- Bathu Shoes recently opened its 30th brick-and-mortar store without any funding.
- The sneakers retailer began as an e-commerce player but has opened 24 stores since the pandemic started.
- Its founder, Theo Baloyi, says African consumers are increasingly looking for brands and stories they can resonate with.
Theo Baloyi opened 24 of his Bathu Shoes stores during a pandemic. The brand officially opened its 30th store in September at Mall Of The North in Polokwane.
And all this expansion and the shift from being an e-commerce player to occupying spaces in some of the country’s high-end malls like the Canal Walk Shopping Centre and The Pavilion in Durban.
Although he was a sneaker-head himself, which influenced his decision to move from finance to fashion, Baloyi studied his potential market at length before taking a plunge. And he realised that local consumers connect with the brands according to what they stand for.
And when Baloyi established Bathu Shoes five years ago, the dynamics were shifting as Africans started embracing home-grown brands more.
“It was just a matter of time before that demand moved landlords and mall owners to say, ‘we love foreign brands, but we need a fair share of our own stories to play a role in this economy,'” said Baloyi.
Baloyi said the mall owners are now more open to giving space to local brands because many before him have proven that local fashion can be as good as foreign.
To compete with foreign brands, Baloyi perfected his product over 18 months. By the time Bathu Shoes launched, he had developed 21 samples. He was only happy to bring the final product to the market after the 21st version.
It also helped that when Bathu Shoes started, social media and influencer marketing were becoming big advocates for brands outside of the developed world.
The rise of home-grown luxury and fashion brands
Bathu Shoes opened most of its stores in the middle of a pandemic that forced local giants like Edcon to take their last breath. The brand is also growing amid stiff competition from international fast-fashion brands like Zara and H&M in SA and the return of standalone Mango and GAP stores.
Baloyi reckons that Bathu Shoes soared in the worst of times because of its business approach. Without any funders potentially telling him it was not the best time to expand, Baloyi was able to move swiftly and open a branch whenever he saw an opportunity.
And that paid off as the more stores he opened, the more his brand became a talking point.
In the past year, the business grew its revenue by 80% year-on-year. It also registered about 150 000 visits per month to its online store from customers sitting in other countries, including Kenya, the Middle East, the US and Australia.
Baloyi thinks the other biggest contributor to Bathu’s growth is how African brands resonate with consumers in the continent now and African expats abroad.
“I think for the longest time, the African consumer has been longing for African products. Products and services that they [can] really resonate with [and] that are close to their hearts. And I think businesses like Bathu speak to that,” said Baloyi.
Opening 30 stores without funding
Baloyi, an accountant who previously worked for PwC, observed how some of the accounting firm’s clients started with very little and sold minimal equity to grow. But he wanted to test if he could build a business without owing anyone.
“When I started my business, I really started thinking about whether it is possible to start a business with no funding, bootstrap it and growing it from there because I’d never seen a balance sheet like that in my accounting background. So, it started as a passion project to see if I could really do that,” said Baloyi.
It helped that during his five years at PwC, Baloyi had built a big enough savings pot to keep the production of his first line of sneakers going and an online store running. Whatever profit he made, he reinvested it in the business and started rolling out brick-and-mortar stores.
“I really didn’t want it to be a township business that starts and ends there. I had a global vision as to how to corporatise my business,” he said.
Baloyi knew that it was one thing to have a brand and a completely different story to build a commercially scalable business from that.
So, he had a back office from the start. That discipline helped him start paying himself a salary from the business within seven months of starting Bathu Shoes.
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