Mexico is filled with beautiful beaches, incredible food, and vivacious people.
But until recently, a thriving ecommerce trade hasn’t been part of the equation.
At first glance, Raw Apothecary is a wholesome natural beauty brand started by two best friends. In reality, it’s an incredible achievement that’s defied the odds and blazed a path rarely trodden.
When Macarena Riva found herself stuck in a job she hated, she reached out to friend Andrea Sanchez hoping to spark something new.
The two women knew there was something special in their complementary skill sets: Macarena is a chemical engineer with a background in private equity, and Andrea a talented marketer with digital expertise.
In a world where Americans are all about buying, Mexicans are all about shopping. This means that the two founders spent months immersing themselves in the retail world before finally taking the plunge into online sales.
They should have failed. Instead, they increased sales by over 200% during a global pandemic.
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Latin American beauty pioneers
Andrea and Macarena realized that skincare was a saturated market in other parts of the world, but it was still a blank canvas in Latin America. They decided to strike a new path of natural skincare, which resonated with their personal preferences.
When it came to marketing, Andrea disliked how dominant skincare brands only seemed to cater to a certain age range of approximately 25-35 years old. She thought of skincare as more like toothpaste - an essential that every woman needs to be happy and healthy.
It was very important for us to be an inclusive brand, you know? Because here in LATAM, mostly all of the brands just talk to a very specific profile of maybe 25-35 woman that has a certain personality. And skincare is for everyone. Everyone has skin right? So why should we talk to just one person? Let's talk to everyone.
“At the end in marketing, you have to be a little bit more targeted. I don't know if that's a word. You have to target a segment. But we always make sure to talk to almost everyone. So it doesn't depend on your age or on your gender. It depends on what kind of skin do you have. And that's how you can choose products.
But every brand of skincare or cosmetics or hair or body should actually have the approach to talk to everyone. Because everyone needs these kind of products. It's like a toothpaste, you know? So that's why we decided to build this brand. It was also very important for us to follow all these trends that we realized were really big in the market. And to start having a very ambitious plan here in Latin America, because we realized that there wasn't a clear leader in this industry that was following these trends - the natural, the sustainability, the values, and the ethics behind the brand.”
Bustling bazaars: in person marketplaces are Mexico’s social center
In-person shopping centers are the thriving heart of Mexican culture. Traditionally bazaars are located in popular neighborhoods and packed with wares of all price ranges. Shopping is an inherently social activity, with whole families spending hours in these downtown centers.
For many reasons, it made sense that Raw Apothecary should begin in the bazaars. First off was their cultural popularity, and the high foot traffic passing through. The other reason was that eCommerce was still in its infancy. Historically, even large and successful Latin American brands had made their start in the bazaar marketplaces.
“I have a friend, she's from Germany, okay. And when we came to Mexico, she told me, ‘I feel like Mexico is like a place where everything's possible and nothing works like you're used to.’ So having that in mind entering the conversation, Mexico is still a very startup-like, people-focused country, right?”
So ecommerce was not really taking off, and retail was the key. And these local bazaars were where every single brand started. Even bigger brands, they usually start selling physically, because Mexicans really like contact with people. And they like to sort of make it a weekend activity.
“So you take your entire family to these tiny bazaars, and they're usually - I mean, we went to like a lot, like 20 of them, like different types of bazaars. But they're usually sort of in downtown, in like a nice neighborhood with a lot of restaurants and things to do around. And you have sort of like a building and it's filled with little booths with companies that sell skincare, or shoes, and a lot of fashion is sold there. And even things like house things, or like flowers, whatever.
So in those local markets, the whole idea is to spend a day there. So families come there, or friends come there, and they have a coffee and they walk around and then they walk around the neighborhood. And that is, ideally like right now obviously that's not working because COVID. But as soon as COVID ends, that's going to be still in fashion.”
Retail sales with a side of acting
When the women first set up shop in various bazaars, they had very few products on the table wrapped in minimalist packaging. Some shoppers assumed it was medicine or aromatherapy. To help break the ice, Macarena recounted how Andrea would pretend to be a customer to generate interest among other bazaar shoppers.
This lighthearted play acting served as a valuable tool that drew the eyes of other shoppers, and educated bystanders on the fact that the products were skincare items. They also gained valuable insight about the types of questions shoppers had, which helped to inform the content on their website.
“So we only have three products. Okay. Which we obviously understood that three products was not enough. People were like, do you just have these three products? We had an entire table, and we just like filled it with flowers and things, because we have three.”
But what we did, this is like, truly very funny. To grab people's attention and make it feel like it was a very popular booth, Andi would go on the other side of the table and I would be on this side. And she would be like, ‘wow, this product seems so interesting. What are they?’ And I will start explaining, like they’re skincare products and things. And people would be crossing by, and they would be like, oh, they’re skincare products.
“You know what you were saying about the education? We sort of like grabbed it a little bit at the beginning, and we felt like no one knows what these products are. So that night we were laughing really hard. And then it was very awkward because a lot of customers would come, and Andi would just transfer to the other side of the booth and be like, I'll charge you!”
Going all in on entrepreneurship
In Mexico, there’s a phrase that roughly translates to going “all in” on an idea. Macarena explained that while Raw Apothecary started as a side hustle, their instincts soon told them that they should put 100% of their efforts into growing the business. That meant quitting their jobs and devoting themselves to furthering the brand.
“At the beginning, we thought we were only going to sell in bazaars for like Christmas, and we'll have some extra money for gifts or vacation or whatever, right. So we saw there was actually a market. And then we sat down in January and we said, I think we might have something here. There's a lot of people asking us, do you guys have an Instagram account? Where can we buy from you?
