem to love. I find it more difficult to sell patterned, floral, or bright-colored items, as my customers prefer to stick with black.
Ted: Describe your price points and size ranges.
Franny: Because my customers are new mothers who are often cutting back to one income in the household, they are very conscious of their spending, and may view lingerie as a luxury item rather than as a necessity. So they might stick to the more basic styles, or they might buy a lacy bra as a treat. Prices of around $40 - $60 for a nursing bra are standard. If there are beautifully designed nursing bras priced at over $60, they will be more difficult to sell. Size ranges are 32A to 42H, though most orders come through for 36DD-38F.
Ted: What is your typical or average customer size?
Ted: What does your average customer spend per visit to your store?
Ted: Describe your customer.
Franny: My customers are pregnant women and new mothers. And often husbands or parents who are buying gifts for the pregnant woman in their lives.
Ted: What has impacted your business the most over the past year?
Franny: The biggest impact on Breastmates over the past year has been branching out to reach the Australian market through the www.breastmates.com.au website, which had been a goal for the past three years. We are now able to reach Australian customers while running everything here from our New Zealand headquarters.To give an idea of the scale of potential growth with this growing Australian connection, here in New Zealand there are about 60,000 babies born per year, while Australia has about 300,000. We’ve also been busy creating a fun and active Facebook page (www.facebook.com/breastmates) where I and my staff can interact with customers on a more personal and informal manner – mainly by taking a light-hearted approach to the challenges of motherhood, along with carefully curated product placement advertorials.