Globalization and the opportunity for niche retailers online

Written by Neil Gibb

I have lived in Melbourne for six years. When I first moved here from the UK a lot of the stores and brands I knew and loved weren’t available. Initially this was a shock. I realised how used to the brand landscape I was. Even shopping in the supermarket was a bewildering experience, as I didn’t know who stood for what. Gradually though I learnt.

Australia’s fashion industry was an interesting place. Like the animals down under, Australian fashion had evolved in its own way. You could see the connection to both the cultural roots of the country and its modern day influences, but it was also unique and quirky. Since I arrived here though, as Australia’s economy has blossomed, more and more global brands have moved in - a few years ago it was Gap, then Zara, then Top Shop, this week the much heralded opening of a giant H&M - and coming soon is Uniqlo. Thing have changed at the top end too. When I first got here you only saw a few choice items from Paul Smith in a couple of small boutiques. Now Paul Smith has a large classy store on what is known as ‘the Paris end of Collins Street’, the oldest and most European part of Melbourne’s city centre.

In the last few years I have also travelled a lot across SE Asia. In every city from Singapore to Jakarta I have come across malls with every western brand available. There is a Marks & Spencer in the KLCC mall beneath the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, a Muji in the Grand Indonesia Mall in Jakarta, and more European luxury brands that you can shake a stick at in the wall-to-wall shopping experience that is Orchard Road in Singapore.

This availability of products is reflected in the way people dress in these cities. Everywhere I go I see attractive snappily dressed young people in short jackets and skinny jeans, with big plastic glasses (sometime without lens), and natty satchels. It is a sign of the strength of the most advanced economies of East Asia that the kids in Seoul are far more sophisticated in their dressing and shopping habits than those in many western cities.

All this globalization though comes at a cost. If you were parachuted into some of these cities, ethnicity aside, you would be hard pressed to know where you were based on how people dressed.

And this is where a new trend is emerging. The excitement in Melbourne this week is that something that wasn’t previously available has now arrived in town. People are giddy with anticipation at being able to buy some of H&Ms budget priced fast fashion. But what is happening in the cities across the globe as everything becomes available to everyone is the novelty quickly wears off, and what hipsters are now increasingly looking for are things that are unusual and unique. This is one of the joys of Vintage. If you find a classic 1950s dress or 60s sports jacket in a Vintage store you can be assured no one else will have one.

This is where there is an increasing opportunity for niche retailers using the Internet as a delivery channel. When I go back to London one of my first ports of call is always ‘Stuarts of London’, an offbeat men’s boutique in the not so glamorous end of Shepherds Bush, that has been selling its wares since the 1970s. They always have some interesting and unusual items (the Andersons belt that is holding up my trousers as a I write this is a great example). When I last went there though the store has begun to change. More and more of their sales are now online, and their store is becoming as much a show room and distribution centre as a shop. They have reduced opening hours, not because of lack of business, but because so much of their business is now online. This has shifted the emphasis of the physical store to be more of a place to browse and get information than shop. The challenge here is that customers could come and use the store as a fitting room and then buy things online elsewhere – and many stores that just sell ‘stuff’ are suffering this. Passion based businesses like Stuarts though don’t so much have customers as fellow affionados who have a vested interest in investing in the business. I know my life would be less rich without Stuarts and thus I buy things off them as much for the service and experience as the products.

The reason I have worked with Message for the last six years is I see a similarly passion based business, one whose interest is helping other small passion based business thrive online. Watching what they have done with my friends at Rapha has been a joy to behold. Mothership, the last version of their e-commerce platform, has been designed for people who run passion based businesses and therefore whose skills and interests lie with their business and customers not with IT or systems. They are business that are unlikely to be able to afford or want to have lots of specialists in their companies, thus Mothership has been designed ‘for humans’, rather than people of a technical bent (not to say these people aren’t human, just that they often don’t talk like they are).

Much ground has already been taken on the Internet, but the fertile pastures in the next few years is for niche retailers to reach out to all the those corners of the globe where there are people like them, with a passion for something interesting and unusual. The challenge is not to design and build websites - although that does take some work - it is how to integrate the digital and real world experience into one, and how to connect with and build relationships with a globally dispersed tribe of people.

The writer J G Ballard once said he saw two possibilities out of globalisation - one was a world where cultures influence each other, sharing and taking difference ideas and items and in doing so creating something new and unique. He likened this to the ways spices influenced European cuisine in the days of colonisation. The other route he saw was ‘wall to wall McDonalds’. The reality is both things are happening at once. What we are passionate about is working with those that are out to share their spices, keen to make the world a more diverse and interesting place. If this is you, there’s a big wide world out there that we’d love to help you explore.

Neil Gibb is a writer, director of the management consultancy SLP, and has been working as a strategic adviser with Message since 2006.

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