It’s hard to remember when online shopping wasn’t a thing. While internet-based purchases have been around in the US for over 40 years, it took some countries a lot longer to jump on the ecommerce train. Sophie Claes, founder and CEO of De Gele Flamingo, started her online store when almost no one in Belgium had ever placed an online order.
De Gele Flamingo (which translates to “The Yellow Flamingo”) is an online store selling unique children’s clothing and accessories. It scouts the market for the latest trends and sources products from all over Europe, ensuring everything complies with health and safety standards.
Nine years ago, Sophie invested around $1,200 to start her ecommerce business. Now, De Gele Flamingo has grown to a team of 14, with 13,000 unique items in its inventory, and 1,000 incoming orders a day – and the company generates $6.8 million (€6.5 million) in revenue.
Bringing New Products to the Belgian Market
When her daughter was ten months old, Sophie Claes scoured stores for unique baby products. But whenever she found something good, it was always on a webshop in the UK or the US.
“I figured I wasn’t the only parent who was struggling to find these types of products in Belgium – and no one has time to go to ten different stores (in different countries) to find the right thing. That’s what sparked the idea for the business. I thought I could be the one to fill that gap in the Belgian market,” she says.
Even though Sophie didn’t have any experience in retail, she decided to set up her own Shopify store in 2013. “I contacted suppliers in Belgium, but they were all scared of ecommerce. They were worried that their product wouldn’t sell, because ‘it wasn’t a real store.’ So, I went to my first conference in London where, of course, ecommerce was more common. That’s where we partnered with our first brands who saw the value of having a reseller located in Belgium,” she says.
Sophie’s goal, which remains the same to this day, was to be the first to launch new brands in a new market. She launched De Gele Flamingo online with 35 products, including mostly smaller baby items like bibs and pacifiers, sourced from unique brands that were not available in Belgium.
Sophie was also working full-time in the B2B industry as an International Accounts Manager. “I gained a lot of experience negotiating, especially with international customers. So it was interesting being on the other side of the table with De Gele Flamingo. But finding unique brands, negotiating a deal with them, and having them choose us as a partner is what gives me energy,” she says.
“That job of ten years helped me understand that I needed to run my own business. That’s also one of the reasons why De Gele Flamingo was profitable from the first year. And because I still had a full-time job, I didn’t need to pay myself a salary from the company’s income. Instead, I could invest it all back into the business.”
After two years, De Gele Flamingo became too big to remain a side-gig. Sophie knew that if she wanted to keep growing the business, she needed to quit her full-time job and focus on it 100 percent – so she did.
Being First to Market Has Its Drawbacks
When De Gele Flamingo opened its virtual doors, it didn’t have any competition at all. That might seem like the perfect setup, but was it? There were no competitors because consumers did not feel comfortable with ecommerce yet. As a result, the real challenge for De Gele Flamingo was convincing people to shop online.
Sophie says, “Consumers were scared of making online purchases and didn’t know how it all worked. I got emails from people asking whether they needed to send me money by mail to buy something from our site. Up until that point, it was just common for people to go to the store to buy whatever products they needed.”
Social media was instrumental in building trust and bringing in those first customers. “Before we even officially launched the business in August of 2013, I had already created a Facebook page and was posting photos of all the items that would go live on the website. Big retail brands, like Zara and H&M, were not active on social media yet, so I was able to build a big following before I opened the store,” Sophie says. She also got valuable feedback on which products people were interested in and willing to spend money on.
The day De Gele Flamingo went live, it immediately received orders. “During our first month, we had 40 orders. This might not seem like a lot but at a time where ecommerce was incredibly premature, it was a big deal that we already had customers right away. It showed that they trusted us and that we were filling a gap in the market,” the founder shares.
Sophie focused on curating unique items and posting them on Facebook multiple times a day. To this day, social media is still a key aspect of her marketing strategy. She says, “We grew along with our customers, and the more comfortable they became with ecommerce in general, the more products we added, and the more brands wanted to partner with us. At that point, the fact that we had no competitors allowed us to grow quickly.”
From Home to Warehouse
For the first three years, Sophie stored De Gele Flamingo’s inventory at home. Customers even had the option to collect orders from her house. “First it was just one room, then another, and then it was our entire second floor and the garage. Luckily, we had a big house with enough room to do that, especially since it saved the company a lot of money. But, at one point, we couldn’t even open the door anymore for deliveries because it was blocked with boxes. That’s when we decided it was time to start looking for a real warehouse,” she says.
