Rosie Siemer in her clothing and accessories boutique

Business Case Study: Broken Hill’s best dressed

The drought and COVID-19 forced Rosie Siemer to innovate to survive

5 May, 2021

The success of Rosie Siemer’s clothing and accessories boutique, Sitting Bull, has defied the trend towards retail consolidation and online megastores.

Siemer opened her boutique three years ago in the far western NSW town of Broken Hill, in already tough circumstances, with the region two years into a drought.

“We thought, you know, it's been a few years, surely it will break soon,” she says.

“But while it’s been better in the last 6 months, it still hasn't broken.”

Siemer was working in a clothing shop in town when she saw a gap in the market for higher quality, young men’s clothing.

“I found there was a quite a big gap in the market that we weren't servicing. We were pretty much turning customers away from this younger age range,” Siemer says.

“We have our sports stores in Broken Hill and things like that, but just normal, everyday wear that’s good quality but still affordable was hard to find.”

So Siemer struck out on her own, introducing new brands to the market that were “a little bit country, but younger” – clothes that would appeal to young men looking for something more fashionable than what was available at the local sports store or BigW.

While just a small shopfront on Argent St, Broken Hill, the store has taken advantage of the public’s growing comfort with buying clothes online and services a much wider area, establishing markets in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, as well as NSW.

This strong online presence was a lifesaver when COVID-19 hit.

“We were very fortunate that we had already established our websites just over 12 months before COVID,” she says.

“In the first couple of months of COVID, probably 90% of our income came from our online store. If we hadn’t had that, we would be talking a completely different scenario.”

To offset the loss of foot traffic to the shop (she says they were lucky to get one person a day at the height of the pandemic), Siemer also made other changes, like offering free delivery and click and collect options.

She also listened to her customers and gave them what they wanted, introducing a line of baby and children’s clothes, something she had never intended.

Siemer is ambivalent about the impact of COVID overall. While it threatened the survival of the business, it also forced her to quickly come up with new ideas that ultimately strengthened it.

“It did make us work a little bit harder, and maybe look for avenues that we weren't going towards.”

Now, Siemer says, business in Broken Hill is booming as Australians are forced to holiday domestically. “Things are looking really good at the moment,” she says.

There are additional challenges in running a business in such a remote town, freight costs being at the top of her list. Businesses like hers have to compete with giants like The Iconic, which allow customers to fill prepaid packages with several items, try them on, and return them free of charge. Most retail businesses in Broken Hill also have to pay a special allowance to their employees on top of the award wage for working in the remote region.

Siemer is grateful for the government support local businesses have received, but would like to see more subsidised training, for both business owners and their staff, in areas such as marketing and customer service. Local businesses need help with getting online, she says, building a digital presence and learning how to promote themselves. Despite running her own business, Siemer has found the time to help other Broken Hill businesses do just that, by starting a Facebook page “Our Hill is Not Broken”, to encourage people to shop locally and where businesses can advertise and connect with customers looking for particular products. “The page is going gangbusters, it’s really amazing,” she says.

Though she knows only too well that running a small business always throws up challenges, Siemer is hoping Broken Hill business can look forward to a few more normal years to make up for the last three.

“We feel like we've struggled for the last few years with the drought and COVID - it would be nice to have a good couple of years to be honest, to see what our businesses can really do.”