In 2012, Horman joined forces with Andre Olschyna to start opening new stores. Since 2012 Robinsons has opened 11 new stores located in Melbourne, Canberra and Hobart.
By 2020 Robinsons aims to double in size and be a national brand – setting the standard for service, product range and be the employer of choice in the book industry in Australia.
According to Horman, working with major shopping centres has traditionally not been easy for independent businesses as centres have predominantly worked with major chains, filling their malls with stores that can meet designers’ strict guidelines, meaning that each store looks similar in terms of lighting, colour palette and general layout. But Horman says the perspective is shifting, with malls now looking for uniqueness rather than sameness
Robinsons first opened in the main Frankston shopping precinct known as ‘Frankston’s Central Carpark’. In 1992, new owners Terry and Monica Perry moved the store to its current location in Frankston’s Station Street Mall.
Susanne Horman: We’re Victoria’s oldest independent bookstore, established in Frankston in 1963 by Philip and Moira Robinson who are still alive, well and kicking on in the peninsula in their mid-nineties.
Our other director and myself had an opportunity to have lunch with them earlier this year and they’re very excited about what’s happening with their little bookshop they established in 1963.
It’s got a long history and heritage. It was the largest bookshop south of the Yarra in Melbourne for many years and is still very much an iconic store, in that it has an enormous range and very big footprint. It’s got an enormous catchment, people come from everywhere to Robinsons in Frankston, just because of the amazing range that we can stock there because of the size of the store.
Back in 2012, just after the Red Group started to fall over and shopping centres lost a whole category because between Borders and Angus & Robertson, there wasn’t that much left but Dymocks and Collins Booksellers around.
The state of the book industry then was pretty tough and they [Dymocks and Collins] weren’t getting new franchisees. It was hard for shopping centres to replace what was missing.
Now we know that the main inquiry at shopping centres at the time was, ‘Where’s the bookshop?
When we opened our first little store in Greensborough Plaza, we actually think it was the first independent bookstore in a major shopping centre in Australia.
In the past we would never have been able to open a store in a centre as the little indie we were, because there was no taste for it. I think from the landlords perspective, we were a risk.
They knew what they were getting with the chain brands and at the time I think they hadn’t yet worked out that they needed some quirky, different businesses to attract people.
There’s been a big change in that approach since 2012 and now we actually find with the offer that we’ve now developed, we’re very much in demand. Nearly every week I get a call from a landlord, I had two just this morning, ‘We really want you to open a Robinsons store in our centre, because it’s one of the experiential stores people want to come and spend time in’.
I think that’s what shopping centres are wanting now. Stores that people want to linger in and get out of their little comfortable space with their laptop or whatever they’re doing at home, shopping online. That they actually get out of the house and go and spend some time in the community down at their shopping mall.
IRW: In this context, I’ll ask about e-commerce’s impact on the industry and how players like Book Depository and Amazon have affected an independent like Robinsons?
SH: I think they [e-commerce companies] were at their strongest when Angus & Robertson and Borders collapsed and when Australians really didn’t have a choice of bookstore in their local shopping centre for many years.
They then got a strong foothold in the Australian market.
There are now much more options for people, the preference is swinging around where people would rather go and touch the book or go and talk to someone about one.
A book is a huge investment in your time, so if your time is valuable, you’re committing 20 or 30 hours of your time to read a book. Is that a waste of your time? Is that the right book for you? Is it going to do something to change your life, whether it’s in relaxing you or it’s going to give you some great new idea?
So I actually think indies are starting to win the race against Amazon and Book Depository. With Amazon having recently launched in Australia, I think there was a big nervous shudder through the book industry, ‘What might happen now?’
The Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Publishers Association banded together and were lobbying the government for change, along with the Australian Retailers Association, on the GST. The decision by Amazon to close down its international shopping experience for Australian customers has really played into our hands.
The book industry now will just go from strength to strength, with that aggressor right on our doorstep, possibly having to play the same game we are in and not having an advantage for the first time.
IRW: In battling some of these issues such as e-commerce, perhaps you’d like to elaborate on what’s helped Robinsons stand the test of time?
SH: Since I’ve been involved with Robinsons, it’s been a deliberate strategy to continue evolving and as soon as you’re not thinking about where you’re going, you’re going backwards or not going anywhere, you’re stagnating.
We’re continually looking at where can we take the Robinsons brand, which has been a very traditional, very classic brand. We’ve not wanted to get involved in controversy.
