Retail is a tumultuous sector, particularly the fashion element. It’s certainly not the same industry it was 30 years ago.
With that in mind, we’ve put the spotlight back on independents who are using this change as a means to innovate and challenge their current business model.
It’s not easy accepting change, especially when that change includes relearning what you know offline and hitting the books to master an entirely new business online.
Continuing on from last month’s Kennedys Fashion feature, we take a look at Reads of Woollahra. From a small boutique in the 80s, Reads has grown into an iconic women’s wear retailer with a thriving online store offering contemporary fashion for the Australian woman.
This is Mary Read’s story – and oh how the times have changed.
She documents her retail journey from 1974 to today, the challenges along the way, how she made the leap online, and some stern advice for retailers such as changing your windows once a week, knowing your market, keeping your staff engaged, and her thoughts on the international high street invasion.
“We can be threatened by it, or we can look at it as an opportunity to lift our game – change our pace, review our work practices, brand and store and find a new niche that you can develop to accommodate the impact of these stores on your business.”
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
HOW IT BEGAN
My fashion career started as a part time retail job in my first year out of high school. It was 1974; I was in my first year at Randwick TAFE studying Interior design. I ended up spending more time at one of Sydney’s iconic fashion boutiques, Frangipani, owned by Frances Scheimann, the daughter of the eponymous Australian bikini icon, Paula Stafford. I was 19.
My frustration with study led me to challenge the system and its ideas so after my first year, I left TAFE and I also moved out of home to live with friends. I went into full time work at Frangipani which stocked some of Australia’s leading designers at the time, Prue Acton, Savvy, Just Sue, Rae Ganim to name a few, as well as some import labels. My days were spent working with customers, we also specialised in made-to-measure bikinis, reversible cotton in Liberty lawn and other wonderful textiles.
It was sometimes a very tricky exercise, 3″ bikini pant sides or 5″ underwire or halter neck, the combinations to fit every different figure were endless. I will never forget the day I sold a Medici t-shirt in every colour to a customer, all for $93.
THE RETAIL JOURNEY
Reads started in October 1976 after I spent a year studying Arts at UNSW. I did want to be in the film industry but missed out in the final call. I talked myself out of NIDA set design during my interview!
My father, a Sydney lawyer, had always wanted to be in a retail environment in some form or other but followed his family into law. I think his desire never ended and so in a way, through me, he got to be involved.
We started a small store called Reads Town & Country Wear in Spicer St, Woollahra, carrying men’s wear and riding wear. My father’s office was next to an importers office which imported Harry Hall, a riding wear range. We were horse riders so the combination worked).
It was an interesting time and I learned a lot – it was a steep learning curve though and we had days with no sales! My father and I also went to retail classes at evening college but once we had learned how to stack a shoe cupboard, we decided we had enough. Reads Town & Country continued until mid-1978 when Frangipani was for sale for $25,000 – and that was the beginning of Reads of Woollahra.
My brother and sisters helped out on weekends. We changed the colour of the walls every season, getting friends in to help paint and rushing off to Parsley Bay at 1pm on Saturdays after work. Those were the days. It was always a very hands-on business and still is today.
As a combined men’s and women’s store and it was a steep learning curve, business was very different to today’s fashion world. I remember the day we took our first $1000, the day we quit menswear, and being terrified at buying appointments. I would feel guilty if I didn’t buy a range and had to learn how to talk my way out of buying something I didn’t want from expert sale’s people. I still often feel like that.
RETAIL IN THE 80s – A PIVOTAL TIME IN AUSTRALIAN FASHION
It wasn’t until 1985, that a change came to the business and we could see the light of day and suddenly there was a business. No formal training, no really strong retail fashion industry besides David Jones, Grace Bros, The Squire Shop and Mark Foys. The boutique world was just starting to grow and more and more small businesses were opening.
There was a rise in designers and the opportunity for labels to develop, we had Jag, then DBA from Rob and Adele Palmer, Trent Nathan, Flamingo Park, Peter and Adele Weiss, Simona, and Stuart Membery brought a rush of new interest in fashion as well as the likes of Wendy Heather, Marcus Tusch, Covers by Marilyn Said and many more.
