From the source: Sarah Donges, Box for Monkeys

Inspired by offering tech-free activities for her own kids, Donges launched her online business selling activity packs in 2015. Shifting from a subscription model to direct-to-consumer and wholesale, Donges now stocks in prominent hotels around Sydney and Melbourne, including the Park Hyatt and Swissotel.

Inside Retail Weekly: Tell me about how you launched your business.

Sarah Donges: I’d had my first business, the Beauty Tutor, since 2006 and I was really looking for my next business. Just before my second son was born I set some time aside for it. I spent a lot of time in hospital with my eldest boy and whenever we were in hospital, I always took in some craft activities, books and games – things we could do together. It was all the stuff I wanted him to do at home. We’d be sharing a room with kids and they all loved the activities. I thought there was something in that and that I could make a business out of it. 

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I launched it as a subscription model to start, then when I took on new business partners in 2017, we took that off. Now we mostly sell gift boxes and we’ve gone into wholesale. We’ve got our own branded activity packs for kids and we’ve gone after the travel industry, including a lot of city hotels in Sydney and Melbourne. Wherever there’s a bored kid, like in cafes, restaurants, it’s something that can be given to them.

IRW: What was it about subscription that didn’t work?

SD: I found it really hard in this market and the cost to get that one customer really eats into your margin. It’s not our own branded stuff in the gift boxes, so we were already paying margin on product. Those wholesale sales are so much better for us to get. 

IRW: How would you describe the Box for Monkeys experience for kids?

SD: Within each box, there are tech-free options around different age groups. The box itself can be coloured in, because we really wanted to be as sustainable as possible and to create it as a reusable experience. Then inside, there’s some kind of card for them, which can be coloured in as well. Then when they open the box, it’s full of fun activities for them to do. Some of it can be done with a parent or carer or by themselves. We really wanted to create an activity that a parent could get involved in. 

IRW: What would you say have been some of the highlights for the business?

SD: Definitely some of the highs have been getting into the Park Hyatt Melbourne and Sydney and the Swissotel and really building up those relationships. 

I’ve been meeting with the Park Hyatt in Sydney and talking about what they need. They told us they had been after a replica of a Sydney ferry as a bath toy. I realised that’s something we can do and that arrived three weeks ago – it’s cute and it sits in the palm of your hand. I really love doing the custom stuff and I love the idea of those gifts being given to kids who are visiting Australia. The bath toy – his name is Sid – will be in the room waiting on the edge of the bath for them. Then they’ve got activity books sitting on the bed, too.

At the Swissotel, the kids receive a large matchbox of 10 different activities inside, with six colour pencils, a pencil sharpener and a little backpack as well. We’re also finalising stuff for the Park Hyatt in Melbourne. It’s a backpack. They’ve got a real labrador living in the hotel called Mr Walker, so the backpack is all about Mr Walker.

Another highlight would be doing the backpacks for Vinnies. I did the CEO Sleepout and it’s such an inspiring event. I met with Vinnies a few times to work out how I could help and normally every Christmas, they ask their big corporate sponsors for backpacks for kids. Some of them are from Ripcurl, Aldi and Kmart. We did some backpacks for them and had them made in China with a cooler bag, pencil case, lunchbox, water bottle and got corporate sponsors to purchase them.

We sent them to five distribution centres across NSW and Vinnies distributed them to kids in need. We’ve officially partnered with Vinnies. They’ve got a few places here in Sydney. They’ve got Vincentia House, which is for families that don’t have anywhere else to go, and then in Lewisham, they have a huge centre for refugee and crisis accommodation. 

I think all businesses should [support charities] because it’s too much strain on our government to possibly help everybody. I think it’s businesses’ responsibility to help where they can, whether you’re a small or big business. I’m just passionate about that and you need to find within your business what you can do to help, whether it’s cooking on a sausage sizzle at school or donating your time to pack boxes.

IRW: What were you doing before you launched Box for Monkeys?

SD: At my first business The Beauty Tutor I was a stylist, taking people shopping and clearing out wardrobes – I was always in the retail sector. I was doing events for the shopfloor staff and teaching them how to style their customers and work their customer database as well. Everything is going online but the in-store experience could be so great and so lovely for the customer.

The Beauty Tutor came about because I was getting the shits as a stylist. The sales girl would be lying to the customer, when the clothes didn’t actually fit the customer at all and didn’t actually look that great. I loved doing those events with the staff, teaching them how to work with different body shapes and work out their colours. I just thought, ‘You have a whole database of customers, names and numbers and you know what people have purchased in-store. Why can’t you call them and say, ‘We’ve got a great jacket in. I know you love this style, it’s perfect for you. I can put it aside for you if you want to pop in’?” They could be doing so much better. 

Customer service [in Australia] is terrible. It really bugs me. 

IRW: How did that shape how you do business now?

SD: I worked at DJs in cosmetics buying too. I think in some ways, I was very frustrated because while we would buy-sell-markdown, buy-sell-markdown, you never knew who bought it, and that’s why I went into the Beauty Tutor, because I wanted to work with people. I wanted to know who was buying what and get that personal touch with things. 

I think the cycle of retail can be very frustrating. It’s a shame that we’ve gone into that [sales mentality]. As a consumer, don’t we always expect that now? That makes it incredibly tough for retail but I can’t see that changing.
[From my past retail experience], I’ve learned that it’s all about managing your margins and factoring everything into the price that you possibly can because if you don’t, then you’re screwed very quickly. You really need to spend that extra time to work out what your price point is going to be, because you can’t change it.


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