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Rachel Williamson shares the secrets of her lighting business Mr Ralph

Position: Owner
Business: Mr Ralph
Field: Domestic lighting
Based in: Paeroa
Open since: 2013

Mr Ralph is an online retailer which sells pendants, lamps and wall lights across New Zealand and Australia. Its founder and owner, Rachel Williamson, was inspired to found it after she left a senior sales and marketing role at Yellow New Zealand – she embarked on a home renovation project and was surprised to find herself struggling to locate the kind of lighting products she wanted at an affordable price.

“I felt, with lighting, there was a really high end and a low end, but nowhere to go for normal people who want design-led products.”

With Mr Ralph, Williamson set out to create a boutique experience for those customers, selling products which aren’t mass-produced at an accessible price point. She believes this is the way forward for homewares: “People want the opportunity to change interiors in five years’ time when it’s not trendy anymore… and if you buy a $5,000 pendant, you kind of have to love it for life.”

Mr Ralph was originally based out of a showroom in the Waikato town of Cambridge, but as the business outgrew location after location, Williamson began to feel the shop was taking too much of her time and energy. It also sucked attention away from the nationwide online store, where she sensed growth potential.

So, in 2016 Williamson made the radical decision to move herself to Waihi Beach, and Mr Ralph to an enormous but very affordable warehouse in Paeroa. The business, which has five staff members including Williamson, is now fully focused on ecommerce and has consolidated its market reach. Williamson says the cost savings associated with being based in Paeroa give Mr Ralph a competitive advantage as they’re passed on to the consumer.

“We can see huge potential from where we are and the online business is growing.”

She’s aware that tactility is important for customers, and has begun opening the warehouse on Sundays. She’s found that Paeroa is ideally placed to capture customers from growth areas Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, being within an hour or two’s drive from each centre.

“We get loads of people on Sundays. They bring the kids, they come out and make a day of it.”

The lighting industry comes with a number of barriers to entry involving compliance and testing. These hurdles were difficult to navigate when she was first setting up Mr Ralph, says Williamson, but they also insulate the business somewhat from the ‘Amazon effect’ where retailers are undercut by cheaper international competitors. She’s worked hard to develop trust with her customers, and sees a high percentage of repeat custom in return.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 749 April / May 2017.
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