Persuading people to change their behaviour, even in the name of going green, can be tricky for any business, especially a startup with a limited marketing budget.
That's what husband-and-wife team Linh Truong and Stewart Lampe discovered last October, when they launched The Soap Dispensary, a boutique-style refill store specializing in high-quality, mostly Canadian-made, eco-friendly soaps, cleaners and body-care products.
By reusing containers and refilling them at the store, customers can keep single-use, plastic packaging out of landfills, watersheds and limited recycling systems.
Although several such refill stores exist in Canada, Ms. Truong's research revealed it to be a new concept in Vancouver.
"Our challenge was how to encourage Vancouverites to change their habits, to take that extra step to save their shampoo bottle, wash it, and come to us to get it refilled," Ms. Truong says.
Three years ago, when Ms. Truong and Mr. Lampe moved from Vancouver Island to Vancouver, they noticed a gap in the market for a refill business.
"We used to live in Victoria, where there's been a soap refill store for 18 years," Ms. Truong says. "In Vancouver, we noticed some soap refilling services but they were not substantive."
The couple had target demographics among customers. "Everyone uses soap, right?" Ms. Truong says. "But because a lot of our products are unscented and free of harsh or toxic ingredients, they appeal to young families with babies, and people with allergies and skin or respiratory conditions."
As the opening date for The Soap Dispensary approached, Ms. Truong had to find a way to attract customers and let them know that they could reduce their plastic footprint.
With a marketing budget that stretched to just $1,000, Mr. Lampe took courses in Photoshop and Wordpress. Together, he and his wife designed their own logo and website.
When it came to promoting their venture, Ms. Truong turned to free social media platforms.
"On opening day, I simultaneously launched our website, blog, an e-mail campaign – and eventually spread the word through Facebook."
The blog has been used as a tool to raise awareness of new products, workshops and events at the Soap Dispensary to educate customers about refilling.
Since launching its Facebook account five months ago, The Soap Dispensary has gained more than 400 fans, is reaching an estimated 1,600 people with a single post, and has driven up to 2,800 visits to its website each month.
Capturing people's interest in sustainability issues has positioned the business solidly in the "green" market, and its online community has translated into healthy sales.
"For instance, when I promoted a new eco product called Swedish Dishcloths on Facebook, visits to the website more than tripled, then sales for this product jumped by 340 per cent in the two days following the post," Ms. Truong says.
Online fans have also been spreading awareness, with popular parenting blog Yoyomama championing the business on its blog and Facebook posts, and environmental filmmaker Grant Baldwin shooting a promotional video for the Soap Dispensary's website.
On the first day that Yoyomama posted about The Soap Dispensary, visits to its website jumped to 494 from 42 the previous day. The video has had more than 2,000 viewings, and many customers who visit the store comment on it.
Ms. Truong believes that the power of word of mouth in this digital age is "a gift" to new entrepreneurs. Despite minimal marketing spending, sales have been increasing steadily by 25 per cent a month since the store opened, and the number of customers regularly refilling has reached 500.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Jeff Kroeker is a lecturer in the accounting division at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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