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Founder of Emperor Champagne, Kyla Kirkpatrick, on her phenomenal sales despite Covid-19
Kyla Kirkpatrick, CEO and founder of The Champagne Dame and Emperor Champagne.
Fri 1 May 2020 - 8:11 amEntrepreneur | Featured
Kyla Kirkpatrick is today’s female entrepreneur, who is founder of The Champagne Dame and Emperor Champagne, and we quiz her on the phenomenal sales and success she is having despite COVID-19.
Sales for champagne have perhaps surprisingly gone up by 400% (YOY, stat taken last week), with Kyla realising that despite isolation, her customers are still looking for a little bit of luxury.
Kyla’s fascination with champagne led her to give up her successful six- figure career and buy a one-way ticket to France to learn all she could about the world of champagne.
She has since spent over a decade hosting tastings, masterclasses and tours of the Champagne region of France in her first business, The Champagne Dame. With covid-19 Kyla was forced to cancel her events, tours and workshops, and she feared the worst with big events like the Melbourne Grand Prix – where Emperor was the official champagne partner – cancelled.
Despite the global economic downturn, and French sellers steeling themselves for a hit, Kyla has quickly refocused the operations side of Emperor to return unprecedented growth. The business has more than doubled this month.
Kyla decided to operate Emperor’s warehouse in Australia (Victoria) which initially incurred greater financial cost… However now it means the business has more control over customer service and is more agile and faster to deliver than rivals, which Kyla says is undoubtedly a reason for the spike in sales and repeat purchases
Emperor now ranks only second to Dan Murphy’s in terms of visibility on Google and third in traffic after Dan Murphy’s and BWS.
Stay tuned for a fascinating and insightful interview with Kyla Kirkpatrick, the thriving champagne entrepreneur and founder, who tells us about her journey and business strategies.
Where did your love for Champagne come from and when/why did it pull you away from your job as a banker?
I first became passionate about Champagne in 2005. Most people find this hard to believe, but it wasn’t the idea of being able to legitimately drink champagne for a living that first drew me to the industry, it was the history and the incredible story of the region. Reading books was my form of escapism as a child and books in our home were plentiful so I read the Encyclopedia, I read the dictionary and I even read the Bible. I thought for a period of time that religion might have been my thing but in actual fact what interested me about theology was its connection to something bigger and its conduit to the past – I now realise that champagne does this also. It’s this magic liquid that somehow transports you back in time, to something bigger than what it is. I love this. I never tire of telling the stories of the region. It’s become my life not just my career.
In 2005 I came across an article on Napoleon Bonaparte and his friendship with a young Jean Remy Moët, which triggered a stint of ferociously reading every book I could find on Champagne. The complex story and rich history behind Champagne captured my imagination, but there was book in particular which I was really drawn to. The Art and Business of Champagne by Dan Ginsburg combined two of my big interests: Business and Champagne.
I decided to handwrite a letter to this gentleman asking him a list of questions and in an unexpected twist I received a letter back from him inviting me to go to France and study with him. I left my career and bought a one way ticket to France and completely reinvented myself.
Tell us how you founded your first company, Champagne Dame. It must have been quite risky to quit your steady job and buy a one-way ticket
I think the most challenging aspect of a major career change for most people is pulling out the safety net and letting go of the security of what you know and trading that for the great unknown.
Leaving the comfort and safety of a large corporation and the corresponding pay cheque was a very defining moment for me in my journey but also one I knew I 100% was something I had to do.
What I wanted to do in Champagne didn’t exist so I spent time immersing myself in the region, in the culture and in the business of champagne assessing where I could fit and how I could add value. I did a lot of blue sky thinking about how I could create an opportunity for myself within my chosen industry.
Eight months later I was recruited by one of the largest Champagne houses in the world and was invited to become an ambassador for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy’s Champagne brands including Clicquot, Krug, Dom Perignon and Moët and Ruinart. A few years later in 2008 I decided it was time to start my own business and that is when my first business, The Champagne Dame, was born.
I first arrived in France 15 years ago this June! It’s quite a milestone but I don’t think I will be celebrating it the way I thought with a gala and many of my clients and lots of champagnes. It may very well be virtual!
With one successful business under your belt did you feel that you had more confidence in setting up Emperor Champagne? Were there similar or different challenges the second time round?
I thrive on being in business and I never rest on my laurels. I keep pivoting and reinventing myself within my chosen career path and almost every five years I add another ‘new string’ to my bow.
I am absolutely passionate about my job in Champagne presenting and educating but after a few years in The Champagne Dame I found myself constantly booked out…. every day and every night and I realised I couldn’t scale my business and I certainly couldn’t sell my business.
When I started researching the possibilities for Emperor in 2015 there were more than 8 million bottles of Champagne sold in Australia and it was the largest growing market for Champagne in the world. I recognised the opportunity for a dedicated, online Champagne retailer servicing this market. Based on our research and feedback at the time, consumers not only enjoyed Champagne but were hungry for more diversity in their champagne choices rather than just always-consuming big brand, entry level cuvees.
But although I knew the Champagne market, I had certainly never run an eCommerce business before. There were a few sleepless nights wondering if I had taken too big a risk or whether I could pull of a project of this magnitude but now I have a handle on the business and I love it. I am thrilled to see Emperor achieving the success it is reaching and with the help of my team we are pushing boundaries everyday.
