Leanne Haining and Scott Kelly met backpacking across Turkey in 1993. Little did they know this chance encounter would spawn a relationship and business that has lasted over twenty years.
Urban Rituelle is a business whose mission is to create rituals that make people feel good while keeping the planet’s health at the forefront. Founded in 1998 from a humble market store, Urban Rituelle has grown to become one of the most respected and awarded Australian-made bath, body, skincare and home fragrance ranges in the nation.
While Urban Rituelle is recognised as an innovative leader in the industry, Leanne tells Kochie’s Business Builders, it’s more than a brand; it’s a mission.
“Urban Rituelle is a philosophy of kindness, care and unsurpassed quality. We are known for our exceptional products and formulations. Our signature scents, sustainable packaging, highest quality natural and organic ingredients and unrivalled customer service, which has become synonymous with our name.”
She says the brand inspiration is the sanctity of nurturing the body and soul.
Where nature and nurture meet
“Our Australian-made bath, body care, skincare, and home fragrance products celebrate life’s simple pleasures and enhance daily rituals. We create rituals that make people feel good!” she exclaims.
As an environmentally aware company, taking care of ingredients’ sourcing, manufacturing processes, and packaging is fundamental to the business.
“Consumers are showing a greater interest in how sustainable we are as a business and how sustainable our products are. How is a product packaged, what ingredients we use, where are those ingredients sourced? These are the questions asked of us every day. A good product is no longer enough – customers crave transparency and are looking for products and brands that align with their values.”
Leanne says how they develop and conceptualise products, branding – even training staff – aligns with the business’s mission.
“Keeping our purpose as a primary focus of our business strategy has helped us become a business that stands out from the crowd,” she says. “When you are transparent about the heart of your business, what your values are, and how you operate, people will be attracted to how your brand is different. They will want to be a part of it,” she says.
A challenging beginning
Still, Leanne acknowledges that Urban Rituelle has faced challenges along the road to success like any business. Despite setbacks, what has shone through is the couple’s determination to stay committed to their purpose.
“Our first BIG challenge was related to our expansion and growth into the USA in 2008. We were stocked in major US retailers, including Anthropologie. We had 80 road sales representatives selling our collections from east to west coast, with eight trade fairs that we needed to attend per year. We were doing sales training calls for the road representatives at 2 am Sydney time. We had a warehouse in Los Angeles, and I had a 2.5-year-old and 1-year-old, all while running our Australian business AND ….then the GFC hit!
“Our Australian business was still very successful, but our US business was hit hard,” Leanne remembers.
“It was a hit to our ego as we were so proud of our USA business and what we had achieved. We had to close down our LA warehouse and bring back $350k of inventory. This led to us being incredibly overstocked. We couldn’t pay our suppliers, we had to pay for excess storage in Sydney, and cash flow was a disaster.”
With the Urban Rituelle teetering on the brink, Leanne said they worked hard with their accountants to close down the US business.
“We spent weekends doing bus shopping clearance sales for many years to clear the excess stock, and over time, we built cash flow back up and, of course, paid all of our suppliers. That was definitely a difficult period, but it taught me how to get back up once you get knocked down.”
A crisis averted
The canny founder says these past experiences put the business in good stead when COVID hit.
“In those early weeks of March 2020, my headspace moved from shock to survival, to opportunity. I spent the first days and nights thinking about how this could be ‘THE END’ for our 21-year journey. What would I do next? How could we wind up the business? How would I pay the school fees? How would we pay the wages? How much money did we have, and how long would it last? Could we run the business from our garage again? What would we do with all our excess stock?
“I was glued to news updates and government announcements and panicked by the growing lines outside Centrelink that I saw every day. It was hard to switch-off. But by about day 3, we had a plan of action. We had to act quickly to find opportunity and innovate.”
Time to pivot
Suspending all orders and cutting team hours and expenses to reduce outgoings, Leanne, Scott and their team focused on coming up with an action plan to survive the crisis.
“Every meeting held was tightly focused on our plan of action and what we would all need to do as a team to keep the business open and the team employed. We quickly put together marketing collateral for our soaps & hand washes, focusing on the importance of hygiene and handwashing. We figured the only way our business would survive was by selling soaps and hand washes.
