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Bright young things: Meet six retail superstars

Leigh Stockton talks to six young superstars, and finds that the future of New Zealand retail is in safe hands.

By Leigh Stockton | March 29, 2016 | News

Jordan Gibson, creative director of Gubb & Mackie.

Rising through the ranks

At just 24, Jordan Gibson was named creative director of heritage menswear label, Gubb & Mackie. Two years on, and the brand is going strong, with an award-winning website and ecommerce store and a flagship store which opened in Auckland’s Vulcan Lane earlier last year. The brand is owned by Crane Brothers.

You were 21 when you became brand manager of Gubb & Mackie, and then creative director at 24. Why do you think Murray Crane (who doesn’t suffer fools) trusted you to take creative control of this brand?

Looking back, it was quite a long process of nurturing with Murray, who mentored me and gradually gave me more responsibility within my role over the years. It was quite a supportive learning curve, while still giving me enough scope to feel fulfilled and also make some mistakes.

And why he chose me to take it on? As I was young at the time I think I was eager, earnest and showed creative promise, with the right tendencies for a brand with Gubb & Mackie’s heritage.

Do you think your age helps bring a younger, fresh perspective to the brand?

I think it gives a youthful and contemporary perspective, which is balanced with the brand’s history and Murray’s wealth of experience and connection to his customer base.

We can attract a broad customer base that appeals to a new shopper, while also providing time tested favourites to our longstanding clients.


Gubb & Mackie is a 67-year-old brand. How are you honouring its past?

All of our designs come from archival styles. We work with manufacturers who have been producing garments in New Zealand for decades so everything is made with traditional techniques and machinery – that gives the garments authenticity.

The store fit-out was also designed as a blend of the brand’s nautical history and our modern outlook, with subtle touches of brass, natural woods and steel but without any overt overbearing theming that dictates the context of the product.

Why is it so important to you and the brand to have a physical store and to keep the manufacturing in New Zealand?

The physical store gives the brand a home and a place to complete our vision, giving the viewer a portal into our world. It allows us to fully realise the aesthetic direction of the brand and tell a story around the product and what we intend it to be worn with, rather than it being a concession in another store or being quite static on a website. It sets the tone for outlets, such as our website, and increases awareness, driving traffic to those platforms.

Making our product in New Zealand allows us to do things the way we want to and not over-produce. We can be lean and work closely with our suppliers to oversee the production process start to finish. More so, it’s about relationships. These people play an important part in the brand.

When it comes to staff culture, customer care and the business model as a whole, what’s special about the Gubb & Mackie workplace?

The team is small and everyone that works here is passionate about the brand. That resonates in the environment and service at our store.

I’m based in the store the majority of the time so get to greet all our customers and many are on a first name basis. It’s a real pleasure for me to be able to have that much involvement, with both creating the product and working with our customers – I think that’s unique for a retail store.

What advice would you give to retail brands which are feeling and looking a bit stale?

Get in tune with your customers and what they want, work out what you need to do to reconnect with them and evaluate what your specialties are. Focus on this rather than trying to be too broad.

Look at how your customers consume product and content and see how that fits with how you present them with new information and ideas. People won’t buy the same thing over and over – at least not frequently enough to sustain a fashion retail business – so you need to challenge them with new concepts without alienating your audience.

Do you feel your passion lies in menswear retail? Or is it the fashion itself that drives you?

I like to sell things and curate that experience – every part of it – from the product, to the retail space, to the feel of the brand. Just creating the product, without interacting with the person consuming it, feels a bit disconnected to me. I have always been involved in the retail side of fashion and think this inspires my creative process. It keeps me motivated and grounded.

Jenna Todd, Young Book Retailer of the Year and store manager of Time Out Bookstore.

In the good books

It’s 8.30am, and Jenna Todd unlocks the door to independent Auckland bookstore, Time Out. She sips on her coffee as she prepares for the day ahead in her role as store manager.

If sales are a bit quieter that day, she’ll find something else to do – post reviews to the website, chat with a customer or choose a music-themed book for her Loose Reads slot on alternative radio station bFM.

She also looks after the store’s social media and sets up events, in a role that’s grown to cater to these different channels of marketing since she started in 2010. Most days can get busy, though.

“We never know exactly how much is coming each day, in terms of stock and customers, so I’m free to manage the time sensibly with the staff,” says Todd.

This eliminates any cause for bored staff – if it’s quiet, they can choose to go home or stay on and find something to do. Staff happiness is key. “If staff are happy, customers are happy,” says Todd.

The 30-year-old has plenty to be proud of. Last year, Todd won Young Book Retailer of the Year. In 2014, she won the Kobo Booksellers NZ Winter Institute Scholarship, flying to Seattle for a three-day programme for independent booksellers. That same year Time Out bookstore had its best-ever sales record. 

It’s a positive sign for independent booksellers, especially with the past decade seeing big book chains Dymocks and Borders close all its stores in New Zealand. Last year Whitcoulls saw the chapter end on its flagship store on Auckland’s Queen Street. But Time Out continues to pull the customers in.