We’re very much Switzerland in terms of stocking things for all tastes. Originally, we were very strong in terms of ABC products and as the ABC CDs and DVDs died out, we had a good look around to see what could replace what was about 20 per cent of our business.
We were probably one of the first in Australia to really pick up on how the strong underground interest in pop culture was starting to become a lot more mainstream. In 2013 we started building our interest in comic books and pop culture merchandise and it is now about 20 per cent of our business.
It has given our brand a whole new flavour and it’s updated it, it’s not so old fashioned now because we’re right on top of all the Marvel movie releases and brought in a whole new audience to our stores, so that’s been a very exciting thing.
We’re always on the lookout for new things like that, and very careful that everything in our store should be there, so we don’t stock things that are irrelevant even though we have a lot of daily pressure from people wanting us to stock their product.
We’re very careful about curating what we have and that it’s relevant and goes together cohesively. That’s been the thing that people like to come in and explore.
We talk a lot in our store about discovery, creating a nice little pocket of something unexpected as you turn a corner in our store, in discovering something as though someone prepared it and put it together in a cute little display just for you, because they knew you’d like that. We spend quite a bit of energy on creating those experiences for our customers.
IRW: A lot of the talk within the industry is about customer experience and unique points of differentiation, it sounds like Robinsons has those in spades…
SH: We hope so. It is a deliberate thing we do and we’ve always done it. The thing about having expanded over the last six years is, we’ve really stopped and thought about, why is Robinsons successful?
What do we do that we can replicate and if we didn’t replicate it, we will have lost the essence of who we are in a new location.
So the ANZ growth course [Australian Centre for Business Growth/ ANZ program] that we’ve been on has really helped us solidify things we already knew but hadn’t necessarily put down on paper and shared with our team. We’ve [two owners and directors of the company] actually both got a very strong business background and did a lot of these things that we’re learning on the course, but did them in isolation.
I think the biggest learning from this journey that we’ve been on, is the power of involving the team and sharing the plan and vision of it so everyone can get involved. All of a sudden, we’ve got a hundred-odd people around our business, all working towards our business purpose and strategic plans to grow.
And it has sort of moved from us feeling like we’re dragging everyone along with us to feeling like we’re actually being pulled along by our team, so it’s been an amazing experience to learn such a fundamental but simple point.
IRW: In that light, what are the broader expansion plans for Robinsons?
SH: At this stage, we’ve planned until 2020, where we are planning on doubling our stores. At the moment we have 12, soon to be 13 stores, so are looking at around 25 stores.
Beyond that we think there will be definitely more expansion and we might consider launching a new brand, still in books but not competing directly against Robinsons.
We’ve got two or three ideas for new businesses that would then go beyond 2020.
IRW: How does Robinsons approach its digital strategy?
SH: At the moment our strategy is partly linked to our new ERP system that we are installing as we speak and obviously that’s a really big picture project. That task takes us to the ability to suddenly grow if we wanted to, to 200 stores not just in Australia but internationally.
We’re not saying we want to do that, but we’re setting our business up for whatever we might decide we want to do beyond 2020 and to be in a position to suddenly do big things.
So until that’s installed, which should hopefully be around October, we’re not going to spend a lot of energy on our current digital space because we’re suddenly going to open the door on being able to do some really cool things.
So 2019-20, we’ll definitely start doing a lot more things in the digital area, when we’ve got much better IT behind us.
At the moment, we have a website that does have live inventory, which is very cool.
While we’re not exactly excited about the structure that we are forced to deal with because of the software we have, but once you drill into items on our website, you can actually see what any of our 12 stores has in stock right now on their shelves.
And we know a lot of customers use that facility to have a look before they go and see if we have something. We’re obviously doing Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and all social media, but I think that’s going to really ramp up in 2019.
IRW: Speaking of stock, how is the business able to purchase 2000-3000 new items each month compared to the industry average of 250?
SH: When we were at the ANZ growth course, people were talking about how they’re whole inventory is 200 items or so, and I was staggered, because we’re used to dealing with this complexity.
This is one of the barriers to entry to the book industry for new players. The inventory is so complex and ever changing and having processes to deal with that is our winning strategy.
As an indie, and all indies probably have this focus on having range, it’s important to have as broad a range as possible in your store at any one time so that people know they can come in and explore.
I’m obviously not from Dymocks or Collins, but visually my impression of their strategy appears to be key titles, lots and lots of copies of those very big release titles and often discounting those. Whereas our focus is on range.
Doing range is much more difficult that doing volume of the winners and so we do see, between 4000-5000 now titles a month. Our three inventory teams are processing that amount of information and distilling it down.
