Launched offline, The Hamper Emporium is now a wider ecommerce business on track to reach turnover of $20 million in 2020

- July 28, 2016 4 MIN READ

Ecommerce has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and while emerging businesses are coming up with innovative new takes on the space, it’s sometimes more interesting to look at older, quieter players who have been in the game a little longer and see how they have evolved over time along with the industry.

One such player is Emily McWaters, who founded gift hamper business The Hamper Emporium in 2007 and has since grown it into SOL Group, which now also incorporates fellow gifting sites Gifts Australia, Everything But Flowers, and Men’s Gift Store, servicing everyone from everyday customers buying gifts for friends through to corporates including Qantas and AMP.

The launch of the business came about “through circumstance”, McWaters said; having dropped out of university, McWaters bought a rundown cafe in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in her early 20s, turning it over for a six figure profit a few years later at just 23. From there, she bought a “struggling” gourmet food and confectionary wholesale business and turned it into a gourmet and health food importer and distributor, Kingston Foods, with silent partner David Morgan.

“A significant proportion of our customer base were small gift basket and hamper companies. It occurred to me that other than alcohol and the actual hamper or basket itself, we were wholesaling everything required to make gourmet hampers. I researched the market and identified an opportunity to target higher end corporate business, which the industry hadn’t penetrated yet,” McWaters explained.

The Hamper Emporium ran without a website for a couple of years, which McWaters said was a struggle, but she saw there was enough interest for her to know that it was a worthwhile venture. The site launched in 2010, making it immediately evident that ecommerce was the way to go; in 2014 the decision was made to sell the wholesale element of the business and in turn place the focus on the ecommerce.

“We were completely green when setting up the website for The Hamper Emporium. As it was an adjunct to the wholesale business, it was initially not the main focus of our energy or investment. Our first attempt at the website didn’t look great – it was basic, had poor functionality, and required a lot of manual input,” McWaters explained.

“The early days saw a lot of trial and error, and eventually more money was spent on the technology side to make the experience more frictionless for our customers and for us. Never again will we handwrite a gift card, as was the norm circa Christmas 2010. We have since set our standards much higher in terms of user experience, automation and integration.”

Upon launch the business used drop shipping, that is, not holding any of its own stock, before deciding customers would be given better service if orders were handled by the company itself. SOL Group now houses stock in a 1,100+ square metre warehouse in Sydney, with a further 2,000 square metres leased in the lead up to Christmas each year – the company reports that a gift is bought through the sites every 22 seconds during the Christmas rush.

While McWaters said online shoppers have become a lot savvier over the last six years, she said that looking back, the changes implemented across SOL Group platforms in terms of user experience have been subtle over time rather than big and flashy, more helping the business keep up with industry standards and customer expectations, which ties into the core values of the business McWaters believes matter most.

“The only thing that hasn’t changed is our customers’ expectations around genuine customer service and resolving issues when they arise,” she said. Another key is the personal touch: McWaters still sources all the items in her hampers.

SOL Group’s decisions are, of course, largely guided by the wealth of data generated across the various platforms, though McWaters said she remains “very gut-driven”.

“As a small business starts out, many decisions are based on gut feeling as there is often little access to reliable high volume data. Over the past couple of years we have forged ahead with ideas that have never been tested, and fortunately, more often than not, have come out on top,” she said.

“We are now in the position to be able to really analyse our sales data and customer purchase patterns, and this has put more framework behind our decision making. I am notorious in my team for being very gut-driven and still to this day I will choose something because I like it rather than considering what is going to suit a broader audience. It can be a bit of a reality check when I am presented with figures that tell a story otherwise.”

Perhaps one of the biggest decisions McWaters had to make was whether or not to accept a seven figure offer of investment from a VC into Kingston Foods and The Hamper Emporium, however in the end she said it wasn’t too hard a decision to make.

“I think a lot of people fall in love with the idea of VC money; there is always more than one way of doing something, and for us going alone at that time made sense. For others VC money could be perfect and it may be perfect for us in the future, but it’s important to remove any ‘romance’ about a potential investment. It needs to be a hard-nosed decision and focused on the end goal for the business,” she said.

With the company’s goal now to reach a turnover of $20 million by 2020, SOL Group is set to launch a baby and christening gifting website later this year.

Image: Emily McWaters. Source: Supplied.