Looking through my old press clippings and advertisements for Reads, I realise that I lived through and operated a business during a pivotal time in the Australian fashion industry. There was little education or recognition of the industry in the professional way in which it is seen today. The fashion world is now supported by professional training and diplomas and degrees. I didn’t know about visual merchandising or marketing but I think I had a natural eye for this and an understanding of service. My interest in people – knowing how people tick helped with a seat-of-the-pants skill for marketing.
I think I must have had the first half price sale in Sydney – what a day we had! The consumers in that day had very little choice and Reads was part of their oyster.
I did have a time with two stores but the effort of a small business running two stores didn’t really work – it really needed to be more like 10 stores to support the infrastructure to manage a chain and for some reason or other that never excited me. I liked being on the floor, meeting outstanding women from all walks of life and working with colour, textiles and design. I think every designer should spend some time on the retail floor, it really gives you an understanding on women at large and what they need or want, how we -the end of the line before the consumer – have to make their brands work, create a market for their designs and create a cash flow for their designs.
I did have a dream to have a Bergdorf type of store in Taylor Square in the mid to late 80’s, the girls would be dressed in Bryan Ferry black dresses, there was a balcony level, spiral stairs and a lift and the staff would be perfect. With a wonderful scent swirling lightly through the store – what a wonderful store it could have been… it probably would have lasted for 5 years – Sydney would have tired of it as they did with many wonderful restaurants in those days…or maybe not?
MOVING WITH THE TIMES
I had started a CRM system in the eighties, it was all by mail and 4 times a year we would stick name labels on over 3000 envelopes- two for the opening of the Season and two for the sale season, we had a VIP program in place. In 2000,we started email marketing and reduced our magazine inserts and advertising – Australia Post also started reducing its discounts for large mailings and their barcode system was too costly to buy.
The industry has grown a lot since that day, I have seen the growth of the boutique business, the rise of vertical brand operations, the highs and lows of Oxford St, Paddington, the rise and demise of many many designers and the whole digital world emerge.
It fascinates me, I am excited by the digital age and the new creativity that it brings. I surround myself with many reports that I access online and am signed up to several newsletters that keep me up-to-date, however I don’t get to read them all well… it gives me an overview of trends and new technology. That inquisitive mind and attitude help to keep me across current trends in all aspects of my work. I am passionate about what I do and that is really important, I expect a lot from myself and my staff and this helps to achieve a level of excellence and professionalism that is really core to my business attitude.
The fashion industry is a completely professional and respected career these days. A trap in small business is that you see it as an opportunity to do something fun and earn some money, but in order to run and maintain a s successful business you need to be dedicated, educated and serious about what you are doing and take advantage of accessible industry resources, trade magazines, business groups, workshops and conferences.
For some people mentors in all areas of their business is very important, I have not had any mentors in a formal way but engage with agents and designers when I go buying, observe what is happening in the market by keeping across advertising and media.
Time is important for me and reflection. I guess a seat-of-a-pants style management worked for me, however I do consider systems, the financial market, global trends and also behavioural trends and life cycle impacts. I must admit that 2013 has been one of the most difficult years I have had to work through. It is always difficult to gauge what is happening and why these dramatic slumps or changes in the consumer market occur.
TIIMES ARE A CHANGIN
Currently I think most of us have access to anything we want, at any time, at any price and in any place so the market is very competitive. Increasing population also impacts on your business – there are more small businesses every day and as people try to seek out an income.
Australia has been bleeding money in offshore travel and an enormous amount of dollars that would have been spent in stores went offshore… do we think a high Australian dollar is good? The changing dynamics for different generation’s lifestyles and the cost of living have made the retail environment very unreliable and unstable- unpredictable to say the least – no longer, as a friend said to me recently, can you guarantee that the money you spent on Monday will be back in the bank on Friday- the movement of cash has completely changed.