And at that moment, we made a lot of mistakes. But we decided that ecommerce was our road. Because also we were working another job, we had other jobs. So we were working like from Monday to Friday, and then the entire weekend we were working on our bazaars and selling physically.”
So we were about to lose our minds, as this has the ability to grow bigger. So let's just try this thing. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Let's just like, how we say in Mexico, this phrase is going to translate terribly in English, but like put the entire meat in the grill, you know. Just like, put everything on the grill.
Navigating a culture of mistrust
In America, we buy anything anywhere without a second thought. In Mexico, it’s different. A history of scams and missing purchases have eroded trust in online shopping, and only about two of every ten people have a credit card. That’s why selling in person at the shopping bazaars was key.
Over the holidays, Macarena and Andrea bit off more than they could chew. Conscious of the fact that customers might assume the worst, they took matters into their own hands and made a point to contact every single client and let them know their order was on the way.
In the US when you order something and maybe it's late, you know it’s going to arrive, right? You say oh, the company is delivering it late. But you're not thinking, I just got robbed. That's not something you think of off the top of your head. And in Mexico, it’s the first thing people are thinking. So if you're three days late, they're going to write to you: ‘Is my package going to arrive? Did you just steal my money?’
“You know. We actually had this horrible, horrible experience for our first - in Mexico, there's this thing called El Buen Fin that’s sort of like the Black Friday of Mexico. So it's like before Christmas and you have a lot of discounts and whatever. And we decided to do this like very aggressive promotion. And we didn't have the operational ability to actually deliver those packages on time. It was just impossible. We were three employees and it was insane. And we were about a month late. And this created - we actually thought it was the end of our brand.
And I think it's related to your question, because it's about these mistakes that you cannot make here, right. So people are already mistrusting you. But actually, we had to call people. Andi and I didn't shower for like four days. Just calling people personally and being like, ‘Hi. My name is Macarena. I own this brand, and this is a very new brand. And I'm sorry. And we have your product here, and we're trying to deliver it.”
The pandemic transformation
When the pandemic hit, suspicious Mexican shoppers were forced to dramatically change their ways. The busy bazaars were temporarily closed, and shopping online became a necessity. The two founders made a point to channel their empathy for stressed out citizens into helpful, mood-boosting content and special promotional offers.
The commitment to helping others went far beyond fleeting discounts. The women also organized a thoughtful “We Care” project over the holidays, allowing people to nominate friends and loved ones who needed an extra special care package pick-me-up.
Overall I think that when the pandemic started, people started gaining, actually trusting in eCommerce. Because that was the only way to shop. So they said I don’t have a choice, I need to shop online. And that was very helpful for us.
“Also, I think people started taking more care of themselves. So with skincare it was an industry that it didn't have a rough patch during the pandemic. But also I think that from our side, the communication was key. Because we were talking a lot about - not talking. We were trying to create this empathy about the people that couldn't go out, that were having a rough time. Maybe some of them, some of the people lost their jobs, or they were really anxious. They were changing physically and mentally.
And since it started, we were like, okay, don't worry. We have different promotions. We have discounts. Also let's create something new so people can feel better with themselves. They can like have a spa moment, and they can have a scrub and a mask so they can relax. And we were making not just content to sell, but also making content that was useful for that time.”
Latin American eComm is heating up
There is no doubt that Mexico’s ecommerce industry is going to explode. While many Mexicans recognize this now, Macarena and Andrea were among the first. Even pre-pandemic, the two women were stubborn in their belief that selling online would be a future norm. Today, they are excited to be among the country’s first ecommerce pioneers, with deep digital roots that were established thanks to their forward-thinking foresight.
We do have an advantage that we started a little bit earlier. Everyone told us like, ecommerce is going to take forever. It's going to be like in the next five years, 10 years. And we were very stubborn. We were like, no. This is how it's going to be. And we have seen it in other countries. And maybe it takes a little bit, but the ecosystem will grow.
“And now that the ecosystem has grown, like banker-ized people are growing. And the mistrust is kind of broken, because we didn't have another choice. Like Andi said, like you have to buy online. So like you had to buy online, it had to be broken. I think like although retail will always be strong in Mexico and social connections are just part of our culture and the way we like to shop, the way ecommerce is going to grow here, it's going to be unprecedented.
Like we're going to be very, very, very fast in that growth. And in five years, we'll be at the same level maybe the US is in three, you know. Like the gap is going to close a little bit.”
Laughing off the hard times
If anything is clear, it’s that the Mexican spirit is irrepressible. Not only is it the norm to move on from hardship, but to do so with humor and grace, ready to face the next challenge head-on. For Macarena and Andrea, the definition of resilience lies in the ability to keep a lightness of spirit in the face of adversity.
I mean for me, it's like the capability to actually adapt, but by taking all the possible things out of it, out of the situation. Not just like, okay, I accept this and I'm sad about it. No. Like, what can you get from that situation? And just move on, don't get stuck with it. Things change. I mean, pandemic, come on. When did we think that we were going to have a pandemic all over the world, it happens. Well, too bad. What can you get from it? And how can you move on without like being stuck in something?
I think Andi touches a key point. Even like whole Mexican culture, we're like very resilient but in a light way. So we laugh about the things that happen to us. And that is something we have always had. And us personally, and we see it everywhere. But it's sort of like, okay, we understand our difficulties. We understand we need to change. Let's just like laugh a little bit about our troubles, and then move on.
Not only are Macarena and Andrea moving on - they’re moving up. With a zest for all-natural products and authentic messaging, the raw materials of the women’s brand are quickly becoming something solid. With an unwavering conviction in the future of progress, the two founders have proven they are ready to take on the digital challenge and come out the other side stronger.
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