“In late March, the phones rang hot with people desperately looking for hand sanitisers. So that’s what we decided we needed to make, to keep us all employed. We had a big plan within a week, which we executed in under a few weeks from concept to launch. In a time of great turmoil, the team at Urban Rituelle had managed to pull off the unbelievable, launching two hand sanitisers to market in record time. We had never made sanitisers before; however, by the end of May, we had sold 30 000 units.”
The path to recovery
The impacts of Covid-19 delivered a double whammy – with people spending more time at home, sales of homewares such as candles, body wash & soaps ballooned. However, low inventory delivered the perfect storm. Leanne says they scrambled to keep up with orders.
“Our fabulous team gave it their all to ensure that we kept trading and that everyone kept their jobs. We all bonded together and did whatever needed to be done, to get stuff done, SUPER quickly.”
Leanne believes the pandemic has sparked a global shift towards sustainability and supporting local businesses.
“There is a focus on ‘back to nature,’ ‘back to local,’ and ‘back to community.’ During the lockdown, human activity was restricted, and we were able to see firsthand how nature began to heal itself. Ocean waters were clearer and cleaner, air pollution plummeted – nature was blooming. People are now more environmentally aware than ever before and are more conscious about their footprint on the environment.
“People have also realised the importance of supporting the local economy. So there is no doubt there will be a more significant focus on natural, organic, ethically sourced and harvested, and supporting Australian-made and owned. Businesses will need to adapt their existing models. They will need to rethink their offerings and innovate to align with the consumer demand for ethical, sustainable business that gives back to their local communities.
The retail reset
Leanne believes the retail sector has the opportunity to prepare for a flourishing new era. She suggests exposing the humanity behind a business is key to success.
“The new global trend is “Business with Purpose”. The key trends will be “Back to Nature”, “Back to Local”, and “Conscious Consumption. With a move away from fast fashion. Organic will go through the roof, along with natural, health and wellbeing industries and products,” she says.
Sustainable products and conscious consumption have always been part of Urban Rituelle’s credo. There is no doubt the business will benefit from these current trends. Yet as companies begin to reopen and consumers return to brick and mortar retailers, Leanne acknowledges the importance of getting exposure for her wares. She tells KBB, gift fairs have always played a significant role in Urban Rituelle’s success. They allow them to get their products in front of retailers and wholesalers all over the country and the globe.
“When we first started our little business at Glebe markets in 1998, I was driving to small country towns and walking into gift stores, introducing myself and showing our products. I knew that retailers loved our products, but I needed to find a more efficient and professional way to connect with them. So in September 1999, we leapt and exhibited at our first Sydney Gift Fair, where we opened 50 new accounts in 5 days.
“Exhibiting at Reed Gift Fairs has been integral to the success of our business. Over the last 21 years, we have exhibited at approximately 50 gift fairs. We have had the opportunity to meet 1000s of incredibly successful retailers from all around Australia as well as buyers from the USA, UK, Japan, NZ.”
She says to have a successful trade event takes planning. Frequently the Urban Rituelle team will spend months leading up to an event finalising products and outcomes.
“We have a systematic checklist of what needs to be done & by who. We have a clear direction on products to be launched to meet key retail dates. We have a marketing calendar focused on the event. We always send out an invite to our customers, with a sneak peek of new products that they can be the first to see. We prepare the layout of the product on the stand with a clear merchandising plan. We have won best stand four times, which is something we are extremely proud of.
“The attitude you bring on the day is vital. Urban Rituelle prides itself on its superb customer service experience and how we make people feel. This is what makes us exceptional and stand out from the crowd. We always ask questions and see how we can help our customers. We make sure that our team are warm, welcoming and radiate positivity. A stand with good energy will always attract more visitors and make people invested in your brand.”
Reed Gift Fairs Sydney is a trade-only event, showcasing wholesale suppliers of Home, Gift, Fashion and Kids & Family products. Running from 17 – 20 April at ICC Sydney, Darling Harbour, Reed Gift Fairs Sydney is also co-located with Life Instyle. Registration is free to all legitimate retailers – register here.