With doom and gloom politics, unstable government it has been very hard to gauge future spend trends and how to structure your buying budget. We are all very lucky that no one decided to cut the string that ties us all together -it would have been a disaster in the fashion industry and many long term operators have shut their doors. An inflated property market and the thin cover of a mining boom have hidden the real scenario for many Australian businesses that have been struggling for the last few years.
Over the years I have bought from some of Australia’s top designers and some wonderful import labels including Caroline Charles from London, Adrienne Vittadini and Diana Fres as well as Sara Sturgeon from London. For many years now, the industry has suffered from growth and competition and the demise of quality but the financial depression of the last few years has seen a change in what it takes to have a successful brand – quality fabrics, good cut and good design.
The challenge of the mass market has turned the industry on its head. You can buy a t-shirt at Kmart for $5, great quality, great fit to a Prada dress from Net-a-Porter to Jimmy Choo shoes… what more could anyone want? I guess fit, service, quality and experience, and that is what I try and offer at Reads.
The last 12 months has seen a change in the shopping attitude of the bricks-and-mortar client. When you can have anything you want anytime what does the bricks and mortar client want? Clothes in season, not two months before you wear it, quality and well-cut clothing, pieces that work within their daily life and budget. The cost of living, poor political environment and the general financial turndown has had a huge impact on retail. Thank goodness for a change of government and the sunshine! However who knows exactly where it is going.
Running a small business is tough; taking risks is easy but challenging. There is a lot of thinking behind running a business that may not always be observed by those around.
Of course the whole online market has been an interesting challenge to bricks-and-mortar stores, both large and small. The latest report in Ragtrader is showing a decline in visits to many of the top online stores, a reflection of the financial times perhaps? Or just a worn out online consumer. This is the next phase of online shopping and the long term outcome will be interesting.
I started a Reads Online store two years ago with a part time staff member who had just finished a course in fashion design. Of course I thought it would be simple but the internet amoeba had us lost in its jumble. I started with one platform and then found I needed another to sync with our retail store. I bought with the expectation of a quick and energetic response and soon found that was not the way to go.
So now, after waiting for things tech to get in place, I am able to start moving forward. It was not a matter of not knowing what to do, it was more a matter of getting the tech stuff right, knowing how to use it and then implementing all the ideas and marketing plans I had in place.
As a small business you don’t always have access to the things you need to do something you want to do instantly, but with the benefit of time you are able to bring together a well-honed product.
Our site is well respected with our client based and used as a tool to support our bricks and mortar store, but not something I would recommend for every small business. It is costly, time consuming and completely different to bricks and mortar retailing and we are still working on that.
It takes time, energy, creativity, system implementation and money – and we are on the verge of a profitable online store – so we put it down as marketing costs. I don’t have a PR company, I don’t have an advertising budget, or a tech budget – I do have an SEO company, outsource our photo editing to India and employ a consultant photographer who works in season for 6 months of the year.
Online is exciting, challenging, design and system based, involves customer relationship management, design and colour, all the things I enjoy which is fortunate. It is frustrating, requires a lot of patience on all levels and has the potential to be a value add to our business. Some Australian online stores have grown steadily, such as Birdsnest, to The Iconic, fast paced and furious and financially well-backed. While others have unfortunately seen their demise, including Styletread and My Catwalk. International sites have their appeal to the Australian market, asos, Net-a-Porter and Glassons to name a few.
I have a full-time online store manager, a consultant, photographer, and a social media paid intern for one day a week. I have developed systems to integrate my bricks-and-mortar buying system to my online store so all sales are integrated.
Social media or schmedia? You have to go with it, no point fighting it and it has brought a whole new outlook for us all. It is hard to get across it all and needs time to understand. Sometimes it is best to wait until you are across it before launching into another world. Social media has its benefits, we can access so much more global information, be inspired by the creativity, and our creativity is being expanded as a result.
The use of social media in your business should be considered, measured and well-researched before you start blasting out there. Not forgetting you should also consider a well-designed brand profile, some well-resourced imagery and a message for your target market.
PLAN OF ATTACK
If you can make time, do some courses, get some industry magazine or online support and research all things relevant to your industry. Sign up to competitors newsletters, check out their branding and marketing, see where you fit in the jigsaw and make a plan- then just do it.
