By Dylan Beach
Neil Ritchie travelled the world as a professional water skiier for 15 years chasing the dream throughout international tours. Sponsored by Rip Curl when he was 14, he later moved to Wavelength wetsuits to develop their waterski range and open retail doors in the US. With great industry sponsors and knowledge he evolved to not only a skier, but a coach and a salesperson. After buying his first ski/snow store in 1993 Neil quickly moved towards surf clothing and slowly built the business into multiple bricks and mortar stores as well as online retail. We asked Neil a few questions to find out more about the transition, his businesses and to pick his brain about some advice.
For those that don’t know, can you explain your businesses a little bit?
I run 4 retail stores and 2 online stores under different brand names, Auski Melbourne located in Hardware lane in the CBD with 3 floors of retail, storage and offices. Wayne Ritchie’s Shepparton and Wayne Ritchie’s Albury, roughly 550 sqm. and 650 sqm., a crossover between surf/waterskiing/wakeboarding/snow. The 4th store is Wolfnco, primarily surf clothing on the main street of Albury.
The two online stores are based around snow and water products, auski.com.au and snow2water.com.au. We haven’t placed any time into the snow2water site and intend to start pushing in May next year.
You work heavily in the digital space. How did that transition come from running core ski and snow stores into building online channels? How was that shift into the Omni channel for the business?
The first website we started back in 1998, at that time I had a young University Graduate who was an exceptional coder working in the Albury store, he had a passion for the snow and I am always keen to try anything new. Just as we started to get traction we lost the rights to run the website that was trading under a franchise business name at that time. I had to wait another two or three years to get the next site built under the Auski banner. We have been able to learn along the way and now have a solid and profitable business and have several new projects underway
What about your staff, can you explain your key staff dynamic and the roles they play?
The company is fortunate to have outstanding staff who stay with the company long term, our managers are great and take ownership of their store or the department where they work.
We have roughly 65 staff in the team including casuals, administration and the web team; the dynamics are interesting to say the least. We break a lot of customer service rules and try to balance technical specialists who are not necessarily customer focused with staff that excel at understanding the customer and are willing to go the extra mile. Allowing each staff member to focus on what they are great at individually has been a big improvement.
There would be a few retailers reading this, who if they haven’t already are exploring developing an online store. If you were to give them a few tips you’ve learnt on your way in creating a successful Omni channel, what would they be?
- Get started.
- Keep it simple.
- Use one of the free platforms currently available, they leap ahead every 6 months. These platforms have modules that we paid over $10,000 for a few years ago just to have them coded, they are now free or available to purchase and installed at a few hundred dollars.
- Don’t spend a lot of money, agencies have been overpaid in this country 10 fold, shop around or go offshore, it’s not hard. Don’t have extra code written, keep it simple.
- Know why you are building your site. A website for a small store should exist to give information to your customer and the thousands of customers who don’t know who you are. You need to look professional so have a professional looking landing page. Have your Instagram feed on the home page, Google map link, parking, build your landing page to tell your story.
- The reason why most small websites fail is the time it takes to upload products and keep the site up to date. Easy fix, don’t try to upload your entire catalogue. Focus on key areas that you do well or…. only upload products that you can link to Instagram! Have these items available for a short time and move to the next. You won’t make money but you will have entered to online space and will be learning how to operate an online store.
- You don’t have to be on Amazon cloud, unless you want to waste a heap of money, there are competent hosts in this country, keep it simple!
Some of the key points that were picked up at the Industry Roundtable the other week was showcasing the authenticity of our industry and promoting multi-sensory stimulation in store. How do you think you touch on those points through your stores? Can you think of areas you think you can take it further?
The area we need to improve the most, it is critical and is what separates the great stores from the average. We have been improving the look and layout of the stores but have lost the connection with the customer. Our images need to be local and authentic; we need more display items that customers can actually touch. I have always thought of our stores of helping people enjoy their next holiday, I have to take that further, the smell, the culture, everything in the store has to inspire the customer.
Snow is easy, our stores are full of products that customers can pick up and feel, the store is full of stimulation; surf is harder for us being inland but also being authentic. Within the next few months our displays will be going back to surf, surf boards, steamers, anything surf, we won’t be selling these items but having them for display purposes only. If it works great, if it doesn’t we will try something else and keep trying until we get it right.
We also had a presentation on the new age of consumerism, with most people coming out of the roundtable thinking about the need to accept and adopt new technology. How do you see tech and innovation playing a part in your business into the future?
We use all the basics in the city store, our customers are well educated and know their gear, they will walk in requesting a jacket by brand, colour and size, our staff need to know quickly if it is in stock and where it is. We have iPads at each counter plus a large touch screen TV that is connected live to our website, our staff can find an item quick if required and show the picture.
In the short term I cant see our customers demanding much more, whether it is surf or snow, our customers are looking for an experience, authenticity is what they are looking for, not being pinged with the latest special when they walk past the store or being bombarded with emails with another sale.
We need to be aware of any new trends and the latest technology but being authentic is what I believe customers are looking for right now and I cant see that changing for sometime.
There has been so much talk of Amazon entering into Australia. What’s your take on it all in relation to the snow & ski industries and independent retailers?
The snow industry has been competing with Amazon and a multitude of overseas online sellers who dump products in Australia for many years, having Amazon in Australia will make zero difference to snow. Surf is no different unless the suppliers allow their products to be discounted. If the playing field is even then every independent retailer will be fine.
Looking into the next phase what are you striving towards, and what’s coming up over the horizon?
We need to learn and work faster, we are still well short of the best independent retailers in our group and I can see huge gaps in what we are doing. The snow industry bottomed out 3 years ago and I believe that surf has just turned and growth is ahead for the better retailers. I want to be part of this and our team is ready to open new stores if we can get the right locations.
My snow store is very different, we need to remain relevant to our customers who are sitting at their work desks watching videos during their lunch breaks and reading blogs on their phones on their way to work, we have to be part of this and creating content is important, relevant content and we are well advanced in this area.