50 Years of History
Adventures in retail
With the year 2012 seeing specialist camping and outdoor gear retailer Aussie Disposals celebrate half a century in business, Belinda Smart talks history and future horizons with managing director Mark Purvis.
Fifty years in retailing is an admirable landmark, and judging from Aussie Disposals celebration plans, it’s one that looks set to be given its due this year; however five decades only represents only about half of the family retailing heritage that underpins this stalwart of the Australian outdoor retail sector.
Founded in its current guise in 1962 by Bill Purvis, the father of managing director Mark Purvis, Aussie Disposals’ roots date back to the turn of the last century. Mark’s great grandfather, W.A. William Alexander Purvis started retailing in 1910 when he opened the first outlet of the Purvis department store chain in Moe, Gippsland.
Leadership of the chain transferred to William’s son Jack and then to his son Bill, and the business continued to flourish, expanding to 20 stores in Gippsland by the 1960s. However, as roads improved throughout regional Victoria, the need for department stores in smaller towns weakened, leading to a new business direction that continues to bear fruit today.
“Dad recognised the need to change strategy and he had a certain amount of foresight into where there was a market demand,” Mark recalls. “He was a keen hunter and fisherman, and saw the opportunity in supplying related gear as well as military surplus.”
So it was that in the 1960s, Aussie Disposals became known for selling price accessible outdoor gear as well as military surplus, a legacy that continues today.
“There was an auction every fortnight where military surplus was sourced and it was very popular due to practicality, price and the huge range of items available. Back in the ‘60s that was the way to keep prices down; country people wore it because it was durable, hard wearing and didn’t cost a lot.”
“We still sell a lot of military gear but it’s much harder to find now, even though it still represents good value. The product is now sourced from all over the world.”
These days Aussie Disposals’ reputation is for catering to a broad travel market encompassing price driven customers through to serious travellers.
“We definitely sit at the value end of the market; our motto is ‘Get away for less’,” Mark confirms. “We sell sleeping bags for as little as $20 but can go up as high as $250.”
“School camps are a classic example of our value customer. We get kids coming in with their mums with a list of things they need to buy, often with a set budget. We usually work down the list with them and can sell them everything on it. More often than not, customers will leave the store saying ‘Gee that was so easy!’.”
Price awareness doesn’t mean compromising on quality however, with long established supply relationships supporting a value offering. As testament to the retailer’s focus on quality, Mark, himself a serious traveller, can personally vouch for the products stocked.
“I travel to places few people to go to and most of the stuff I use is from Aussie Disposals.”
Competing in the same space as Ray’s Outdoors, Big W, Kmart and BCF, the market is tough at the moment, he notes. “However, the beauty of where we place ourselves in the market is that when times get tough people will shop with us, any time of the year. They know they’re getting value.”
“Many retailers in this category might discount four or five times a year; in fact a lot of our competitors put catalogues out every fortnight, but nine out of ten times their sale price is similar to our standard price. I think it would be safe to claim that we offer the best value in the market.”
Aussie Disposals has a number of proprietary brands including Blizzard Clothing, Trail Footwear and High Country tents and camping furniture as well as the Wild River swags and clothing brand. “Blizzard and High Country are the strongest brands and have been around for 30 years; they’re known for very high quality,” Mark says.
“Our view is that there is no point in developing a brand unless it’s good enough for the purpose its intended for. We’ve been buying from China for a very long time and as a result we have a very good relationship with long term sourcing points over there. We can therefore always offer a point of difference in terms of product, even at the lower end of the price range. For example with a tent, we might be able to offer extra poles, windows or a better floor, a better quality zip.”
In terms of brands bought in, Aussie Disposals is selective in its buying strategy.
“We cherry pick product to suit our target customers’ needs and we have in the past dropped suppliers who want to force us to buy their whole range.”
