SOURCE caught up with Neil Slinger at Melon Optics, the custom sunglasses and goggles brand, to see how business was getting on despite the HQ team being locked down in different corners of the globe. Neil tells of their ability to pivot easily to cater to different market segments thanks to their small size.
How are you strategising to ensure you’re in the best place for recovery?
Creating a lean, mean machine basically. We have tried to cut off any excess flab in the business, focusing on the necessary and removing what just added extra costs. We are small brand with some external contracted jobs which we decided to bring back in house, but it did mean that we all had to try our hand at taking on customer service roles too, and doing things which we would not normally. As we have steadied the ship, we will look back to strengthening such areas internally with designated team members.
Also we have been focusing on what we do well, and where potential growth is – this has meant during spring and summer, a focus on our web store and the MTB market which is exploding both off the back of COVID-19 and in response to our latest product palette.
Just how has your business been affected by the lockdown – supply, manufacturing, sales and staffing.
Staffing-wise as noted above we needed to make changes to become as lean as we could without losing any internal team members (so cutting external contracted staff). Of course a couple of us had to be furloughed which made things a bit tricky but we weathered the storm.
The nature of Melon is that we are always on the move working from somewhere else, and when the isolations came into place it happened that I was in Bali, James in Portugal and Ash in the UK – so all split up – luckily being used to remote working, we didn’t have too many issues with it.
Manufacturing and supply – at first we were worried about production of our goggles in the China facility, but after a couple of quiet weeks they were back to normal and were hardly any delays. Our new Alleycat sunglasses are made in Italy and there we saw the biggest impact on supply – especially as the factory is in the northern part, near Milan, which was hit hardest. They were closed for around a month and Zeiss also had a slow down, so we had some phases where we were sold out, but we managed to bridge the gap offering the products on a pre-order basis.
Sales obviously saw a quiet period in March and some of April as most stores were closed around Europe – as soon as they opened again we could get back to getting things working for spring/summer. Online we never saw a slow down, in fact we saw a significant rise, I guess due to myriad of factors such as more internet surfing, stores being closed, increased interest in bikes, sports, etc.
How much do you expect business to be hit in Q1, Q2 and Q3?
We for sure saw a hit in the early part of Q1, however due to our growth in the bike segment with our goggles and new Alleycat sunglasses we have been able to make that up and have two strong months in April and May. We are hoping we can continue the success with our retail partners now. There seems to be no let up in bike, and now the surf/lifestyle stores are getting in touch to stock up on regular sunglasses – so I think with people staying home for the summer there will be a lot of people hitting the outdoors!
How has your D2C channel performed over the COVID-19 lockdown?
It’s a strong part of our business anyway, it’s where we started really, and we have only seen it grow in the last couple of months. We put it down to a mix of factors – the increased time spent online by consumers, increased interest in bike sport and other outdoor pursuits, a lack of online marketing presence from big brands which has opened the doors for smaller players like us due to their inflexibility in times like these.
Which products have performed well?
Anything bike-oriented basically. It’s all been off the back of our new bike focused sunglass model the Alleycat, which started well since its release in December and has just blown all expectations out of the water. This of course brings with it added attention to our bike goggles, and of course our regular sunglasses range which has been doing really well too.
Of course snow just dropped off a cliff come March, which is totally understandable.
How have you been working with retailers taking delivery of SS20 orders?
We don’t work on too heavy a pre-order setup as other brands, thanks to our NOS style of stocking and our own strong online platform, we are able to serve our retailers with adhoc pre-orders – something which I think is greatly appreciated in this time. They want it, we can get it to them.
Can you talk us through the financial ways you’re supporting retailers.
Of course when it first hit I think everyone was in a state of panic, worst was I had just sent out reminders to some accounts regarding some open invoices, then the lockdowns started to come in place – couldn’t have been worse timing. Of course we have done some split payments on larger orders, and have been as flexible as possible – but one cannot forget that as a small brand cash flow is vital – a big hole can break our neck quite fast. We have some great partnerships and we are really grateful for those stores who have been balancing up as soon as they could.
This summer we will look at lots of no-risk product placements in store, mainly in the bike segment as it’s new products and new partners and of course we want our foot in the door. One good example is our custom sunglasses corner in X-Double in Innsbruck – they hold stock and pay monthly for the sunglasses they put together for the customers in store, our first custom design partner, and it works really well.
Has your marketing department done anything special for your customers over the lockdown?
This period has been one of focusing on customer service. James, Ash and I have been doing the CS work, so fully hands on and we think the customers have really appreciated being in touch with us directly – rare for a brand these days. We also did some video Q+A from our customers on Instagram and were able to talk to them personally about what’s happening at Melon – pretty fun with us spread around the globe.
A lot of this period has been spent on getting video and image content dialed and out there into the market, to help support the brand and keep us in the customer’s faces and minds.
Any positive thoughts/analogies for boardsports’ way out of lockdown and recovery?
With myself being based most of the year in Bali, all I can say is support local communities. So many people will be staying home this summer so support those coastal areas with a frothing community of surfers – they will pay it back with brand support for sure. We will be looking to run a couple of local Canggu area surf events this season, not to get lots of tourists to come along (there are no tourists here now), but to support the local community and get a positive vibe flowing somewhere which is now the victim of massive (I am talking over 50%) unemployment.
If you can travel, and you have time for it, then I urge you surfers (why am I doing this, I should want the waves to myself) then please try to travel to far flung developing countries – like Indonesia, Philippines, Central America etc – I cannot put into words how big the impact of COVID-19 has been on Bali, which despite having next to no deaths and very low infection numbers, is now on the brink of economic collapse and tens of thousands are borderline suffering hunger/ in poverty. There are many charity operations that have started up which we are all supporting, but the best support is to come surf here, spend some money and make the people feel like they are earning a living and are not just a charity case.
I appreciate not everyone can or will want to do that in this time, but I can assure you waves are gonna be pumping and pretty much empty.
What does the ‘New Normal’ look like for your customers?
It looks like a shed load are going biking…many who have never biked before. Not negative for us, but I am stoked that people are getting outside and getting vitamin D and fresh air. Time to stop being unhealthy and overweight, time to spread this message that being active is the best defense against these things – then it shouldn’t happen again. Lets go ride, whatever it is you are on!