“We are lucky, because we’re based in Mount Eden and they care about community here – the stores that do well are the independent ones,” says Todd.

Customer loyalty is important, with 80 percent of money spent by regulars. Todd uses the customer name-based loyalty system on the computers to keep track of each local’s reading.

She has three books on the go at any one time, which helps the selling process: “If I read and enjoyed the book, I can recommend it honestly. Staff favourites are our best sellers, regardless of what’s popular in the media.”

Todd would like more Buy Local initiatives rolled out for independent stores.

“Our paper bags list 10 points of how Time Out and our customers are supporting the local economy… Perhaps we’re preaching to the choir in some way, but we do get a lot of feedback from customers. ‘Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way,’ they say.”

Nick Ash, Young Retailer of the Year (Hardware) and founder of Drywall Direct.

Building opportunity

It all started with a gap in the market. The year was 2005, and an 18-year-old from Christchurch heard that there was a need for a specialist drywall supplier in the South Island.

The young man was Nick Ash and, with the help of his father, who owned an interior plastering contracting business, he set up the company Drywall Direct Wholesale. He started by importing drywall compounds, adhesives and other specialist products.

“Drywall Direct started in a space not that much bigger than a garage, and I was the sole employee,” says Ash. “It wasn’t easy. In the early days I was trying to establish supplier agreements, overseas manufacturers and a customer base. It took a lot of time.”

Eleven years have passed and the company is now settled in Riccarton, with a retail store and large warehouse. Ash makes sure the six staff know the products inside out. It’s a tight-knit team, he says.

“Knowledgeable staff are really important. It is easier though, because we’re not carrying too many items. It’s a smaller range.”

Anyone can visit the store and purchase product, but its customers are at least 95 percent tradies.

“We get a lot of customers through the store, but mostly we’re organising high volumes of the product to be delivered from our warehouse,” says Ash.

“We also sell a lot of product to some of the Mitre 10, Placemakers and Carters stores in the smaller towns around the South Island, because we have those supplier agreements in place.”

It’s little surprise that Ash was awarded Young Retailer of the Year at the Hardware Awards last year, with judges noting, “the winner has every aspect of the business nailed.”

Sales have been steady from the beginning, but Ash says it’s been interesting to see that commercial trade in the area has been really strong in the last two years, following a strong residential trade in 2013 and 2014. “Commercial property builds are really increasing in Canterbury,” he says.

Thinking back on how his young adult self grew into the successful owner-operator he is today, Ash says he would do it all again if he had to. “Being young and having your own business… yeah, it’s pretty satisfying.” 

Lucy Addis, store manager at The Warehouse Group.

Grounded in retail

Lucy Addis didn’t plan to work in retail. “To be honest I had no idea what retail was. I was always a customer,” she says.

That is until she spied an advertisement for a graduate programme with The Warehouse Group – the largest retail group in New Zealand, no less – and it piqued her interest enough for her to apply.

The Store Manager Development Programme is a structured course training young graduates into becoming store managers. This can can take up to four years. It requires commitment from graduates, but it’s also a solid career path. And it comes with a salary.

At 21 years old, Addis started with the programme and was placed straight into a team member role. She worked everywhere from the shop floor to behind the tills, which, she says, creates background knowledge of the stores and helps future store leaders to keep grounded.

Addis progressed into a team leader role, before taking over as assistant store manager, a role “with a lot more responsibility. All the floor is yours.” By the time she was promoted to store manager at the St Lukes store in West Auckland, Addis had worked at eight different locations in four years.

Working at those different stores means she’s picked up retail wisdom from store managers, young and old – “you learn the good bits from every store manager you work with” – and says it’s such a diverse business in age and backgrounds. “It’s a great network.”

Now 26, Addis runs her own ‘Red Shed’ and manages 50 team members. Of her role, she says: “I need to deliver a great shopping experience for our customers every day, lead and engage the teams, and execute and deliver the company’s plans. I also need to lead a profitable store.”

After working as store manager for a year, Addis says it’s not so much her degree (she majored in management) that shapes her leadership style but just general life skills.

“All the qualities I bring to making a positive environment in life as whole, I like to bring to the workplace.”

Staff culture, she believes, is defined by all of her behaviours. “Basically, if I respect my team I get that back. Be open and have honest communication. As a manager, you have to be consistent.”

Entering retail is a decision she doesn’t regret. “No day is ever the same. There’s always excitement. It’s fast paced and there are always challenges, which is what I thrive on. And passion is key. If you like your job, it doesn’t matter what gets thrown at you.”

Benjamin Clark, founder of Benjamin Black Goldsmiths.

Forging ahead
 

Benjamin Clark began his career as a jeweller when he was 16 with an apprenticeship at Jens Hansen – the studio which created the One Ring for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. At 26, Clark is now a master jeweller, and owner of labels Benjamin Black Goldsmiths and Black Matter.

Your business has steadily grown since its launch in 2012. Have the changes been organic, or part of a bigger plan?

It’s been a combination of strategic planning and going with the organic flow. When we first started out, we planned to be solely e-tail for a decent period of time, but we quickly discovered there was a demand for a physical space, so we changed our tack and set up the workshop and retail studio.

