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Article: Our Story: Small Business Survival and COVID-19

Our Story: Small Business Survival and COVID-19

Our Story: Small Business Survival and COVID-19

Mainie founders, Denis Keeffe and Charmaine Saunders

At the beginning of 2020, our Cairns-based, Australian Aboriginal fashion venture, Mainie, was proving that a small family owned business in regional Queensland could effectively compete in the national arena.

Since our launch of the first Mainie fashion collection in Cairns in 2015, we had established extensive national sales and distribution networks and earned a reputation as a reliable supplier of ethical Aboriginal fashion products.

By the start of 2020, our first five years of hard work and determination were finally paying off for us. We were well on the way to achieving our vision to become an iconic Australian brand, recognised around the world for our luxurious, authentic and unique Aboriginal designs.   

Mainie’s fastest growing sales division was wholesale. Around 60 percent of our revenues were derived from sales to retailers in the tourism and travel sector.

Mainie was available for purchase at over 90 retail outlets across Australia in mainly tourist shopping precincts, such as airports, resorts, cultural centres and tourist attractions.

International visitors to Australia loved our products and we estimated that around 80 percent of our sales were to customers from overseas.

In addition to our wholesale division, we also operated our own retail outlet at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal and had a rapidly growing corporate uniform and gifting sales division.

Our proudest moment had come when Mainie was selected to be the exclusive supplier of Indigenous fashion products to the retail shop in the Australian Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.

However, by March 2020, all of our carefully laid plans for what would have been our most exciting year yet came to an abrupt standstill.

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the travel industry ground to a halt. Airports were closed, and resorts were shut down. Our wholesale customers closed their retail outlets. Cruise ships stopped docking in Cairns, conference events were cancelled, and the Dubai expo was postponed.

We closed the doors to our Cairns showroom and stood down our staff. It was a heartbreaking time. We had no customers, a warehouse full of unsold inventory and no back up plan.

Like many small business owners, we invested all we had financially, physically and emotionally into our business.

We had little left in reserve so when the COVID shutdown came into effect, we were faced with the very real prospect of losing everything for which we had worked so hard.

The first glimmer of hope was a call from our commercial landlords, who advised that they would suspend all rent payments for our showroom and warehouse premises until things improved. 

The next lifeline was the introduction of the Australian Government's JobKeeper scheme, which allowed us to re-employ key staff members.

We knew that if we were to survive, we had to turn our inventory holdings back into working capital.

We decided to clear excess stock from our warehouse by selling it online through our Mainie website.

We started with a modest digital marketing budget and quickly learned that our distinctively Australian ‘one size fits all’ fashion products were perfect for online selling. They literally flew out of the door.

Despite our initial reservations about spending our dwindling financial resources in untested markets during such uncertain times, we soon achieved higher than average returns on our digital marketing outlays and exceeded standard ecommerce benchmarks for ad clicks, sales conversions, multiple item orders, and returning customers. 

Our efforts were further boosted by the Queensland State Government's COVID-19 Small Business Adaptation Grant. This welcome injection of cash allowed us to increase our marketing budget and improve the quality of our content.

By the end of 2020, we were able to reopen our retail showroom in Cairns. 

As part of our plan to further expand into export markets, we also engaged an international sales and wholesale distribution agency and began our first digital marketing trials in the USA.

Armed with a sense of renewed confidence, we pushed further ahead and launched our first collection of luxurious Woolmark certified, pure Australian Merino wool scarves, featuring stunning designs by traditional Warlpiri Aboriginal women artists from Central Australia.

As we now move on into 2021, we feel truly fortunate to have made it through our worst year ever. 

Although our fight for survival is not over yet, we are optimistic that the worst has now surely passed.

We look forward to the better times that are ahead of us.

Thank you to all who have supported us.

Charmaine & Denis.

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