Leanne Watson – Freedom Furniture Coffs Harbour

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Leanne, how did you come to call the Coffs Coast home?

I’m from Sydney originally, but moved to Coffs Harbour over 30 years ago to take advantage of the beautiful, coastal lifestyle that only Coffs can deliver.

You’re the franchisee of Freedom Furniture, Coffs Harbour. How long have you owned the business, and what do you love most about it?

This year will mark 15 years of Freedom in Coffs Harbour. I opened the store in November, 2001. It was a real labour of love to get it up and running. The process of getting Freedom to agree on a Coffs store took two years in all.

I will never forget the moment we opened our doors. The local customers were all so excited and are still supporting us today, which is something we’re very proud of.

It’s been a personal journey for our family too, with all four of our children having worked in the store. When they went away for uni, they would return to Coffs through their university holidays and work at Freedom.

I love interacting with customers the most – it’s always a pleasure to assist them, and I have been blessed to get to know many of our customers very well over the years. I love that each day brings both new and regular faces into our store.

It must have been a challenge in the early days combining a new business with four young children?

The majority of women with children work out of necessity in today’s world. My working has afforded my children a good education. All these years on, I still recall the build-up of paperwork relating to school and sporting activities piling up unattended to! Giving myself an hour very early most mornings to exercise was when I mapped out the schedule for the day, which was helpful and necessary.

Being in the interior design space, there must be considerable attention paid to trend forecasts and planning the ranges. How is this done at Freedom?

A lot of preparation and planning is carried out through our Head Office, to keep ahead of the trends. This is communicated to us at the store, where we spend a lot of time adapting the direction to our local market, to ensure we deliver the trends that Coffs Harbour is looking for.

All of the team have a love of new products, and we struggle with not redecorating our own homes every six months! As for upcoming trends, this summer the coastal theme is strong again, with amazing textures and products.

How has the business embraced social media?

Freedom Australia saturates many social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram. Our website is great for product browsing and to see our current offers and is tailored to the local store’s product lines. We find Instagram excellent for design inspiration and to see how our customers use Freedom products in their own homes.

What proportion do online sales play in the overall sales for the franchise? And what attention is paid to getting this right from a customer standpoint?

Online sales are only a small part of the franchise, as most of our sales are generated in store and even over the phone for some of the inland regions. We are always happy to assist those customers online and over the phone who may find it difficult to come into the store. We follow up email enquiries and can offer postage and delivery on most items, which provides a full circle of service for our customers.

In the retail environment, customer service and customer loyalty go hand in hand. What are your tips for getting it right?

Customer service and loyalty is extremely important to us. We have a fantastic membership programme for our customers, that offers them great discounts straight away, as well as a cash rebate on the two-year membership fee.

Our loyalty club, coupled with expert advice and assistance from our experienced sales team, ensures that we have an ever growing return-customer base.

In my view, having loyal, passionate staff lends itself to great customer service. It has been wonderful to have had such dedicated staff since we opened, and several staff have been here for over a decade. Generally speaking, we have a dozen staff alternating over the seven days that we’re open.

In retail, I think it’s important to keep fresh and maintain a high energy level. Being able to visualise what your customer is trying to create is beneficial too.

You’ve been based in the same location since opening. How do you keep your approach to the business and its look fresh?

Personally, I remain very hands on in the store. I still get excited about new products and have a great relationship with our customers.

We stay motivated and energised by making changes within the showroom. For example, twice a year we renew the look in store, to make it fresh and dynamic. This involves repainting walls, moving furniture, replacing backdrops and introducing new furniture and homewares. Our store has a very skilled and experienced merchandiser, who really pulls this all together.

While we love change, a level of consistency is important to our customer base too. For example, we’re known for going all out for Christmas. Since our first year of opening, we’ve really embraced Christmas and the idea of festively dressing the home. Planning for this year is already in production. Our customers look forward to our display and will start calling the store in October to find out all about the Christmas range.

Is there a shared ethos regarding customer service and product knowledge across all Freedom stores? 

Yes, we all tap into the same info. Being a regional store, we keep abreast with our city stores via online individual training, and we also have in store training as well. For example, next month we’ll have an expert from Head Office spend two days with us to sharpen our knowledge.

I’m lucky in having a great relationship with the Sydney based management team, whom I find to be strong and supportive in all matters. Like all good relationships, we listen to each other.

I gather you’re just back from an exciting adventure. Can you share this experience with us?

Over the last couple of years my husband and I have embraced active holidays, and earlier this year we completed a five-week, 600 kilometre walk through the beautiful French countryside. The scenery, food and culture resulted in an experience that I will carry with me for years to come.

Last year, we took our tandem road bike to Copenhagen and cycled to Berlin. I really enjoy “packing light”. To live out of a pannier or backpack is uncomplicated and refreshing.

I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to some amazing destinations. With that said though, I am tremendously grateful to live in paradise.

What other passions would you like to share with FOCUS readers?

Until recently, I have been involved with Lifeline, and I also support Black Dog in charity events. I am currently training for the Coffs Running Festival, in which I’m hoping to complete my first half marathon.

Many thanks, Leanne.

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