RAY Della-Polina sold his farm businesses to move to the ‘big smoke’ in his 20s and bought into a Perth small-parts business called Marlows.
Mr Della-Polina acknowledges that, when he made the decision to buy-in to Marlows in 1977, he didn’t have much of an idea about retailing. What he was sure of, however, was that he understood customers’ needs.
In his first year in the business turnover increased by 62 per cent, eventually growing to 20 stores across Western Australia turning over $50 million a year.
The business was sold to Super Cheap Auto for $25 million in 2003. (Mr Della-Polina is currently laun-ching a new automotive merchandising business to rival Super Cheap Auto.)
Mr Della-Polina said success in retailing was achieved by sticking to a series of rules, the same rules he employed to turn a fledging spare-parts business into a car merchandise retail giant.
Among these rules was a strong focus on customers and service.
“In those days people in the shop wore thongs and shorts and nothing was price tagged and people were greeted with a grunt; it was pretty rough,” Mr Della-Polina said.
“I put a real retail counter in there and then a couple of operators followed suit.”
Mr Della-Polina said successful retailing, no matter what category, required a vision for the business.
“You have to be very positive and know what you want to be and what you are trying to do,” he said.
“You have to know what you are taking to the market and how you want to deliver it. If you don’t do that then the customer just gets confused.”
Mr Della-Polina said while keeping an eye on the competition was a good idea, keeping too close an eye on another business could be a negative distraction.
“You need to be aware of what your competitors are doing and then forget about them, don’t let them call the shots,” he told WA Business News. “Most football coaches will study the opposition and set their strategy as to what the opponent or competition is, so they vary the structure of the team a bit, but they don’t change the game plan.”
Mr Della-Polina believes that, like a good coach, a good retailer needs to recruit good staff to take on senior managerial roles.
And coping with growing staff numbers was one of his biggest challenges.
In a short period Marlows grew from a staff of 35 people to 75.
“When you’re the sole executive you do everything yourself and you have your finger on the pulse. When we jumped to 75 people I got too busy so I had to add another person to take on jobs and another for other jobs,” Mr Della-Polina said.
A key job for the Marlows’ business was retial buying, something Mr Della-Polina said all retailers needed to be good at.
“I travelled around the world always looking for new ideas, but the skill was knowing what my customer wants,” he said.
“You’ll have a lot of people work for you and very few who will understand that.
“So you need a good retail buyer. I’ve always said you don’t make a profit when you sell something, it’s when you buy it, because if you don’t sell it just sits on the shelf.”
Delivering on the promise to consumers is also critical, he said.
“You must deliver the promise and you have to exceed customer expectations in some way,” Mr Della-Polina said.
“When a customer leaves you want them to have at least got what they were after, but if you want to retain the loyalty you have to over-deliver.
“It could be something as easy as letting them know that there’s a similar product on special that’s half the price.
“But it’s those things that make the difference. You don’t have to do it every time; customers are happy if it’s maintained but every now and again you over-deliver. There are so many places that don’t offer service. I liked having lollies on the counter because people got something for nothing, and people like that.”
Mr Della-Polina said ensuring staff provided good customer service often resided in the corporate culture and came from the management down.
“You have to have a culture and have enough people to walk the talk and the easiest way to do that is to always be honest and provide a high level of customer service with no mix ups,” Mr Della-Polina said.
“If you muck something up then you have to fix it. It has to come from the top down. If the business has a high level of honesty and people walking the talk then your staff will pick it up.
“They will be able to handle the customers because they know it’s the right thing to do.”
Mr Della-Polina believes service standards in Australia are on par with the world’s best, and that the challenge for retailers was to keep costs low while still providing a high level of service. And, he said, retail was about constant change and the ability to adapt quickly.
“The dynamics of retail are always changing; you can’t just do something once and then forget about it.
“You need to do it daily while doing things to stay relevant. There’s a saying, ‘road to success is always under construction’, its never finished and I think that’s the epitome of retailing.”
- Understand your product and how you want to deliver it to the market.
- Be aware of the competitors but don’t let them dictate how you operate your business.
- Travel to seek out new ideas but always keep your own customers in mind.
- Employ the best people, including a skilled retail buyer.
- Advertising is critical to introducing new products to consumers.