We are purchasing around 2000 new lines, SKUS every month and we do also pick our key winners, so do have a focus on our key titles, similar to the other stores.
How do we do it? Well we’ve actually custom-written some software, which is part of our transition to our new software. The first modules we wrote already three-four years ago as we started to expand and wrote some custom software to deal with that complexity.
We deal with sales reps and some of our reps come and show us 1000 titles and we actually sift through them all, listen to the spiel on them and have an enormous database of successes, how authors or genres are performing and make decisions on each and every one of those 5000-6000 titles we see.
‘Do we want it [new title], how many, which shops?’ So every store is actually tailor-bought. It’s not a formula of, ‘Yes we’ll just take the same book and put it across all of our stores’. So we actually understand the strength and weaknesses in terms of inventory in each of our locations and tailor-buy to that.
The only way we can do that is with this software that we’ve written to specifically do that. Once we’ve done our buy, we have our new release hero day, where the buying team, myself and often marketing will all sit together in a room for the whole day, closet ourselves away and go through, probably the top 600 of those and decide what we’re doing with all those books.
Those books basically have a 30 day focus in our company and then we move on to the next batch.
So it’s a very intensive, complex inventory-driven business and it’s difficult to actually get it all aligned, now that we’re at the scale that we’re at. This is our challenge at the moment – aligning our purchasing, marketing and our distribution to all coincide across that many locations with nothing going wrong.
SH: One of the key things that we learnt from ANZ, is not only have we learnt the power of involving the whole team in what we’re doing strategically, we’ve also learnt the importance – and this is the main focus of our business right now – the importance of really taking care of our culture and making sure that all of our staff are customer-focused, that they communicate, collaborate, work together and can then, because of the resilience of that kind of culture, can deal with the amount of change that’s coming at them at the moment.
At our recent quarterly managers meeting, the whole focus of that meeting was on our culture and the importance of working closely with individuals on teams so they know that they’re valued and are contributing to our culture everyday.
This is such a key thing, because our teams in-stores represent our brand with every interaction. Every time someone walks into our store, they are the face of our business and brand and we need to make sure that everyone wants to be there, is excited, energised and everyone in our stores is passionate about books and loves our product.
We’re really coaching people on the importance of when you’re at work, really show that and be proud of what you’re doing every day.
Our main business purpose is to change lives by getting the right book in the right hands. So that’s really what we’re in the business of, because any book retailer can stock any of the books or products that we stock, so it’s not about our inventory. It’s about what we do with it and how we help connect our customers with the right thing.
So we really know what we’re in the business of doing. Our teams absolutely love being involved with that and we know from a survey we did recently that is the thing that our staff love the most about working with us. That they get to really make an impact on a person at level.
We’ve really started to focus staff on having more of a performance culture. Previously we never shared metrics and had KPIs but did not necessarily show people metrics behind their performance.
Even just at a very basic level having started to share some of that information with all of our teams, we’ve seen such an improvement in performance.
Our secret weapon has been understanding that books really have a very strong emotional pull for people and everything we do is linking into that emotion, so our beautiful store fit outs are very emotive and deliberately that way.
People walk in and say they feel like they’ve walked into a Harry Potter world and that’s what we want people to feel.
We’re not focusing on discounting, we’re focusing on experience. People come into our store and there is no haggling about price. It’s about getting that right book and feeling good about that purchase. And when you go home and read that book, ensuring that special emotional link stays with the book when you take it home. I think that’s really been the power of what we’ve managed to achieve these last few years since we’ve started growing. You can’t do that online.
IRW: People definitely have that flashback moment of associating books with stores where they got them from…
SH: They really are about community. I love the moment when I get a chance to be in our stores, I will always stumble across customers talking to each other and starting to recommend books to each other and it’s fantastic.
I just love seeing that and that joyful look when people walk into our stores and have maybe never been in one of our stores before and are genuinely surprised by the vibe in the store.
Our newest store that we opened in Hobart, the reaction we’re getting from the locals there is fantastic. There are actually a lot of bookstores in Hobart. I think we’ve already found our niche as to how we’re different to all of the other, probably very good, bookstores.
We are actually opening a new store as part of the Glen development in October and that store is going to be merging Robinsons with a whole new concept. We’ve had a lot of interest from landlords, who obviously all talk to each other, a whole new inundation of landlords approaching us, ‘Can we have one of what you’re doing at the Glen’?
So we feel very very excited about the future of Robinsons and aiming to be a national brand by 2020.