It’s now 17 years since Ashley sold her first products in a retail store – a range of three home scents that remain among the brand’s most popular lines today. They were born from experimenting in her garage, mixing scents sourced from France with different blends and styles until she believed she was onto a winning combination.
That first retailer was the upmarket Auckland department store, Smith & Caughey’s. At the time, she recalls, local retailers were really open to New Zealand entrepreneurs and products.
“Nowadays, they probably get multiple phone calls every week from people who are doing their own thing and wanting to showcase their products. But, going back 17 years, it was a novel idea.”
Ashley’s husband Ben is a graphic designer, so the products benefitted from unique packaging and design. “As a little duo, we created something that was quite special and different”. Customers agreed: “That was the surprising part. People loved it.” And so a brand was born.
Today, Ashley & Co has more than 50 products including room mists, hair and body products, cleaning products and even a dishwashing detergent, based on eight core signature scents.
A 13-strong team runs the business today – excluding manufacturing, which has been contracted out to the same company since day one – and some third-party warehousing. While the company imports perfumes from France, these are blended in New Zealand using local ingredients where possible, including local extracts such as Kahili and Manuka honey.
The company focuses on three core channels: retail resellers, its own online DTC business and a burgeoning hospitality trade, with more than 200 restaurants, hotels and other companies using its products, including the famous Sydney restaurant Chin Chin. Some products feature in the amenity kits Air New Zealand hands out to Business and Economy Class passengers on long-haul flights, an initiative that has helped test and launch new products in the range as well as build brand awareness.
One of the keys to the business’s success is undoubtedly Ashey’s early realisation that having a passion for scents was one thing, but success would only come if she applied a proper business approach.
“Perfume was something that I loved so it was very much about melding together that love of interiors and home with creating beautiful scents. It wasn’t something that I started out as a cottage industry brand. I spoke to multiple perfumers and worked with them over a couple of years. I found out how to create reed diffusers and then worked with contract manufacturers who had never done a product like this before. It was a very new thing in New Zealand at the time.”
So Ashley & Co was very much an actual brand and a serious business venture from day one – “more than a cottage industry style, you know, created in a kitchen with some lavender and a mortar and pestle”.
As someone who confesses not to be a natural salesperson, she found the startup process “extremely challenging”.
“Going back 17 years, direct-to-consumer websites kind of didn’t exist – so it was literally all about knocking on people’s doors and asking people to stock our products.”
One of her lessons as the business grew was allowing herself to focus on what she did best, which led to business partner Jeremy Scott coming on board 10 years ago.
“I recognised my limitations it was time to focus on what I really love doing and that was creating the products and everything around that creative side. So Jeremy took over the sales and distribution and we grew from there.”
The company broke into the Australian market five years ago after exhibiting at a gifts and homewares fair. Independent retailers tested the product, found it sold well and distribution grew from there.
“The core of our approach was really trying to replicate what we did well in New Zealand because we felt we had created a really loyal customer base here. So our first retailers were the owner-operated small retail stores in local suburbs. That’s what worked for us in New Zealand before we started concentrating more on direct-to-consumer sales through our website.”
A foray into the UK followed and in both markets, distribution partners ship to customers online and offline. From its New Zealand e-commerce site, the brand only ships locally.
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, with the Air New Zealand contract suspended and retail store owners ordering less, the online channel came into its own. “We are a smaller company, and a little bit more nimble, which is good, and as owners of the company we are very much the doers. So, like everybody, our online store grew and we are still seeing the benefits of that.”
A lesson from this has been the channel’s importance in communicating with customers. “That is really important in supporting your retailers as well – just getting the correct messaging about your brand out there and educating customers,” reflects Ashley.
Another early lesson was choosing the territories the company wanted to work in and focusing on those, avoiding the shotgun approach that sometimes catches out smaller companies eager to grow.
“We learnt that in the early days. We used to get random emails from people wanting to buy our products from Dubai or somewhere else. We are now much more focused and we have a clear strategy.”
While the web is working for Ashley & Co, the team is careful to remember its products are by nature tactile.
“Our online store and digital is something we can do in-house and the margin, of course, is better. But at the same time, supporting the brick-and-mortar trade is important because we realise that we have a sensory product and people actually need to experience them.
“So that’s where the hospitality side is really, really important, and also having those amazing retailers supporting us and, in turn, supporting them, because they do an amazing job of merchandising our product beautifully, because they curate their own stores.”
The company does not have its own physical store in any market and has no plans for one at present. “But never say never.”
“I feel like we’ve just got so much growing to do and so much learning to do, and we’re still trying to pave our way. Really, it comes down to actually having a passion for something and doing something you love, because you can’t do it for this long unless you have that. It’s a journey and we are constantly learning. We still have a long way to go. But, it’s been fun,” she says.
“So, at the moment, we’re just concentrating on refining our processes, streamlining things, looking at our product lines and seeing which are doing well and which aren’t. And then we have some new and innovative products to come.”