According to Adelaide shoe-man, John Charlton, who sold 5.1 million pairs last year alone, not only does the customer demand the right style, the right color, the right price and the right size – after all that they still must fit comfortably as well.
No wonder shoe sales staff get exasperated. In the backblocks of China, retail staff are often told off for slapping customers.
John Charlton, 51, is an Adelaide boy who, while doing a Phys Ed degree at Adelaide Uni, was a casual shoe salesman at David Jones. He got a name for it and after uni was invited to join a manufacturing business making upmarket mens shoes.
After a couple of years he became aware that Adelaide was the only city without an upmarket mens shoe store so he kicked off John Charlton Shoes in Regent Arcade to fill the gap – very profitably for a while.
One of his best customers was David Weeks, of the Weeks family who had set up a particularly successful Adelaide Hills based supermarket chain which was later sold to Coles Myer.
Weeks heard from a contact in Coles Myer that another of its businesses, Ezywalkin, a budget mass market shoe retailing outfit was losing money hand over fist and nobody was listening when he tried to tell them to copy what was happening in the US where a company called Payless was revolutionising shoe retailing.
After Weeks declined the opportunity to pick up Ezywalkin, Charlton and Weeks got together a joint venture with the business model Payless of the US. Payless had a mat for customers to figure out their size and the shoes were arranged in sizes and very easy to find and try on. Prices were low – what retailers call entry-point pricing.
The new Charlton/Weeks venture they called Spendless and opened the first store in jetty Road Glenelg in May 1988. Twenty years later Charlton has bought out Weeks and now runs 131 Spendless shoe stores all over the country bar Tasmania.
In the 20 years, the shoe business has been closed down in Australia apart from tiny niche players RM Williams and Rossi – even Blundstones has moved manufacturing to China.
“When I kicked off in 88, the shoe business was dominated by a big player in each state – Betts & Betts in WA for instance – and there were a lot of independent operators in SA such as Blacks and Factory to Foot that made it quite competitive.
“Our original intention was to build up around 10 stores in SA and leave it at that,” says Charlton but we found that in Queensland, for instance, there was a lazy big player and not much competition but plenty of money up there because everybody was moving there so we started up there and never looked back.”
WA was attacked at the same time, 1993, Victoria a year later and NSW was not breached until 2006.
“All the businesses are run from here – we own them all – and we have a staff of 600 all up.
Headquarters is the Stockland-owned Port Adelaide Distribution Park where Spendless has a 5000 sq metre warehouse and buying office which is the engine room of the empire.
Suzanne James runs the warehouse and distribution function where she’s in charge of 15 macho dude storemen who don’t look like they’d be all that receptive to a friendly mumsy type in charge.
But the place runs like clockwork. Two semi loads of shoes disappear out the door every day and 20 shipping containers arrive every week, unloaded quickly and cartons sorted, stored or distributed.
“I explain to the guys exactly what needs to be done and why it needs to be done carefully and simply so everyone knows exactly what’s going on,” Suzanne explains. “When they do things well they get praised, we talk about things a lot and I’m as nice to them as John is nice to me.”
Charlton says the business works because the customer culture reaches right back into the warehouse – getting the right carton to the right store at the right time is the only way the thing can work.
Spendless is an entry point retailer of shoes for the whole family with outlets in every Westfield shopping centre and other busy centres. It’s true to its name - shoes start at $19.95 and well-made fashion shoes are just $39.95.
The other essential ingredient is the buying group. Two senior buyers mentor two more junior staff – and all came up through the John Martins old style discipline of departmental buyers which Charlton remembers warmly.
Charlton gets mad when he sees poorly made hot fashion shoes hit the marketplace ahead of his own – and more expensive - but he knows he’s doing the right thing waiting for the rights stock from selected Chinese factories as customers rarely return after being sold a dud.
It’s a busy day at the Port Adelaide office as all the state managers are in town to talk about what’s hot in the world of “fast fashion”.
Sex in the City – the movie - has blasted off a worldwide scramble by young employed women to get into the stuff that Carrie and the girls wear in the latest romp. The tribal look with long lace-up leather for that gladiator look – best worn with the new wooden and roman bangles is killing it out there in the stores from Rockhampton to Roeburn and from Mildura to Mandurah.
“Our target customer is any Australian with feet earning $40,000 or less – which the ABS tells us is about 74 per cent of the country’s wage earners,” says Charlton. “With shoes at $20 and merchandised well, footwear has become an impulse buy.”
Spendless has plenty of competition, K-Mart, Target, department stores and boutiques across the country are all in that space, but Spendless is the only national retail chain – for just about anything – based in Adelaide.
In the markets where Spendless Shoes has been operating for 10 years or more (Vic, Qld, SA, WA, NT) approximately 9 per cent of footwear bought retail is from Spendless.
The average Spendless store serves around 40,000 customers a year and 50,000 in regional shopping centres. Almost half the turnover is generated from women’s fashion footwear.