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In Buenos Aires’ bohemian sub-barrio Palermo Viejo, the trendy area of Soho beckons travellers, hipsters and designers to the tree-lined cobblestone streets where new businesses oozing with innovation and hip sophistication continue to pop up in the old Spanish-style houses and gentrified warehouses.
The barrio has incredible retail and you can tell that they put their heart and soul into everything, infusing the spaces with really great music, festive displays and lots of street art. It’s so different to any other place and a big inspiration to Kate Vandermeer, owner of the ever-growing Melbourne-born pop-up emporium – The SuperCool.
It was while wandering through the neighbourhood on their honeymoon that Kate Vandermeer and her husband David Nunez were prompted to start their own mobile emporium of quirky, unique, everyday homewares and designer objects.
“When we got back from our honeymoon, we thought ‘what can we do to take some of these great ideas’, and we came up with the concept of having limited edition special pieces that were collated from small, independent designers and selling them in a different way in the sense that we wanted to be mobile,” explained Vandermeer.
We wanted to get back to that ‘peddlers’ kind of concept that was around in the 1700s, going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. And it was like a big event in the town and like the cool little cart came out and it opened up and there was all these great wares from exotic places, so that was kind of our idea, rather than retail being the traditional, open all the time in the shopping centres and everyone coming to us. we wanted to challenge that and be something that people had to seek and find and follow on social media and be involved in and kind of commit to being involved in. So that was our very first beginning.”
Starting out, they did three to four pop ups in different locations. The first sprouted was in Melbourne Central on the walkthrough bridge, before it was connected to Emporium, and it was in a greenhouse. The second one was with Pope Joan, and so they went on and on and on from there.
Soon they came across the So Me space in Melbourne market and in February of the following year they had grown to love the concept of being in a market which was not a traditional retail environment. Choosing to strike up a six month pop up in the space, they were then offered a semi-permanent stall in the corner. This evolved into a permanent spot and an expansion into the shop next door. Today, they have taken on the space on the other side of the wall as well with their kid’s store. A final renovation has made this their flagship pop-up.
In between all of this, they’ve had 30-odd pop ups all over the place in Melbourne and Sydney, lasting from 3 days to 13 months.
“We’ve really done a lot of different things, from art galleries to loading docks. We did a loading dock with Great Dane when they opened their first Fitzroy showroom and then we’ve done lots of food collaboration, because we love working with great food purveyors right through to markets and then more traditional kind of taking over a shop in a shopping strip,” said Vandermeer.
The SuperCool is all about inviting people into their space, whether it be at markets or pop up events. They want to catch people walking past.
Vandermeer’s background in visual merchandising has fuelled her passion for pushing the traditional boundaries of pop ups and inviting people to make them feel like they are a part of something.
“So when they walk into a space, whilst there may not be really high walls and traditional ceilings in those specific pop ups, it’s still enveloping them and making them feel like they’re part of a brand and that’s from the signage at the front door through to the type of music we were playing.”
The emporium’s displays encourage customers to touch and feel, says Vandermeer, and they can put their bags down, they can leave their shopping, they can park the prams.
“Everything that we do is very much about dwell time and increasing dwell time within the store and we change our displays frequently. We have a little library area so people could have a look at the books and the magazines we had, and there isn’t pressure to buy them, they can just have a look and keep that in mind for next time if they didn’t purchase it that day.”
They also try to tell the stories of the brands that they stock and have made sure that their staff are informed so they can give consumers background on why they stock the product, where it was made, if it was ethically made, if it’s organic and so on.
“Anything that they needed to know that would help them understand the story of why we chose that maker and where they make it. Are the Melbourne? Are they in Geelong? Are they in Argentina? Do they live on a hill? What was kind of special to their specific story?” said Vandermeer.
Be receptive to your customers’ wants and needs
As they grow and move their mobile business into different areas it has been easier to understand who their market is and learn price points, what areas work best for certain products and predict large or small batch numbers.
“So in the Northern Suburbs we knew that certain customers wouldn’t pay for products that they could find in a vintage store. Whereas on the South Side or the South Eastern Suburbs we knew that people just wanted the look and they didn’t really want to go fossicking, so they were happy to pay for it. And then there were certain cards, like just on a very, very minimal level that just wouldn’t work in certain suburbs but then would just walk out the door in others.”
“So we were really just learning who our customer was and understanding our signature is one thing, but also we’ve got to respond to what our customers wanting.”