The first warehouse served De Gele Flamingo well for two years. Then Sophie’s team demolished one of the walls and took over the warehouse next to it to fit all of their inventory. Initially, De Gele Flamingo focused on just baby items but then started adding products for older children, as well as home decor and skincare.
Sophie says, “We saw an opportunity to add more brands and a wider range of products so that our customers can buy items for themselves or their friends as they are shopping for their kids.” De Gele Flamingo is now a family concept store rather than just a baby store, providing products for the entire family. In September, the company moved to an even bigger warehouse to house its expansive stock of 13,000 unique items.
With Great Challenges Comes Great Innovation
COVID-19 presented one of the biggest challenges for De Gele Flamingo. All over the world, ecommerce took off like never before. For online stores, this was the silver lining of a global pandemic, but Sophie and her team struggled to keep up with the demand. From one day to the next, they had five times the amount of orders – but the team still only consisted of nine employees.
“We didn’t suddenly have 40 people available to help with the increase in packages. Everyone worked extremely hard, including evenings and weekends. I was helping out in the warehouse, taking video calls with partners and clients while printing labels and packing orders. On top of that, we had two major projects planned for 2020: creating our new baby list app and implementing a warehouse management system,” Sophie says.
De Gele Flamingo invested in an automated warehouse system to ensure that its facility could operate efficiently and meet its goals. Before Sophie streamlined that process, it would take three months to train a new employee, because the team had to teach them where to find the 13,000 items in the warehouse.
Now they can scan packages, easily find products, and automatically print out labels to the corresponding orders. As a result, De Gele Flamingo has tripled the orders it can process in a day. Also, it now only takes ten minutes to train a new team member to work the warehouse system. This technological implementation allowed the company to level up during the pandemic.
Evolving The Business to Cater to Customers’ Wants
Like a wedding registry, when you are expecting, you can go to a baby store and make a list of everything you would like to receive for your child. The baby registry you create reserves each item, so that family members and friends can buy them as a gift. It’s also a guaranteed sale for the store. In Belgium, the store manually creates a list with the items their customer wants to include – an old-fashioned and inefficient system.
In 2016, De Gele Flamingo decided it was time to future-proof baby lists by making it an online process so staff wouldn’t need to spend hours in a store picking out items. “We looked on Shopify for an app that we could repurpose as a baby list. We found a gift registry app where we could add our own code to make it work for us,” Sophie says. The Shopify app had a cheap monthly fee, which allowed them to experiment with it before investing too much money.
Since De Gele Flamingo was the first in Belgium to offer online baby lists, it wasn’t a given that future parents would use it. “But people actually started making lists on it because it was such an easy process. We then took each item out of stock to ensure that it would be available to them when they had their baby,” Sophie says. Now, customers create 200 new lists every month with De Gele Flamingo. It’s one of the company’s strategic pillars that brings in 30 percent of its revenue.
Along the way, Sophie and her team discovered that the customers creating a baby list online were those expecting their second, third, or fourth child – but not their first. “We found out that when women are pregnant for the first time, they have no clue what they need and they want to have the comfort of an in-person shopping experience where someone can walk them through it,” she says.
“We also calculated that a ‘first baby’ baby list is of a much higher value, because new parents need all the basics, with everything from strollers to cribs.” They looked at where there was a gap in their offering and how they could cater to those customers. De Gele Flamingo then made the conscious decision to open a physical store.
The store is specifically a baby concept store with products for babies up to one year old. New parents can visit the store to see, touch, feel, and smell everything. They can then scan a QR code that automatically adds the items to their baby list while experiencing everything in-store and have it shipped directly to their home later.
“Several months after the store’s opening, we can see that nine out of ten customers who make an appointment to create their baby list at the store are pregnant with their first child. So I would say, mission accomplished! We’re now able to capture that market too,” Sophie says.
De Gele Flamingo is highly in tune with its customers’ wants. “We didn’t want to open a store and put all 13,000 items that we sell in it. We wanted to provide a solution that met our customers’ needs. Often the word ‘omnichannel’ is mentioned, but we see it more as ‘optichannel’, meaning that we chose the optimal channel for the end goal,” Sophie says.
But it doesn’t stop there. In November of last year, De Gele Flamingo translated their website into English. Before it was only available in Dutch and they received a lot of requests from people all over the world to have a translated version. Sophie says, “Now the entire world can be our customer. At the moment, we’re mainly in Belgium and The Netherlands, so there is still a lot of room for growth in the future.”
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