Ask the younger generation what they think, get their feedback on where they are looking for things and what they are thinking, as they are the new consumer market and you can’t deny this. This may be not your target market but they also influence us all in one way or another. They tell their mothers what to wear and how they should dress.
I always am critical of what I do, not in a bad way but in an inquisitive way. Why isn’t that selling, is it the wrong choice, a poorly cut garment and so on. I think our eyes all need something beautiful or appealing to see and this is a major part of my visual marketing strategy. We don’t appreciate clashing themes, colours or environment so make sure everything is easy on the eye. Make things are easy to understand by providing a pleasant atmosphere; visually it makes us want to engage with it.
Everyone has different tastes and your taste and style will appeal to a market that is similar to your taste and style. It can be taught but have you ever thought why that person is wearing it in that way? Think about how other people see things and how they live and this will take you on their path.
Understanding or imagining your customer, whether they come from your socioeconomic, style group or another, is really important. I really enjoy observing people, understanding where they come from and how they feel and this helps when working out what people want. It isn’t always successful, but takes you along their road and you can learn to walk with them.
KEEPING IN-STORE ALIVE
We change our windows once a week and they appeal to different target markets and fashion styles depending on what’s in store. It seems to me that colour, textile and cut are the major things I have in my mind when I buy and somehow that becomes a curated collection for my customers.
Of course price is a major consideration and that has changed with the different business mix in the area where my store is. Once it was a strip full of antique stores and a handful of fashion stores – the tables have turned and Reads is now in an area full of fashion with exclusive high-end designer brands.
Reads is probably the only store that has appeal to all age groups and people who need real clothes for every day, and almost every need. I have always seen my business as a local store so I’m influenced by my client’s needs. They visit regularly so large quantities per style and colour, and a small variety of choice does not work as it does in a vertical operation.
I always have too much stock, perhaps my biggest failure or at times my biggest success, Reads is a truly multi-brand boutique. It is not a business model highly used these days and I don’t think it should be recommended as a general view of a small business fashion store. It takes a lot of time buying, being tough and precise on your garment choice and knowing your market well. I don’t buy a dress for Mrs brown, but I do buy a dress for a particular style of woman.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
Any industry media is a great resource and publications online or in print are invaluable to your professional development and your business. Industry mags such as Ragtrader, Fashion Exposed and Footwear News are of great benefit to me and my staff. I try and engage my staff to think about what they are doing, to be engaged and to be present when they are in the workplace – we all have great minds, whether educated or not, so why not use them.
International online and bricks-and-mortar stores such as Uniqlo, Zara, Wheel and Barrow, H&M are always going to impact on your business and you have to take this into consideration. We can be threatened by it, or we can look at it as an opportunity to lift our game – change our pace, review our work practices, brand and store and find a new niche that you can develop to accommodate the impact of these stores on your business.
Zara came to Australia several years ago and it appeals to a large sector of the market, Uniqlo is a great brand but it has a specific line of product, is a specific brand and has a specific purpose. Remember your business does too and work towards achieving excellence in your store, improve the customer service experience, train your staff up, engage with new media and ideas – make it exciting and the rewards should hopefully come. There are cyclical movements in the market and always have been, so embrace it, use it as a challenge and move ahead.
INNOVATE OR DIE? MAYBE NOT.
I just heard recently on BBC service some interesting concepts on innovation and it seems that innovation can come at a risk. If you aren’t an innovator don’t try to be one, if you are good at what you do, then review how you do it, look at the systems that make it work, refine and record that and move ahead. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to stay competitive.
I find new customers in many ways. Over the years, many have moved to different areas or their economic status has changed and they are at a different lifecycle stages – so how do we find new customers and entice them to our business? Target your existing clients using CRM systems, use new and inexpensive marketing avenues and bring your skills up to date. Invest in training and education, step back and review what you’re doing, chat with friends, family or customers to get feedback. Not everyone can afford consultants and who said they were the experts?
For more information, visit Reads Online; readsonline.com.au
Or like them on Facebook; facebook.com/ReadsOnline