Inside Retail: Let’s talk about what it’s normally like shopping for rugs. It really does conjure up images of dodgy car salesmen.
Alexandra Tanya Weller: One of the pivotal reasons we started Miss Amara was because we wanted to buy a rug. We noticed a really common theme from people who we talked to about it: they had identified they needed to buy a rug, get really excited, go on Pinterest, start collating all these looks, and everything would be so beautiful and amazing in their head. We call that the inspiration phase.
You’d have that romantic idea of what your house is going to look like, but then when you get to actually buying that rug, it’s a horror story. At the time, a few brands dominated the market, and it was exactly the same experience. They’d dump 50,000 SKUs on their website with no rhyme or reason, no education around what fibres suit what needs, not organised in terms of decor styles so you can gravitate towards a style that resonates with you — nothing like that. When you’re scrolling through pages and pages of styles that haven’t been ordered or curated, it gets to a point where you give up. You put it in the too-hard basket.
Another thing we noticed was in terms of branding, the other businesses in the market at the time were very masculine. It was that typical Aladdin-flying-on-a-rug kind of look. Do you remember those warehouse sale ads on TV? It was a man shouting at you, “Closing down! Everything must go! Rugs, rugs, rugs!” I don’t know why or how that became the standard.
We started to do some market research on who was buying these rugs, and surprise, surprise, we found that in 95 per cent of cases, it was the woman making the decision in the home. Where was that female-friendly brand that had an aesthetic that resonated with her? That’s why we identified that we wanted to be female-friendly; that’s why it’s called Miss Amara. Amara is a nod to the Middle Eastern origin of rugs, and we’ve always focused on creating content that inspires and delights people.
We’re always putting up beautiful photos on social media, and people follow us because they love home decor, not because they want to buy a rug. Hopefully, when they want to buy a rug, they’ll think of us.
IR: Let’s talk about the Miss Amara shopping experience and how you guys have improved that traditional rug purchasing journey.
Aaron Weller: We wanted to design the best online experience for customers buying a rug. One of the big challenges people have is deciding what to buy. We have lots of amazing rugs, but they might get stuck finding the right product for their home; they might not feel so confident. That’s why we came up with free styling advice. They can come to our site, we can call them, and they can get a free consultation and let us know what they’re looking for. They can send us photos, ask questions, and a stylist will give them a whole bunch of options to meet their requirements.
We can pre-empt what our customers are going to ask. There are a few factors at play — there will definitely be questions about their lifestyle: What’s the most practical rug for kids and pets? How do I place that rug? What size should I get? We recognise that it’s a big commitment, so we definitely empathise with our customers and that ties into our try-at-home service. It is definitely a lot of work to organise. Customers don’t realise how difficult it is to offer that service.
If you buy a rug from our site and realise you’ve made a mistake, and it’s not working for you, you can roll it back up, repackage it as best as you can, and we will outlay the costs for a courier to come back to pick up the rug and bring it back to our warehouse. To customers, it’s a straightforward return, but before we package it into stock again, we do inspections that take 20 minutes — the guys are on their hands and knees, checking the fibres. It’s difficult, but it really helps customers commit if they can shop stress-free. It’s something we’re quite proud of.
Along our journey, a lot of competitors have come out of the woodwork, copying our branding and USPs, but the try-at-home service is the one thing they haven’t been able to replicate.
ATW: The other side of that isn’t just the inspections but the supply chain. It’s challenging getting the rug out in the first place. Rugs can be three metres long and 45 kilos. It’s nearly outside of what couriers work with. We do free shipping as well. It’s worth it in the end, though.
We have a lot of talks about what to do when we launch into other markets: is it something that will continue to be viable? Aaron and I have fought for it in every market. We’ve been that customer before; we want to be able to shop with comfort.
We have done other things to help the customer. The biggest problem is they can’t really visualise it in their house. It’s easy to say, “This rug looks really nice,” but it’s another thing to understand how it works in your space. That’s why we have the virtual rug stylist, our augmented reality tool. It literally takes five seconds. If you’re looking at the product page, you hit a button, and it detects your furniture and places the rug in there. That also helps our online shoppers. Yes, part of it is touching and feeling the rug, but the bigger piece is understanding how it’s going to look in your space.
AW: It also helps with the return rates. We help customers find what they’re looking for and make the best decision first, and then if the texture isn’t quite what they thought or they got the sizing wrong, they don’t have to worry. Worst case scenario, they can always return it.
IR: Home decor skyrocketed last year. What was that like for you guys? Paint me a picture.
AW: When Covid first hit, we went into crisis mode. We were watching what was happening globally, where things went bad really quickly.
ATW: We had an eight-stage scenario, where we knew what we would do at what point. We were prepared for the worst-case scenario.
AW: Then the opposite happened. We were caught off guard, totally. We had a massive spike. People were stuck at home; they weren’t spending money on travel, going out and eating, so they were looking to decorate their home. We had to really adjust pretty quickly.
In 2020, we grew the team from 14 to 40 staff. We took that opportunity to grow but to also improve on what we were doing during that time. We implemented live chat to service customers in the best way possible. We were trying to remove any barriers to purchasing.
ATW: The sales volume increased exponentially, and we were scaling up our team as quickly as we could, but obviously, resourcing was a challenge. There were also delivery delays, so all of a sudden, you’ve got a huge surge of sales, not enough resourcing and your goods aren’t arriving.
One of the best things we did was empathy training — all the customers were experiencing delays, and there really wasn’t a lot we could do for them except to assure them we were doing everything we could to help. I sat down with the team, and we did so much empathy training — put yourself in the customer’s shoes: if you’re experiencing this, they’re feeling like this, ten-fold. So how do we communicate with them in the best way and tell them that we care?
In one scenario where customers had delays, I handwrote 400 letters to them to apologise, and we sent them a free bathmat as well. Some of the replies were really sweet, and customers really appreciated it. While it was challenging, they were so understanding because we were on the front foot with the communication.
IR: I’m intrigued by this empathy training. What did it involve, and what was your team’s response to it?
ATW: One of our company values is that we care, and that’s about our staff, customers, manufacturers and suppliers — every single person we deal with.
The empathy training was about how we may not have any control over [delays], but let’s take it back and let the customer talk to understand how they’re feeling. We talked a little bit about psychology, too. We let them talk, we empathised with them, and we found the training so beneficial.
IR: How do you hope to maintain that sales momentum from last year?
AW: Pre-Covid, we were growing 100 per cent year-on-year. We’ve been doing that since the company’s inception. Covid really just accelerated that by one to two years. It’s been great to use the opportunity to accelerate not just our sales growth but everything we’ve done across the business, from implementing 24/7 live chat to developing our product range.
ATW: In terms of the momentum, we’ve looked back at what worked for us, and we’ve doubled down on those things customers know and love us for, like education and styling. That’s where we get a lot of engagement, and it will be a big focus for us.
I don’t ever want us to be known as that online rug store, I want us to be known as the guys who create the beautiful rugs, and we’re getting there, so I really want to double down on producing premium products.
If Covid taught us anything, it’s that the team is everything to us. While we’ve had some standout people during the Covid period, we identified other people who weren’t right for our culture and our brand, so we acted swiftly to ensure we had the right people on board. We’ve identified how our employee experience inevitably trickles down to the customer experience, so one of our big focuses this year is on recruitment, finding the right people and being a culture-first brand.