Business

The family firm at the forefront of selling via Facebook

Brandi Temple
Image caption Brandi Temple has made family and social media core elements of her business

As a family-run company with just 160 employees and a funny name, US children's clothing manufacturer Lolly Wolly Doodle (LWD) does not immediately seem like a trendsetter.

Yet the North Carolina firm and its owner Brandi Temple are at the forefront of how small retailers are increasingly selling their wares directly through Facebook.

Billionaire investor Steve Case, the co-founder of US internet group AOL, is so impressed with LWD and its "Facebook commerce" business model that earlier this year his Revolution Growth fund invested $20m (£13m) in the company.

He says that LWD has the potential to be a billion-dollar business.

Mr Case adds: "Ms Temple really had pioneered the whole area of social shopping. It's really bringing consumers almost into the design process.

"For most people focused on e-commerce, social is an afterthought. For her, it's the main event. I think that's unique."

Comment to buy

While most retailers have a presence on Facebook, encouraging you to "like" them so photographs of their goods appear in your news feed like adverts, firms such as LWD are going one stage further and actually trading directly via the social media website.

If some of LWD's 614,000 Facebook fans want to buy a particular outfit displayed in their news feed, they add a "comment" to the post, putting down the size and colour they want, and their email address. Plus, if applicable, they can request that a certain name or set of initials is added as an embroidery.

As each item of clothing is only produced in limited numbers, LWD will within two hours put up a list on its Facebook page of which orders it can fulfil.

To pay, customers simply click on their name which redirects them to a checkout page on LWD's own website.

Fans of the company are also encouraged to use Facebook to message LWD to ask for certain clothing designs or colours, which the company works to fulfil.

Now shipping between 30,000 to 50,000 garments per month, 60% of LWD's sales today come via Facebook, with the remaining 40% gained by standard online means via its own website.

Family affair

Ms Temple's success has all come despite her never setting out to go into business.

"I had never intended to start the company," the 39-year-old says.

Image caption The company is named after Ms Temple's niece, Elizabeth Tysinger

Instead, the mother of four had simply started to make clothes for her own children as a hobby back in 2008. She only began to start selling items when one day she realised she had purchased too much fabric.

But the clothes quickly proved popular, and from there the business was born, taking its name from the childhood nickname of Ms Temple's niece Elizabeth Tysinger or Lolly.

Ms Temple chose not to open a bricks-and-mortar shop because she thought selling via the internet would be easier to juggle alongside her family commitments.

"My idea was I wanted to be a mom, and I never wanted to miss a soccer game or a baseball game," she says.

She initially sold via auction and shopping website eBay, but on a whim one day back in 2010 put some leftover clothes up for sale on Facebook.

Ms Temple says the response on Facebook was "overwhelming", so much so that within two weeks she had moved her entire eBay store over to the social media website.

Today Ms Temple's husband, mother, brothers and nieces are among the employees at the company's base in her home city of Lexington in North Carolina.

"My whole family is pretty much here," she says.

Ms Temple says she is also pleased to be able to offer employment to people in the city, which was badly hit by the US recession that started at the end of 2007.

Image caption Lolly Wolly Doodle's base of Lexington was hit hard by the recession

Her niece Elizabeth is now 18. She is currently helping out at the company during her summer break from university.

In the the firm's design room, staff are busy transforming sketches and fabrics into sample garments. From here the outfits are photographed and displayed online.

Every day LWD designs between 15 and 20 new items, but they are only manufactured when customers pay for orders. That means the company does not struggle with excess inventory.

While the turnaround time from a sample garment's conception to its production can be a matter of hours for simple items, customers after more bespoke outfits can have to wait up to four weeks.

"We stay completely real time, from the sewing end of it to the manufacturing," says Ms Temple.

At least 60% of LWD's clothes are manufactured in Lexington, while the rest are made in China and El Salvador. The clothes that are manufactured abroad return to North Carolina for monograms and other embellishments.

'Retail future'

Analyst Candace Corlett, president at WSL Strategic Retail, says she can see LWD's model as "the future of boutique retail".

Image caption Some manufacturing work for LWD is done overseas

She adds: "I think it's a great model, especially for boutique specialty merchandise that you are willing to wait for until it's made."

By contrast, Ms Corlett does not think the business model works for the mass produced clothes that shoppers want to lay their hands on right away, such as t-shirts and lingerie.

However, back at LWD the future could also hold something distinctly low tech, old-fashioned, and the polar opposite of selling via Facebook - a bricks and mortar store.

"We want to have an offline presence," Ms Temple says. "It's definitely going to be the next step for Lolly Wolly Doodle."

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