“Suppliers we have strong relationships with include Blundstone, Yakka, Primus and Engel for fridges and Gondwana for clothing. Good supply chain is vital and we work closely with suppliers for continuity of supply.”
With 40 stores in total, Aussie Disposals runs 13 franchised stores with the balance company owned. Franchising has always been a keystone of the business.
“Franchising started in 1970 and Aussie Disposals is one of the oldest franchise businesses in Australia. It works well for us as it costs less to set up and because franchises are run as own businesses, if your franchisees don’t like something they’ll tell you. They give you a better perspective. We learn equally from our franchisees and from the shop floor.”
“We wouldn’t go totally franchise, as company ownership provides a good benchmark. Having said that we would like to grow the franchising side of the business but we’re very fussy about who we use. We get a lot of enquiries but we also knock back quite a few of them. There’s a lot more to it than simply setting up a store. You need franchisees who share your brand vision.”
That brand vision may be one of the reasons that this year’s fiftieth birthday celebrations follow a period of triumphs for the business.
“We won a Dandenong Chamber of Commerce award in 2002 for best retail distribution in Dandenong and the outlying districts. Last year they ran the ‘best of the best’ over 20 years and we were nominated. There was an awards night at the Crown Palladium last March with 1000 people attending. We were in the retail and distribution category and we won the best of the best. It was a huge achievement, even though we don’t set out to win awards.”
Aussie Disposals claims its people as central to its success and appears to consistently deliver on this ethos. At the time of this interview Mark is preparing to take managers and assistant managers on a three day trip to Gippsland where he will teach them how to use a compass, fish, cook on the beach, put up a tent correctly and look after the environment.
“I do a lot of that. It’s very labour intensive but it’s also very effective. And it’s a lot of fun.”
Mark believes in an open door policy and a short chain of command. “As MD I make a point of being in the stores talking to customers every week.”
“My message is that the strength of this company is in its people; our ski buyer is an experienced skier; our 4WD, fishing and hunting buyer is active in all those areas.”
“Our company structure also means employees have a sense of ownership; the head of each section is a partner in the business.”
“Our success is largely dependent on our buyers. The product is only as good as the buyers, and it’s part of our culture that our buyers listen to the public and take it back to the retail strategy.”
“We also recognise that for good succession planning you need younger people in the business. We do quite a lot of promotion from the shop floor.”
Aussie Disposals is also taking strides in retail technology. Having introduced state of the art point of sales systems in the mid-2000s, the company now has a seamless interface between warehouse, distribution and the shop floor.
“We’re also re-designing our website. We have in fact been in online retail for years but our previous site was not really customer friendly enough.”
Feedback and insights on the website come from a designated committee and Mark also mines his own kids “who are at that scary age” for their wisdom on all things online.
“Making the online space work well for you follows the same principles as real stores. You’ve got to have the right things in the right spot at the right price and you’ve got to have that ‘glitter factor’ to capture people’s attention.”
Hot on the heels of the new site will be an Open Day at Head office in May to celebrate the ‘big five oh’, with the company’s 50,000 square feet of warehousing opened up to the public.
“Open Days are a great event, with great products and prices. There’ll be military vehicles on site with a strong sense of celebration with employees and customers. Throughout the year we’ll be running celebration catalogues and mini open days in key stores.”
“There’ll be a DVD on the history of Aussie Disposals out in May including interviews with my father and other key figures in the store’s history.”
“There will also be limited edition product coming out for the 50 year anniversary including stubby holders, pens mouse pads.”
With a tag line of “50 years the journey continues”, the celebrations represent new adventures as much as a milestone on the journey so far, Mark says.
“Over the coming years we’ll be looking at store expansion, online expansion and possibly expansion into new product categories. It’s all about staying in tune with the market and where the opportunities lie.”
Indeed, continued success looks set to grow from that knack for staying in tune.
“We haven’t been around for 50 years through fluke. We’ve done it because we keep delivering on and exceeding customers’ expectations.”