Women's Business

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2002

New Zealand entrepreneur offers organic feminine products to the world and finds 80 percent of her market in Japan.

by By Debbi Gardiner

MENSTRUATION MIGHT BE AN awkward topic for conference rooms. Most men in business suits look squeamish at the mere mention of it. But last July Helen MacDonald, a savvy New Zealand businesswoman, formed an online store selling certified organic feminine products. And thanks to Japanese women, already 80 percent of her market, FemCare is a hit. After just three months the company was profitable.

"Japanese women like organic, like buying online and also seem better versed than New Zealand and Australian women on the links between bleached tampons and health risks such as cervical cancer and toxic shock syndrome," MacDonald says. "They are a great market."

Now, after one year in business, MacDonald and her partner are ready to take FemCare to the next level: Four directors have come on board to help FemCare find funding and market the company to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. "It's incredibly rewarding," she beams.

MacDonald launched FemCare partly because of two cervical cancer scares of her own. The more she researched the subject, the more she found information pointing to health risks related to chlorine-bleached feminine products -- and the more turned off she became over the way mainstream sanitary-product companies deal with menstruation.

"The whole period thing is still very taboo," she says. "Commercials can be belittling. FemCare gives women an environmentally sound option to mainstream sanitary products while educating them on health risks."

FemCare's organic goods, therefore, have a menstrual theme: PMS oils and assorted packs of certified organic sanitary pads and tampons. The FemCare site also links to sites like MOM (the Museum of Menstruation), which talks about the history of marketing tampons. The products come from Natracare, a UK manufacturer. Natracare products are sold in several New Zealand and Australian shops but until MacDonald came along no one was distributing in Asia.

Originally MacDonald meant to sell only to New Zealand and Australian women. But even after Women's Day, a popular women's magazine, ran FemCare products on their shopping page, New Zealand customers were still lagging. And Australia's customers weren't even worth mentioning, MacDonald says. "Like any other New Zealand dot-com I don't have a chance unless I change the domain name to www.femcare.com.au," she says.

MacDonald has never been to Japan. Nor has she been to Asia. In fact until a year ago the only contact she had with Japanese people was with the tourists visiting her idyllic hometown, Queenstown. Even so, when she consulted Trade New Zealand, JETRO and Rachel Howie of cyberworksjapan.com, an online resource on doing business in Japan, she knew Japanese women were the right target group.

MacDonald's hunch that she needed to expand into the Japanese market was based on the size of that market as well as the generally good image that New Zealand has among the Japanese because of its beautiful natural settings. "Many Japanese have developed an affinity for New Zealand," says Maria Gray, a consultant with Trade New Zealand.

So far, FemCare has done no specific marketing. Its success in Japan is due mostly to word of mouth. Hitomi Kawamura, for instance, was one of FemCare's first Japanese customers. The former Australian resident sells shoes at a Nine West store in Hiroshima while teaching English part-time. Kawamura not only purchases FemCare goods but links the company to her personal Web site, translates emails to English for MacDonald and refers the site to her friends.

"There's an incredible loyalty there," MacDonald says of her friendship with Kawamura and other Japanese customers. (The two bonded over a shared affection for Jack Russells.) "Many write me emails and at Christmas send me cards."

MacDonald also inadvertently stumbled into a niche market where there were simply no competitors. Last October, once the orders started rolling in, MacDonald had the company Web site translated to Japanese by BTM Marketing, a New Zealand and Japanese husband and wife team working out of Auckland. However, MacDonald personally responds to customer emails.

The first thing FemCare needs to do is streamline its shipping. For instance, it would save costs if the company shipped the product in and out itself rather than go through a big Auckland organic importer. Having Natracare ship the products directly to Asia would cut the costs incurred from shipping from London to Queenstown and then onto points in Asia. There's plenty for MacDonald to learn about marketing to Japan as well. For instance, packaging is key. She's also adding a picture of Queenstown to the Japanese Web site because her clients seem to like buying from a New Zealand company. "They can trust it," she says. @

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