I think it’s important to have a plan, but at the same time be willing to adapt and take risks. The market constantly gives us clues as to how we can improve, change or build on what we do. We just need to listen to those signals.

How do you balance tradition in the industry with new ideas?

Benjamin Black Goldsmiths has very quickly built a solid reputation for custom-made, bespoke jewellery and that is what you might say is our ‘traditional’ side of the business.

We are traditional in that we hand-make all of our products in our workshop and have a studio retail space, where customers can see some of my work and talk to us about commissions. It’s all about building relationships and weaving our customers’ personalities into their one-of-a-kind pieces.

Our ecommerce capability and the introduction of Black Matter to the business has added a contemporary, fresh perspective.
 

What business support have you had in starting and growing Benjamin Black Goldsmiths?

We have had an amazing business coach, Bernie Breese, who is also a life coach, right from the outset. In fact, it was Bernie and her husband DJ who initially gave us the inspiration and support to set up the Benjamin Black studio in Nelson. This happened over a couple of drinks one evening rather than a coaching session, per se.

Bernie has stayed with us throughout. Her knowledge is so helpful, but it’s being held accountable that I really like as it ensures we get results. We have also had valuable advice and input from friends and family who have been in business before.
 

Do you think your age and perspective has contributed to the business’ success?

Blogging, digital marketing and social media have always been our main marketing channels. This style of marketing is an intrinsic part of my generation’s culture so I definitely think this has influenced our strategy.

We’re not afraid to think outside the square, try new things and make mistakes. I’m also very conscious of the fact that I have a lot to learn – I’m by no means an expert in business – so I’m always accepting of advice and input from credible sources.

What wisdom and skills can young retailers bring to the industry?

Young retailers have a wealth of knowledge and experience in digital marketing and social media. It’s not necessarily from a business perspective (at least in my case), but an understanding of how it works is generally there.

This is an incredible advantage, and if utilised in conjunction with a carefully considered plan and specialist guidance from, let’s say, a PR or digital marketing company, it can be incredibly powerful.
 

What’s special about your workplace and the staff?
 

We have an energetic, creative workplace which is always flowing with conversation and ideas. We are very different personalities with different strengths, but we find common ground in our love of innovation, respect for each other and high ethical standards.

We are passionate about New Zealand and supporting our local economy, which is why we choose not to outsource our manufacturing to somewhere like Asia, for example, but to make everything here in Nelson, in our workshop. Even with our fashion brand Black Matter, which is a more widely accessible retail price point, we have made a conscious decision for the product to be New Zealand made.

The profit margins may not be as high, but at the end of the day, that’s not the primary reason why we’re doing this.


How can retailers young and old help each other improve New Zealand retail as a whole?

I think we can learn from each other. Older retailers have strengths and skills that we too can learn from, such as the value of developing strong personal relationships with your customers. Relationships are everything in retail. Oftentimes younger retailers don’t possess a natural ability to talk to people. Personally, this is an area I constantly need to work on.
 

It would be cool to see an open, fluid exchange of ideas, advice and support between young and old retailers. I love talking to more experienced retailers about their learnings. Everyone has a unique story and we can learn from each other.

What does the future hold for Benjamin Black Goldsmiths?

We have exciting plans this year! Particularly with Black Matter, our fashion label. We tested the market and found there is a strong demand for fashion jewellery that is made by artisan jewellers right here in New Zealand. The Nautical Collection, by Black Matter, has literally flown off the shelves.

We will be taking several Black Matter collections to the wholesale market within the next few months and we already have people requesting products, which is just awesome. We would love to hear from retailers who are interested in stocking Black Matter.

Benjamin Black Goldsmiths will continue to develop. I am taking on another jeweller soon which will give me more freedom to do the type of work I love, such as commissioned jewellery designs and custom-made watches.

Jess Pulham, joint winner of National Retail Professional of the Year and sales assistant at Carvin Streetwear.

A study in service

A small retail store in a small town often relies on the love of its community to get by. In the case of Carvin Streetwear, its friendly, skilled staff and well-stocked merchandise have captured the hearts of its locals in the Southland town of Gore.

The store hit New Zealand retail headlines last year, when its manager Jess Pulham was awarded the prize for National Retail Professional of the Year, a joint win with Resene’s Bekah Brown.

The 24-year-old joined Carvin after coming from Australia to visit her sister in Gore just over three years ago. She started out as floor staff before owner Chanelle Purser signed her up to study retail management through Service IQ. Pulham has recently finished her National Certificate in Retail (Level 4).

Purser says younger retailers bring fresh skills to the industry. “They embrace all the new technology, and all the different social media avenues. We have the ability to show enthusiastic young people the potential of what they can achieve.”

Both Purser and Pulham put a lot of emphasis on customer focus when training new staff. As Pulham puts it, staff are the face of the business. Hiring new staff is taken very seriously as their effect, in such a small team, can be significant.

Selling all comes down to your personality, Pulham says. “I like to be an honest seller – there’s nothing worse than knowing it looks bad and a sales assistant is trying to sell it to you. You want customers to trust you.”

This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 742 February / March 2016

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