Katarnya Gilbert opened the doors to her store, Home with Grace, in December 2016, just six weeks after registering the ABN. She had been looking for something that would offer a good work-life balance along with looking after her daughter, Grace, who had just turned one, and decided to channel her passion for homewares and interiors into a small business.
Gilbert says opening so quickly was “a little nuts” and forced her to make a lot of decisions very quickly, but it also meant she was able to make mistakes (and learn from them) just as fast.
Home with Grace is located on a main road in Killara, in Sydney’s upper north shore, which means parking is an issue. Because of this, Gilbert soon realised she needed to grow her online presence to make up for the lack of foot traffic. She now has a strong digital and offline business, and says the combination of online and bricks-and-mortar has been pivotal to the store’s growth.
“Customers still like to touch and feel and become familiar with a product before purchase,” she says. “They love the in-store experience, and I’ve made it my mission to ensure everyone gets top notch customer service. It’s the simplest and most effective way to ensure return patronage.
“Small businesses cannot compete against larger retailers on many levels, but on personalised service and customer satisfaction we should be able to knock them out of the park.”
The in-store experience is extra special at Home with Grace because the store is an old showroom and unit combined, with a lounge room and bedroom that Gilbert styles like a little house.
“It gives my customers the opportunity to see how my products look in a space. For example, they get to touch and feel the Cultiver linen on a bed and see how the cushions look against the linen, and how many cushions they might need to create their look (you can never have enough cushions).”
The store has an eclectic yet perfectly put together feel, with Gilbert’s style a mix of tribal and coastal elements. It works because the products are mostly monochrome with a focus on natural fibres and finishes. Gilbert also enjoys combining old and new, and stocks vintage and fair trade items that have a story behind them.
“I love styling my store the way I would at home—not too busy and overwhelming. I love letting the products speak for themselves. We update the front window every few weeks, so that’s a great way of shifting everything around for a fresh look.”
In any given week the window could feature candles from Lumira, Cocolux and Alchemy Produx along with cushions by L&M, stationery from Emma Kate Co and art by Sydney artist Maggi McDonald.
Gilbert finds new brands by scrolling through Instagram, at trade shows, searching online and in magazines, and is passionate about supporting local makers.
“My understanding of the challenges small businesses face and how important it is to support local Australian producers and suppliers has grown [since opening Home with Grace],” she says. “You can’t help but share their love and enthusiasm for what they do; mums and dads who spend night after night working from their kitchen table. It’s a really hard slog, but it can be so rewarding.”
When it comes to sourcing candles and home fragrance products, Gilbert says the first thing she looks for is presentation. “From a retail perspective, if it doesn’t present well, no one will even pick it up to smell the scent. Next is the fragrance, which is obviously very important.”
She also takes note of the wax a candle is made from (how does it burn, does the fragrance last, etc.) and the quality of the oil in a diffuser. “For me in-store, I prefer to burn candles as I can change the fragrance depending on my mood. They are a visual prompt and make opening a conversation with a customer about the scent easy.”
Over the past 16 months, Gilbert has met a whole community of people—both customers and suppliers—who share her desire for quality, simplicity and sustainability in homewares. She has also branched out with an interior styling service, after realising a lot of Home with Grace’s customers wanted design advice.
“Whether it is customers, design clients, artisans, other small business owners or the creatives themselves, meeting amazing people is the thing I enjoy most about running Home with Grace,” she says. “Nothing makes me happier than someone walking out my door with a smile on their face.”
Gilbert says she still has a lot to learn but is optimistic about what lies ahead and plans to keep growing the store. While life as a small business owner definitely has its challenges, she says it’s important to surround yourself with positive people and reflect on what you have achieved, rather than focusing on what you haven’t.
“My biggest tip would be to make sure you do a ‘happy dance’ at least once a week when you have a small win—gotta love positive reinforcement and a big of a boogie.”