Although Covid was difficult in many ways, it was actually a really good opportunity for us to be able to reimagine what our retail experience could be like. What we found was that having a 100-year-old warehouse space that relied on a lot of foot traffic to make it work didn’t really necessarily sell furniture in the best way. It was harder to interact with customers and harder to develop connections with them. It was harder to personalise things as well.
IR: So, the new space is smaller than the old one?
ST: It is smaller, but seems to accommodate everything. Our old store evolved over the 10 years we were there, whereas this time, we have been able to design [the space] intentionally, and have a really nice display for all of the smaller products.
IR: Tell me more about how the rise of online shopping during Covid helped you reimagine how the space could be used.
ST: Some customers are very happy to buy online without ever really having a physical experience with the brand, but most customers, I think, still want to see and touch things, especially furniture. [Pieces] tend to be bigger purchases for a household. What we’re finding is that people might only need to visit once, and then they’re happy to complete the transaction online. So the role of the store very much becomes about building those relationships, trying to educate the customer about our values and creating a really beautiful experience for them.
IR: I understand the new store includes a dedicated area for one-on-one design consultations. Is that a new offering?
ST: We offered design consultations in our previous space, but we didn’t have an assigned area for them. When we were in lockdown, we switched to doing virtual consultations, and we still offer that, so if customers can’t come in, then we do it with them virtually, and we do home visits and things like that. But having all the materials handy, all the different finishes and things that we offer, and being able to walk through all of those options with customers just means that…Ultimately, we want the customer to absolutely love what they buy from us, that’s the best outcome for us – and environmentally as well, because then people will hang on to [their furniture], and potentially come back and get it reupholstered or refinished, so it extends the lifecycle of the product, which is really important to us.
We want to make sure the customer feels confident that they’ve made the right decision, so having an area where it’s really comfortable to sit and pull up the website, look at all the different options, create a draft order that they can take home and think about, and complete whenever they want [is really important]. In the old days, the customer would have to ring with their credit card data, or come into the store again. It was so inefficient in comparison, and people just don’t have time.
IR: When did Koskela first launch an online store?
ST: We’ve sort of always had one, but it was with limited product ranges. The first lockdown was when we said, ‘Righto, we’ve got to really focus on e-commerce.’ We put all of our resources into it and were able to offer customisable furniture that people could order online. Prior to that, we didn’t sell very much furniture online, it was mostly homewares, so it’s really been the last two years that we’ve put the foot on the accelerator.
IR: Did Koskela experience a spending boom during lockdown, like a lot of furniture and homewares retailers?
ST: We didn’t necessarily have a boom, but we certainly came out of it much better than we thought we would. That was due in large part to us moving fairly quickly, and putting the resources into getting that e-commerce capability up.
IR: What would you say is your top-selling or flagship product?
ST: Our Quadrant Soft sofa range has consistently been a high performer. It’s a very neat range that works with people’s lifestyles. It can be added to and reconfigured, and you can play around with the finishes. It doesn’t have to be all one colour or one fabric. I think people really like that. And because it’s been around since 2009, people feel fairly confident about ordering that one online.
There’s also a range of beautiful baskets from a collective called Baba Tree that we sell . We sell quite a lot of First Nations art, and our First Nations collaborative lighting ranges do really well, too.
IR: There has been a noticeable increase in the number of collaborations between big furniture and homewares brands and First Nations artists and designers. What are your thoughts on this?
ST: I think it’s great. Anything that elevates, recognises and celebrates our First Nations history and starts to make people more aware or curious takes us one step closer to Reconciliation – as long as everything is being done ethically with the proper licence agreements in place and the artists are being given the right kind of recognition for their work.
IR: How did Koskela first start collaborating with First Nations artists and designers?
ST: We started in 2009. That was the launch of our first collaboration. It was pretty unusual at the time; no one had ever really done that before in our industry. We first started working with some Yolngu weavers from Elcho Island, whom we still work with today, which is very exciting.
After a three-year journey of trying to understand more about this weaving practice that had been done for thousands of years up in Arnhem Land – what was involved in producing the weaving, as well as the cultural implications of coming together to create some new ideas and opening up a new marketplace – we started with a range of pendant lighting.
We’ve now grown that collection to embrace different artists and art centre communities all around Australia, which is pretty exciting. That was the beginning of us looking at how we could use our design skills and our access to our market to create something new that would further people’s understanding and awareness of this incredible culture that we have in Australia.
IR: What have you learned about how to collaborate with First Nations artists and designers in a way that’s mutually beneficial, rather than exploitative?
ST: I think it’s really important to have written agreements that are in keeping with best practice. There are bodies like Arts Law Australia that specialise in this area. We have generally always worked through art centres, because then there’s an art centre manager who is helping protect the artists’ interests and they understand the terms of the agreement. That’s the main thing, but it’s also about the intentions of the two parties.
Our view was always that if we were going to embark on this journey, then we needed it to be financially stable and secure, and we needed to be able to commit to a partnership for as long as the artists were keen to work with us. These people who fly in, fly out – I don’t think that’s the way these collaborations should be positioned. Often these collaborations tell really important cultural stories. They shouldn’t be something that’s just around for a season and then you move on to the next thing.
IR: Does Koskela have any other exciting plans for 2022?
ST: In terms of products, we’ve got some new ranges that will be coming out hopefully next quarter, and a beautiful range of First Nations fabrics that we will be launching as well. Our big focus is looking at how we can reengineer our business model so that it is more circular, which ties in with our emissions reduction and climate-change targets.
IR: How are you planning to make your business more circular?
ST: One of the things we want to do is launch a new marketplace for pre-loved Koskela products. Rather than those products ending up on Gumtree or something, where their value isn’t well-recognised, and there are potentially inauthentic products, we want to offer that [platform] to our community. If a product needs to be reupholstered, refinished, repaired, or upgraded, we could do that and offer it at a lower price. Some of our customers are super values-aligned, but may not have the budget to afford all of our products. Our objective is to make sure that anything we create is around for as long as possible. Ideally, we’d love for it to be considered a future heirloom.