Long before colour television came to Australia in 1975 and well before the internet and its ever-increasing digital platforms came into existence, retailers in Cairns were faced with the same dilemma that their counterparts face today – how to attract and keep customers.
While sales and marketing platforms have changed over the years and most retailers have tried a myriad of ways to attract customers, one local retailer of over 55 years has found the secret to his shop’s success can be found in fundamental practices and principals from the past.
When Victor Mellick started his menswear shop on Abbott Street in 1963, the population of Cairns was around 30,000. Before he opened the small shop, just down the street from his current outlet, the born-and-bred local first learned the business from the ground up by working at his dad Alec’s fashion store and learning all aspects of the industry.
“I think it’s really important that retailers understand their industry first,” he says. “My best advice is to start at the beginning. Get in and do the work, start sweeping your own floors, learn your market, your clients and your products, and work your way up from there.
“When I first started there was probably about a dozen independent retailers like mine here, and we nearly all sold the same type of clothing,” he says. “I used to go to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and look at all their nice clothing stores. The contacts I made there became friends who introduced me to a lot of the labels, so I started buying clothing that was different to anyone else’s.”
He was soon selling clothing that was on par with the country’s great fashion outlets, which was well received by locals. Then, like many locals, he faced a major challenge due to the country’s pilot strike in 1989.
“People were telling me that I couldn’t survive the pilot’s strike, but I was determined to make it work,” says Victor, who flew on the Air Force Hercules aircraft to continue his buying trips down south. “I had tough times like everyone else, but I was really determined I was going to make things work.
“I always wanted to be adventurous, be different than anyone else. If I took notice of the naysayers, I would have gone broke by now.”
Not only was he making contacts and friends in the industry, something he believes is essential to success, he was constantly studying fashion trends.
“You have to really know and understand your industry and your products,” the father of three and grandfather of six says. “Years after everything got back to normal after the pilot’s strike, I noticed that the top European labels started getting popular in Australia. Thanks to my contacts I started buying European labels.”
Through his contacts, he has met many international designers, and now goes on preview and buying trips overseas.
“A lot of people think you go there and pick up clothing that’s already made, but that’s not the case at all,” says Victor, whose shop comprises about 80 per cent of European labels. “They will show me heaps and heaps of fabrics, colours and styles that can be made into clothing, and I’ve got to choose the design, the colour, the sizes. That’s not just with one label, but many. The clothing is not pre-made; they’re making them for me.”
While on these trips, he makes sure he also meets retail shop owners and independent stores to keep abreast of what’s popular and what is not.
“Relationships are very important,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to have made such good relationships with overseas companies. These big labels aren’t normally interested in selling the small amounts I buy, but they sell smaller orders to me because of the relationship we have built up. I would probably be the smallest account in the world to buy these labels.
“Of course, having good relationships with customers is very important too. My customers are more important than anyone and always come first.”
He says his customer relationships are successful because of the shop’s old-fashioned customer service he learned from his father – honest advice and helpful and knowledgeable staff who know the products inside and out.
He does not have an online component to his high-end men’s fashion boutique and says he never will.
“Most of my customers want to try on the clothing first and feel the fabric,” he says. “Every fitting is different, and there are so many differences in shirts and clothing that people want to try them on first.”
For a man who knows the men’s fashion industry and its trends so well, it’s surprising to learn that Victor has never been led by the styles in a men’s fashion magazine.
“I get magazines sent to me, but I don’t really look too closely at them,” he says. “Just because the clothing is in a glossy magazine doesn’t mean it’s going to sell. I look at what people are wearing overseas and in the capital cities and base my decisions on that.”
While he knows the retail industry is struggling, he believes retailer owners can do more to help their industry.
“Complaining doesn’t help,” says Victor, who works six days a week. “I think the retailers in this town should try selling a better product than their competitors. If you’re selling coffee, make it better than the coffee shop down the street. Give your customers something different and also make sure you really understand your product. But before you open up a coffee shop, go and work for someone else first and learn the industry.”