The lockdowns seem to have had a positive impact on your business. Do you think this is entirely due to being on the ground here in Australia, or are there more factors at play?
My first business, The Champagne Dame, has had all bookings and events postponed or cancelled and I have to say that in the early days of covid-19 and restrictions coming into play I did wonder where it all might end up.
As a specialist champagne stockist and with champagne largely seen as a celebratory beverage my first question was would people suffering through lockdown still want to drink it? The answer was, yes. Isolated or not, people are still having birthdays, sharing anniversaries, welcoming babies into the world or wanting to cheer their friends and colleagues up in isolation. In fact, people have disposable income they cannot spend on holidays or fine dining so they are purchasing top notch bottles of Champagne and entertaining to the max at home. We have sold many bottles of Champagne at the $1000 mark and have had to list a new range of back vintage champagnes just to keep up with demand from premium buyers.
From the minute the crisis hit, we had a strategy board up to talk about risk mitigation, additional revenue streams, and how we could pivot. Because I was no longer presenting or travelling I suddenly had a lot more time to immerse myself in the business. I began to review every system and every process putting in immediate improvements and upgrades. I have also physically been in the warehouse each day packing orders, speaking to customers, hand writing gift cards and even driving the forklift (stilettos and all) – so I know my business better than ever. I took a closer look at operations and made a number of tweaks so our teams would work more efficiently – efficiency gains that will prevail after the pandemic. And in tightening up the logistics side of the business, I identified an opportunity to offer same-day delivery to some areas and fast delivery to others, which we have leveraged in our marketing. This has become one of the reasons why we secure so many repeat customers.
We have experienced extraordinary growth since the crisis. In March sales were up 200% on the same time last year and certain weeks in April were up 400% compared to last year. Our customer return rate is around 60% which is great but we are also seeing many new customers, some of which are purchasing alcohol online for the very first time. The opportunity for us now is to ensure that we exceed all expectations on customer service and retain these customers for the long term. We are loving seeing the customer’s 5 star reviews come through – I know we have done our job properly.
Outside of the obvious increase in online alcohol purchases, I believe our amazing performance has been driven by a couple of things. One has been our ability to quickly identify and adapt the product offer to what people want. As a result, we expanded our gift and hamper selection and launched a cheeky ‘quarantine kit’ that contains a bottle of champagne, chocolate, a roll of toilet paper and a deck of playing cards, which was extremely popular. We’re now cemented in our customers’ minds as the go-to brand when you want to feel good. People buy a bottle of champagne for themselves and a friend so they can share a virtual drink; we’ve also noticed the rise in sales of quarter- and half-bottles as people buy for themselves to lift their spirits.
Another reason is our focus on adding a human touch to the online experience. Just because we are an online business it doesn’t mean we put up a virtual wall. Whether that’s handwriting gift cards, being available to answer a customer phone enquiry or phoning up first time customers to say hello, we will continue to ensure that our customers can make an informed purchase and feel cared for and special. As a result we’ve seen a lot of the more niche brands selling, including rare bottles and special vintages, when I would have expected most of the focus on the big, better known brands.
We are listening closely to our customers – primarily through the live chat on our site but also from customer feedback on phone or email. We are really closely connected to our customers at the moment and that is the best customer research you can do. Anything we hear repeated requests for at the moment we implement. We are a small team, so we are nimble. We are improving constantly, and I believe our effectiveness is shown in our conversion rate. We have a 3.5% conversion rate for customers online which is high for eCommerce. It tells me that we are doing well at listening and getting (most) things right.
How has your business changed from day one?
Actually, not too much. In fact, there were a number of things in my business plan that I had written pre-launch that I didn’t have the time or funds to implement that I am implementing now – now that I have more of both! So we are actually moving closer to the original strategy which was my intended vision for Emperor.
We have so many new features that we are adding to the site such as same day shipping, new custom card range, a new back cellar and rarity range and perhaps my favourite new feature and something I always wanted to implement is our new audio files being added to certain champagnes where you can hear the stunning French accent of the wine maker describing his wine – heaven!
Where do you see it headed?
There are two key strategic areas I am focusing on – domestic improvement and international scale.
I had initially considered a capital raise in 2019 but held off as I wanted to prove to myself that I could sustain the business growth on my own. I have done that and with the number of international opportunities which have come our way during covid-19, it has not only reinforced my belief in the longevity of the business but also confirmed that now is the right time to embark on a new capital raise.
Domestically I am focused on business improvement. For example, how can our packaging be better, how can we be faster for delivery, expanding our product range, negotiating better prices and adding new features to our site. I am surveying and listening to our customers at the moment trying to enhance their experience. The best marketing is word of mouth – we want people who shop on Emperor not just to be happy about the experience of shopping with us – we want them out in the market being our advocates – there is no stronger form of marketing and its often overlooked.
We are also focused on global growth which has been ignited recently by the direct approaches we have received to engage in business internationally. Right now, I am modelling the ideal franchise or license partner to expand the Emperor business in other major markets around the world. We are profiling, then we will start seeking the perfect partners. We have done a lot of work in the last few months on making our business replicable globally.
It’s a double pronged approach.