The covid-19 lockdown affected various fashion brands all over the world in different ways, including the brands that do fashion retailing. While it favoured some brands, others were not quite so lucky. One thing is for sure though, it taught every fashion entrepreneur one lesson or the other.
Earlier, we learnt how the lockdown taught Jennifer Onuoha to up her brand’s online presence. This week, we had the pleasure of hearing from Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna of Lulu.ng on what she learnt from the lockdown experience. Let’s get into it!
The Woman behind Lulu.ng – The Fashion Retailing Brand
Growing up, Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna, a graduate of English and Literary Studies and a practising PR practitioner, always had an eye for “fine things”. She found that she was always the go-to person amongst her friends and sisters for fashion and styling ideas. This naturally birthed in her a desire to go into fashion retailing.
“I believe that everyone has their unique style but the goal remains the same – to look good. I think I have something for every stylish woman.”Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna
Fondly called Lulu by her friends, Obiefuna decided to target her fashion retailing business at “the everyday woman that wants to look good without having to empty her purse”. From students to working-class ladies, brides, mums and older ladies looking for comfortable fashion.
The Lulu.ng Started Fashion Retailing
Right from her undergraduate days, Obiefuna had always been involved in one business or the other. In her 2nd year in school, she started selling jewellery to her schoolmates. She would go to the Trade fair market and buy a big bag full of jewellery at affordable prices and take it to school to resell. Having only one major competition in the hostel, she pitched her tent and made a 100 per cent profit on all her items.
She also delved into the beauty industry and became a make-up artist. After realising she could draw her eyebrows better than most people, she went to YouTube, watched tons of make-up videos and began teaching others how to do make-up. Seeing yet another market, in her final year, she added pageantry costuming to her portfolio.
“By the time I was in my final year, I added pageantry costuming to my portfolio. I created some unique costumes and linked up with suppliers for costumes that had never been worn. I became popular because the people I costumed always won or at least became a runner up.”Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna
After her first job following her NYSC as a graduate, she decided to start Lulu.ng. From going through Alibaba, she discovered how easy it was to go into importation. So, in December 2018, she launched her fashion retailing business, Lulu.ng.
“Lulu.ng was the post-university business experience that exposed me to the real world outside of the concentrated business market that the school environment provided. It was after my first post NYSC job, I gathered all my savings and told my father I was going to be an importer. Before then I had been frequenting Alibaba and I could see just how easily I could start an importation business.”Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna
In all of her entrepreneurial escapades over time, one thing has been consistent, she remained in the fashion and beauty industry. For her, the market is a great one “because women will pay good money to look good”.
In the next 5 to 10 years, she hopes to keep growing Lulu.ng to become the go-to fashion store for any stylish woman. She plans to scale from selling mainly shoes to becoming a proper online boutique that would cater to everything from shoes to bags and clothing. For the brand, she nurtures the hope of starting a Made in Nigeria shoe brand.
The Fears and Scares that Came With the Covid-19
Covid-19 Hit Close to Home
In early November/late December 202, Obiefuna noticed that she was showing symptoms of the covid-19 illness. She then found herself hospitalised, pumped full of antibiotics, and self-isolating. After getting better, she got tested for the virus and found herself negative. However, a friend of hers tested positive for it.
At this time, she realised how terrible the virus was. She caught a glimpse into what being infected by it felt like and could only be thankful for recovery. Her friend also recovered nicely from his illness.
Business at Lulu.ng Came to a Halt
Lulu.ng was one of those brands that were hit heavily by the lockdown. Since no one was going out, no one needed Lulu’s shoes and that affected business negatively. As physical events came to a halt, goods stopped coming into Nigeria, especially from China. Also, all available goods were hoarded by suppliers, and for a fashion retailing business, this was bad news.
“Nobody was going out so no one needed lulu’s shoes. There were no owanbes no graduation parties or birthday celebrations. It was a total shutdown. The period leading to the nationwide lockdown wasn’t easy as well because goods stopped coming in especially from China. The available ones were hoarded by suppliers and of course, the prices increased.”Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna
It became hard to try to source goods and stay safe at the same time. Eventually, Obiefuna had to serve an announcement to her customers that Lulu.ng would be closed till further notice. Afterwards, the business was dormant for months. When the lockdown began to ease off and it was time to resume operations, she found that there were no new goods to sell. Although this was a challenge, it also provided the perfect opportunity to sell off the old stock of the fashion retailing brand.
Lulu.ng’s Sub-brand Was Dissolved
While the pandemic favoured some people, Obiefuna realised that the pandemic had not just affected her and her business negatively, it had dampened the spirits of others. Before the pandemic, she had a group of drop shippers and 15 vendors re-selling the goods she sourced for a profit, but the pandemic changed that. After it, they no longer had the enthusiasm to go on and she had to dissolve the group.
“After the pandemic, they were no longer as enthusiastic as they used to be and it was an understandable situation. I had to dissolve the group and the best I could do was to share contacts of some suppliers with them as some encouragement so that whenever they decided to pick up, they would always have the right resources for the business waiting for them. It was tough.”Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna
She also had to put on hold her business expansion plans. Earlier, she had started making plans to start a Made in Nigeria shoe brand but had to shelf them with the lockdown. She, however, still plans to revisit it in future.
The Lockdown Came with Its Downsides and Lessons for this fashion retailing business
With the lockdown and temporal close of her business, Obiefuna saw a significant decrease in patronage. It was in the midst of this that she saw the importance of cultivating sustainable human relationships and adding the human factor to her business.
As an online entrepreneur, she had earlier realised that keeping her identity anonymous was not going to help the business. So, she had put a face to her business and formed a relationship with many of them. This singular move helped her in retaining old customers. She noticed a significant increase in the number of returning customers and referrals from the time she decided to be more personal with her customers.
“I stopped using automated responses in the dm and started to instead employ empathy. Your customers want to know that you care about them especially as a small business. I have customers now who interact with me on my personal social media and have become more than just customers. I am still their go-to plug for fashion items, pandemic or no pandemic.”Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna
Also, cultivating good relationships helped with her suppliers. Before and after the lockdown, by leveraging her good relationships with her suppliers and being in their good graces, she was able to obtain notable favours.
What Will Happen in Lulu.ng Going Forward
Learning from the pandemic, she is now putting her business on more than one platform and focusing on business expansion. For her, diversifying into other e-commerce platforms is key. Now, she had dabbled into Jiji.ng and tried her hands on Jumia as well.
Also, she has decided to create a mailing list instead of depending on Instagram alone. This way, she has an alternative and a more sustainable way to reach her existing and potential customers. Even with these, however, she realises that the effects of a pandemic on an online business are dependent on how it affects its customers.
She also plans to keep doing the things that have worked for her over time. Asides from keeping a relationship with customers, she wears her products and markets them to others every chance she gets.
“I walk the talk. As a person, I believe in always putting your best face forward so I try to always look good and wear the products that I sell. That way, if you compliment me, I’ll tell you we can look good together and show you the way to my business page.”Chiamaka Lucy Obiefuna
Since she has no physical store location, she finds ways to let her customers know she has access to a lot more than is on her business page. This means offering personal shopping services to those that need them. She also offers sales, gives her returning customers free delivery and offers free delivery to anyone that purchases more than 3 items from Lulu.ng. All of which have always worked for her.
The pandemic taught us lots of lessons. For Chiamaka Obiefuna, the biggest lesson she learnt was cultivating a sustainable relationship with her clients. Have you worked on your relationship with clients since the lockdown? Do let us know in the comments below.