This is Mary Read’s story – 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?
TIMES 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 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. I have developed systems to integrate my bricks-and-mortar buying system to my online store so all sales are integrated.
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.