Neelima Chandran took a break in her career as a chartered accountant when she was pregnant. Around that time, she made a trip to the handloom town of Balaramapuram, driven by her passion towards clothes.
The sight wasn’t encouraging as she found a generation of weavers struggling to make ends meet. She wanted to bring about a change in their life.
During that visit, Neelima bought 10 sarees, took photos of those and put up on e-commerce site eBay. They were all gone in no time, making her realize the potential that the online market offered.
Contemporary handloom for the young generation - her focus turned on how to get that to the market.
Neelima did a lot of traveling and done her own research, and in 2010, opened a store, Neelaambari, in Bengaluru.
Initially, she outsourced stitching work by providing the material and design.
She opened a Facebook page to promote the shop. The social media responded enthusiastically, and soon Facebook generated as much as 95% of Neelaambari’s sales.
Feasible and reachable
Neelima relocated to Kochi later and wasn’t in a position to return to her accounting career.
She opened two retail stores in Kadavanthra, but most sales were still happening on Facebook.
The most feasible and reachable platform for a business like hers is social media, Neelima says, while offering a few tips on how to utilize it effectively.
Photos make a difference when you are selling online. The customer makes her buying decision after seeing the photo. A good photo can sell a bad product, and the vice versa is true as well.
In fact, the entire element of a photo, such as a background, settings, and location, is crucial in getting the buyer to make that decision. Neelaambari, she says, has its own photo department.
Competition is tough online, but don’t be unnecessarily concerned about competition. That said, keep an eye on market trends and what others are doing.
If what you are selling is good, buyers will return to you, Neelima says with a confidence that only experience can provide.
Neelaambari may launch as many as 100 kurtas at a time and runs a teaser of the launch on its Facebook page.
Only one product per design is made in advance. Customers can place an order by quoting the product code and the actual stitching starts then.
Since the materials are not prepared in advance, there is usually no dead stock at Neelaambari.
There is also another advantage - the customer can ask for customization at the time of placing the order.
Once an order is received, the product will be couriered within 48 hours and the customer will be provided the courier tracking number.
It is natural for the online buyer to have doubts about the quality of fabrics and fitting, but that will give way to confidence once she purchases from you a couple of times. The customer will return again and again if she liked the product, Neelima says.
Neelima sells only to retail customers and avoids those who are looking to buy in bulk.
In Kochi, courier charge is Rs 50-60 per consignment. But many are willing to pay that to avoid the trip to the shop in a city where traffic is getting increasingly harrowing.
This consumer behavior also points to the scope of the online market.
At Neelaambari, consignments are returned on rare occasions, mostly over size but at times also due to defects.
If a regular customer has returned the product, the refund is usually adjusted against the next purchase. For others, the money will be returned.
Credibility is crucial
Social media can be a key platform for your entrepreneurial pursuits. But do your own research and get an idea about the market before taking the plunge, says Neelima.
Needs like the staff, salary, rent or space may not cause hurdles in this type of business, but there should be some financial cushion to fall back on in case there aren’t any takers for the stuff you want to sell.
Typically, the online buyer is more concerned about quality than someone who buys from a traditional store, where she can see, feel and even try the product. As a seller, you need to develop credibility and that will help ease the concern, says Neelima.
If you are using a payment gateway, manage it carefully, advises Neelima. For her, bank transfer is the best option.
Neelaambari does a business of Rs 3-5 lakh a month. Profit margin is 20-30 per cent.
Besides being an entrepreneur, Neelima is also a yoga instructor and does classes from 6 to 10 in the morning. Between yoga and the work at Neelaambari, she finds time for the family.