‘How I'm shaking up the retail experience’

When you sell quirky and unique goods, you need a store to match. TheSuperCool’s Kate Vandermeer talks about making retail an experience for her customers and the benefits of combining pop-up and bricks-and-mortar stores.

“We are an emporium of everyday objects, and we love to curate and collate interesting things that we find from around the globe,” Kate says of her retail business TheSuperCool.

“We have a focus on independent and small design, but we definitely do mix it up with more established brands. We began wanting to … appeal to a nomadic lifestyle … that vintage peddler idea back in kind of the early 1800s, where people would take their wares on their little peddler cycle-mobiles. And they'd come to different towns and make retail an event.

“We began doing pop-ups only, so we’ve now, at last count, done something like 30 pop-ups since we began.”

Kate and her business partner, husband David Nunez, run TheSuperCool, a retail concept based in Melbourne that earned its moniker after a very eccentric Spanish-speaking man kept telling the couple how everything in Australia was “super cool”. 

“When we first started, we would pick different spots and pop up for a period of time, and [we used] social media for people to find us before we had an online store as well,” she says.

“We began in the Melbourne Central kind of walkway when they were redoing the Emporium complex. It was a bit of a dead end and it was all exposed, and we popped up in a greenhouse and that was really successful. 

“Then we moved … into a little function room within a cafe … in East Brunswick. Since then, we’ve done a heap of collaborations. We’ve worked with markets, we’ve done lots of cafes, so we’re trying to align ourselves with food where possible.

“So that was an interesting way of going to the neighbourhood and changing up the products to suit the neighbourhood.”

Owning a business wasn’t always on Kate’s mind, but she admits that she always did have an eye for retail. 

“My background was in trends forecasting and fashion marketing and, you know, we were definitely finding people were rejecting that traditional retail model, that department store model of going on sale so regularly, and not really engaging in that ‘Hi! Hey! How’re you going?’ every time you walk in,” she says. 

“It’s a little bit impersonal. We were trying very hard to do something that would engage customers.”

With this experience under her belt, Kate says the shopping experience at TheSuperCool is very important, and is something the couple constantly strives to perfect. 

“[Customers] use online to browse and pre-buy and qualify, and follow their favourite style ambassadors, bloggers and so forth to get their idea and to pique their interest and decide for them,” says Kate. 

“[We want customers to think] ‘I do want a plant stand, and I do want this particular brand, oh, and TheSuperCool stock it, okay, great. I know they’ve got great service; I’m going to go there.’ And they come in, and they want to have someone talk to them and explain to them the merit, and [have] that further level of investigation about that plant stand.”

Using her previous forecasting experience to benefit her business, Kate has deduced that there are two distinct kinds of retail businesses.

“There’s the group who have shunned the old and the old-fashioned, and the [businesses] opened 24/7 and they’re super-available, and that is abused, and [the customers] expect discounts and [have] that sale mentality,” she explains. 

“And then there [are customers] who really like supporting local shopping … doing small independent retail, and are aware of those people’s opening hours.”

However, while she says these retail styles are quite different from one another, Kate believes there is definite scope to combine them for the benefit of the customer experience.

“We’ve done both: we’ve worked in pop-ups in shopping centres where they’re open seven days, ridiculous hours – midnight at Christmas time, etc. And then we’ve done really small markets and small pop-ups where we’re only open four days a week,” she says.

“I feel like there’s room for both: there’s definitely room for both in the greater sense of the word, but … you need to have a really engaging, easy-to-shop environment that’s not intense, and you don’t want staff that are really on people’s backs. They’ve just got to be there and be informed and be casual and be comfortable.”

It’s the creation of this environment and accessibility, on the back of the investment of time, money and research, to which Kate attributes the success of TheSuperCool.

“The mix that we have right now … is having that online experience, still doing pop-ups and going to people’s neighbourhoods and informing them what we’re about, but then also having that anchor point with a permanent store where people can come regularly when they know they need a gift, or they need to buy something, and mixing it up with really great service and great product and well-prepped staff.

“People are very savvy and they kind of expect it now. We get people coming in all the time and saying, ‘Will you price-match this brand? I saw that they had a sale online.’ We’re just so connected to knowing what’s going on and what’s out there, so [they] expect really high levels of service, but we also research really well before we go somewhere.

“I think we’re five years in, so we’ve got a little bit more experience now, but we’ve certainly got a hell of a lot more to learn.”

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