A new wave of artisans: From factory to high street

Oroton is just the latest Australian retailer to go into receivership. With many more struggling to make money, Christmas and New Years will see more close. If you can’t make good money in retail over this period, then you just can’t make money. But retail isn’t dead. There’s a whole new wave of artisans coming out of the factory and into the high street. You’ll notice them as they offer outstanding shopping experiences.

Retail began with artisans working and selling from their ‘shop’. Bakers baked at the back and sold from the front of the shop. They still do. Butchers and candlesticks makers too. With the increase in inner city and suburban ‘shop tops’ across Australia, it’s a given that new retail stores will be opening in new buildings. The key thing about these stores is that most will be independently owned and a high proportion will be first time retailers.

A friend of mine has a coffee shop. It’s five years old today. After five years of hard work she’s been able to save for a deposit on a new two-bedroom unit. It’s a beautiful unit on a main thoroughfare with very large retail spaces below. She moved in a month ago and recently one of the retail spaces opened as The Wood Room. As you drive past on the main street it’s hard not to be impressed by the store design and the furniture on display. Especially impressive is the 5.5m long dining table on display down the street frontage of the store that can sit twenty people for Christmas dinner.

I love retail and I love talking to people who own retail stores. We’re also in the market for some furniture so we were naturally attracted to the store. In the US, owners of car dealerships remind their sales staff that “customers don’t come into our car lot to get outta the rain”. If you’ve got an item to buy in your mindset, you’re hyper sensitised to that item at retail stores and online. You’ll see that item everywhere and you’re drawn to stores that sell those items.

Six years ago, Simon and his wife Kate bought a wooden table. It was $8,000 worth of table. Within months the table’s surface had degraded and the manufacturer said “that’s normal, no refund for you, sir and madam”. Sadly, this story is common across furniture retailing. One of my businesses just spent $25,000 on office furniture. The colours specified were not the colours delivered, but according to the supplier “the colourways are within tolerance”. There’s no structured recourse in the industry other than Consumer Affairs Victoria. Back to Simon and his wife.

Their bad experience was a catalyst to build a high quality, bespoke design, durable oak furniture business. They researched and developed lacquers they believed were more durable than any on the market, then set about manufacturing the furniture in a factory located in a light industrial area. Having sold many hundreds of pieces via their website and word of mouth, they looked at going into wholesale to expand the business. If they expanded via wholesale their new retail customer’s margin and terms meant that The Wood Room would have that “growth double whammy” of less cash margin and long payment terms to fund. So, they decided to give the factory workshop a shop front. Just like a baker.

I don’t know who designed the store but it is beautiful. Simon now works front of house and his knowledge and passion are evident. So are the callouses on his hands. These aren’t cheap items, they are hand crafted by artisans and cost a lot of money. But they are beautifully made, designed, displayed and sold. I wish them a happy and prosperous New Year. They, and their now 12 staff, deserve it.

If you’re an artisan and work out of a factory with a website, now is a good time to expand into retail. Just one, large, well run retail store can double your business in a year.

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