Growing their kids area was something that they learned very quickly that they needed to do because they had a lot of really cool creative mums and dads coming in and they wanted to buy into the concept of what The SuperCool were doing – where they knew where the product was coming from and they wanted to understand how they could learn more about that origin of what was happening, but they wanted it for their kids as well. So they branched more into that area.
Knocking on closed doors
Pop ups are common now but five years ago when The SuperCool was one of the few businesses that wanted to collaborate and they had many doors shut in their face.
“When we first started doing it people just thought it was a way to get rid of sale stock. It wasn’t really seen as a true retail litmus test, so to speak. And so we had a lot of really great brands we wanted to work with that just didn’t want to be seen as a discounter or didn’t want to be seen as working with us because we weren’t established.”
“So we actually were quite surprised how many people were not open to a new idea and we explained our concept and how we pride ourselves on our visual merchandise and we spend a long time trying to make things look really special, we don’t discount, we don’t go on sale and we still don’t five years later. Here and there we’ll reduce something discreetly in store or we have a garage sale section online, but we don’t do that traditional three or four times big sales.”
The SuperCool worked to break down these barriers but a lot of people wouldn’t listen to them.
“It actually worked to our advantage because we ended up going a little bit more guerrilla, a little bit more international. We went to a lot of different small makers through Etsy, through Facebook and Pinterest, and just discovered interesting people and we approached them and they were really keen.”
“Our very first pop up had products from South America, heaps from Europe, heaps from Spain, heaps from Switzerland, Sweden, lots from the US like load and loads of people from the US and from the UK. So we had a very eclectic kind of launch in that respect.
Fast forward to now and they find themselves being approach by people, maybe 10-12 per week, to enquire about stocking them. Instagram is now one of their number one places to discover new brands and they also go to trade fairs, but not too many.
Tech: Old school approach doesn’t suit modern shops
Like many marketplace retailers, they used basic technology, even pen and paper, in the beginning. This annoyed Vandermeer’s husband Nunez, whose background was in data and analytics.
They trialled different technologies and point of sales (POS) systems that would allow them to better understand what was happening with their customers and fit in with their visual store experience.
Vandermeer says she wanted her store to “look beautiful, so having ugly black registers sitting on desks wasn’t for us. We run Vend on iPads throughout the store, so we can help customers buy wherever they are and avoid people standing in lines during busy shopping periods.”
She wanted to invest in technology that would make it fast and painless for customers to buy. Using Vend she has maximum flexibility to run in-store, online and on-the-go and manage sales, inventory and customers.
“Vend was a welcome change and really cleaned up our operational side of the business and helped us understand what we need to do in terms of what products are in the top five every week, what products are in the bottom five, what we have lots of stock of, what should we move and promote on Instagram to get it moving or move it around in store.”
“I really attribute Vend to a big increase in profit for us because we were kind of, we were doing pretty well and we were growing really rapidly, but we really needed to clean up that back end to grow properly, and that’s definitely what it helped us do.”
They now have people coming in and commenting on what system they use – from hairdressers and cafe owners to stylists and artists.
“We have a lot of people ask us and I feel like we’re unofficial ambassadors because we often say to people, ‘Yeah, it’s really good!’ and we turn it around and we show them it’s a really easy system.”
“We went through the training process of Vend with all our staff and we were really impressed how quickly they all picked it up compared to our previous platform, so we knew we were onto a winner when they were all like, yep, this is easy.”
It also links with their customer loyalty program, Collect, easily and seamlessly.
Five years of growth: where to next
Moving from strength to strength, The SuperCool will be pushing their international online growth in the coming 12 months. This will mean navigating the shipping process so that they can over flat-rate fees and maintain their brand experience.
“We’ve got a really strong customer base in Singapore and New Zealand that love our store and every time they come into the shop we’re like, ‘where are you from?’ Singapore or New Zealand. I’m like right, we’ve got to do this. So we’ve got a lot of blogs and promotions we’re going to run to push that into those countries.”
As far as their products go they’re on the look out to do more exclusive collaborations with people as well as their own products including posters, stationery and candles.
“We’re just about to launch a poster we’ve done in collaboration with a illustrator who works in the market as well. He’s a fantastic illustrator and a barista and we’ve done a really cool kind of quite unique illustrated version of Melbourne, so we have a lot of tourists who come and who want like a memorable cool gift that’s not daggy koalas with hats.”
To keep up-to-date with The SuperCool on their website – http://thesupercool.com/