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Elizabeth’s looks at SE Asian franchises

FRANCHISING could soon become the next growth frontier for a 30-year old Western Australian-based secondhand book chain.

Elizabeth’s Secondhand Bookshops, founded in 1973, is considering a new stock system and, with that, the possibility of turning its successful book retailing concept into a South-East Asian franchise.

Company founder Elizabeth Schmitz said there had been numerous enquiries about franchising the Elizabeth’s concept in South-East Asia, particularly in the past few years.

However, she said franchising had always proved difficult because of the way the company bought its books.

“In a franchising situation you have to supply the stock and that’s hard for us,” Ms Schmitz said.

“We’re coming up with a new stock model for the shop that means it might be possible to get a franchising system going.”

About 75 per cent of the company’s stock is bought over the counter. The company has also been importing since 1987, mostly secondhand specialist titles in areas such as art, design, history, military and literature.

As far as a successful franchising model goes, the company has most of the other parts worked out and has six stores around Australia – five in Perth and one in Sydney.

Its green livery is well known to bibliophiles hunting for a rare book or CBD workers looking for a paperback to read on the train ride home.

The company has also found that locations providing an eclectic mix of passing people have proved to be the secret of its success.

Ms Schmitz said high traffic locations, even though they meant higher rents, were vital.

The very fact that its stores are at street level in busy areas is unusual for secondhand bookshops, which are often tucked away in quiet corners or below or above street level.

Ms Schmitz said staff training and attention to staff rostering had also proved vital.

Elizabeth’s has 24 staff and usually has just one staff member in a store at any one time.

“I’ve seen secondhand bookshops in Sydney where they have had three people working and wonder how they can pay the wages,” Ms Schmitz said.

“We have a big staff training program. It’s [working in a bookshop] very hands-on work. I say to the girls that it’s 80 per cent housekeeping.

“People have a romantic notion of what it means to work in a secondhand bookshop but soon find out that it’s not what they expected.”

Elizabeth’s is also exploring Internet retailing. It has its own online bookstore and also lists its titles with abebooks.com – a Canadian Internet site that bills itself as “the world’s largest online marketplace for used, rare and out of print books”.

However, despite the things that are going right, Ms Schmitz said the company was only now starting to get back to its pre-GST profitability levels.

“We had nothing to offset it,” she said.

“We had to write the pre-GST and the post-GST price on every book. Then, at the end of the period we had to go and rub of the pre-GST price.”

Ms Schmitz started Elizabeth’s with $400, a boyfriend’s collection of paperbacks, the carpentry skills of her father and a love of books.

“I received, by those days’ standards, a very generous redundancy from the University of Western Australia guild. While my then boyfriend was away I found a place that sold secondhand books,” she said.

“I asked my father, who was a very conservative bank manager, whether it was a good idea [to look at opening my own bookshop]. He said the worst I could do was lose the redundancy money I’d been paid by UWA.”

By chance a newsagent near her parent’s house had burnt down and she bought its smoke-damaged stock for $80.

“I spent two weeks cleaning it and then we opened the doors,” Ms Schmitz said.

The first Elizabeth’s was in the Broadway Shopping Centre near UWA. While that store was closed five years ago, due to the changing nature of the Nedlands area and was replaced by the Barrack Street shop, Ms Schmitz retains fond memories of it.

“I  saw children come into that shop in prams and grow up and go to UWA from that shop,” she said.

“I remember the first day I opened we took $8.80. The first week we took $88. We took $120 in a week and that seemed so good.”

Ms Schmitz said the move to Sydney had been prompted by a lack of growth opportunities in Perth and clinched by the fact that one of her children lived there. That store is in the middle of Sydney’s notorious Oxford Street, Darlinghurst.

“We’re looking for another location in Sydney. I haven’t found one yet but I know it’ll feel right when I do,” she said.

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