Dream Believe Create is an online magazine for women entrepreneurs, creatives and change-makers. It’s for women who want to start sustainable, mission-driven businesses or creative practices without sacrificing their principles and avoiding the profit-at-any-cost / business-as-usual model that we’re all so tired of.

Dolly + Bella: A Lesson in How to Build a Successful Online Fashion Brand

Dolly + Bella: A Lesson in How to Build a Successful Online Fashion Brand

Fashion retail is a complex, multifaceted and fast-moving industry. Right now it’s undergoing a seismic shift with new technologies, increasingly exacting customers and concerns about the environment combining to exert unprecedented pressures.

Retailers who have failed to move with the times are struggling to maintain viability, and traditional bricks and mortar stores and the once ubiquitous shopping malls are closing in record numbers.

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However, these conditions also present real opportunities for smaller, independent fashion players, those who are bringing more original, start-up style thinking to the sector.

To succeed however, they must be highly innovative, environmentally responsible, tech-savvy and obsessive about customer satisfaction. And online, obviously!

Caitriona Prendergast is the owner of independent online store Dolly & Bella, and she epitomises what’s needed to succeed in today’s rapidly changing industry.

Although Caitriona had always been drawn to fashion and loved the part-time retail job of her student days, it wasn’t where she started her career. Instead, after a short stint in the beauty industry and as a journalist, Caitriona settled into an HR role.

And that’s where she stayed for the next decade. It wasn’t until the birth of her daughter six years ago that she realised things needed to change. Her HR job lacked flexibility and with a young child at home, the two hour daily commute was taking its toll. 

“Something had to change, and I realised that I was the only person who could make that change. It was down to me.”

Dormant dreams of her own fashion business began to re-emerge, eventually coalescing into the concept that became Dolly & Bella, an online store stocking unique women’s clothing, accessories, and shoes.

Quietly, Caitriona set about researching the fashion industry, building a website and reaching out to suppliers. Instinctively, she knew it was essential to protect her business dreams and not tell too many people about her plans at this early stage. 

“I’d decided I was just going to do it and I didn’t want to hear about all the roadblocks and obstacles from people who meant well.

As a self-described natural worrier, Caitriona is nowadays somewhat astonished by her early confidence. Her ‘now or never’ moment came just three months after launching the website. It was clear that the fledgling business needed her full-time attention, and she decided to leave her long-standing HR career behind to focus on Dolly & Bella.

It was, she says, a decision made in complete naivety of what lay ahead, but it’s a decision that has paid off. 

Skip to 2018 and Dolly & Bella has established a loyal and expanding customer base. Caitriona attributes much of this to her preoccupation with providing a highly personalised service, one that goes well beyond assisting with sizing and colours.

As a certified stylist, Caitriona includes styling advice and helps to curate separate pieces into a holistic look that speaks to each customer’s individualism.

Caitriona does this instinctively, it’s a way for her to both express her love of fashion and to delight her customers, but it’s also a winning strategy for success.

The BoF-McKinsey Global Fashion survey has identified personalisation as the number one trend for fashion retailers in 2018, and it’s something that fashion consumers everywhere are starting to seek out. Increasingly, consumers want to use their fashion choices to express their unique self-image and their values.

Staying on top of this trend and finding ways to help customers at a very individual level is key to thriving in today’s fashion retail environment.

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In this highly competitive market, brand awareness is also critical, and it’s something that Caitriona has been aware of since day one. Calling on her journalism training, she writes a popular fashion blog which has been nominated for Best Fashion Blog at the Ireland Blog Awards three years in a row.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a company founded just four short years ago, and it allows Caitriona to delve into topics she’s passionate about and that her customers and followers love to read.

Of course, Dolly & Bella also has a presence across all the major social media platforms and regularly works with other fashion bloggers and influencers. This, Caitriona says, is an essential strategy and it makes sense in a world where consumers are far more likely to trust their online idols than impersonal advertising campaigns.

A result of this increased visibility and a growing fan base was that Caitriona received an invitation to participate in The Fashion & Beauty Collective Show. Participation in the show resulted in one particular dress being shared by thousands across the internet. 

Yet another brand-enhancing opportunity was winning the Xpose Fafinder Awards 2017 for Best Online Shop. 

The publicity generated from these events has delivered significant numbers of new followers and purchasers, but Caitriona says the experiences offered far more. They were opportunities to expand her network and to learn directly from established, high profile media and fashion industry professionals.

She cites the internationally renowned stylist Gok Wan and fashion powerhouse duo Sonya Lennon and Brendan Courtney as particularly helpful.

In an industry struggling with unprecedented volatility, uncertainty and unpredictable shifts in the global economy, this desire to continually learn and adapt is crucial to developing a sustainable business.

In coming months Dolly & Bella will be showcased at The Design House and there are also plans to potentially develop a limited in-house clothing range designed by Caitriona and inspired by an in-depth knowledge of her customer’s likes and needs.

The focus on stocking unique and fashion-forward items from quality suppliers will continue, along with the long-standing commitment to providing a fantastic customer experience.

The fashion industry may be in flux, but it’s also an exciting time with lots of opportunity ahead for independent fashion retailers like Dolly & Bella who focus on their unique strengths, adapt to change and prioritise customer service.

However, Caitriona, like many successful women entrepreneurs, measures success beyond what happens in her business. Above all, living a well-rounded life and her family’s well-being are what matter most. She’s the kind of grounded person who believes in expressing gratitude daily and tries to see the positive in everything despite the challenges that running a fashion business can bring.

Caitriona shared ten tips for starting a successful online fashion store:

1.    Start because you have a love for fashion and customer service, not because of the money. In the beginning, it’s not helpful to think too much about revenue as it can displace your passion and you need to protect that. You’ll be investing a lot of time and energy, and your passion is what gets you through.

2.    Your mindset is important. Focus on what you want. Write down your goals and vision going forward. Be grateful. Gratitude is important. It makes you feel good, and it brings more good things into your life

3.    Take time to imagine and dream about the future. Catriona regularly creates vision boards to help her visualise what she wants to achieve, and she’s a big believer in thinking positively. She believes that what you put out to the universe will be rewarded, so don’t hold back, think big!

4.    In the online world you must stay on top of your social media and SEO, no matter how busy you are with other aspects of your business.

5.    Build good connections and industry contacts. Choose your suppliers carefully and be prepared for lots of research.

6.    Stay up to date with technology. It’s more than maintaining your website. You need to think about your technology across all aspects of your business.

7.    Be innovative and think about what else might interest your clients. For example, Catriona recently started Super Sister Sessions, workshops with a difference! They include make-up, hair and skincare tutorials and participants also get to create their own vision board, discuss the Law of Attraction and practice goal setting.

8.    Building a business takes time and resources, so make sure you have the headspace and energy to devote to it. Self-care is really important.

9.    Have a good support team around you. Catriona credits her partner as a huge support, as well as some great people she’s met through work. This includes a number of fashion stylists and bloggers, notably Gail Murphy of Gails Rails and brand ambassador Sarah McDermmott 

10.    Finally, remember to regularly disconnect from work and be with family and friends, or spend time doing something you love outside of your business.

Thank you to Caitriona Prendergast for being such a joy to work with! I loved every second of our interview.

If you’d like to get in touch with Caitriona, or to check out her gorgeous online fashion store {highly recommended!}, then you can do so at www.dollyandbella.com

You can also access 15% off all Dolly & Bella stock throughout October. Details are on our Special Offers page.

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