There’s an old African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Boasting more than a century in business, it’s clear what path Adairs Retail Group has chosen.
Founded in 1918 on Chapel Street in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran, Adairs has transformed from a humble, family-owned chain to a leading, specialty omnichannel retailer of homewares and furnishings.
It has more than 160 stores spread across Australia and New Zealand, delighting customers with on-trend fashion products, quality staples, superior customer service and strong value. And CEO Mark Ronan credits the beloved retailer’s far-reaching success to “working together”.
“No one individual delivers an amazing business,” he says. “Our strength lies in great retailing and great product, none of which can be delivered by one person alone. Ultimately, your success is driven by the people around you.”
Mark has been with Adairs for more than a decade, working his way up from Finance Manager to Merchandise Planning Manager, Head of Retail Operations and COO before finally stepping into his current position as CEO in 2016.
Throughout his time with the company, it became abundantly clear to him that being a leader is about more than the business; it’s about developing the team. “Not only the individuals in that team either, but how the team dynamic works together,” he explains.
“Building a team that has a good working relationship creates an environment that encourages people to speak up and challenge each other, driving the business forward. It’s always an evolving piece. For the past four to five years, I’ve been working to ensure we have the team that can deliver and push each other to be better.”
It’s great to work with local artists and designers, take their artwork and apply it to homewares, creating beautiful products our customers love.
With a philosophy of great people working well together, Mark believes one can’t exist without the other. “You can have great people, but if they don’t work well together, then it doesn’t work,” he says.
“You have to make sure you collaborate and communicate really well as a team. A lot of my leadership mentality comes back to the culture commitment we have as ‘one team’. We are better when we work together and communicate.”
It’s imperative for a retail business to have great product. There’s no way around it. But for a retail business to have great product and a great culture, well, that’s where the magic happens.
“There will be different service levels, different products and there will even be different customer experiences, but if you really understand those three things and have the right team around you, you’ll be able to build a good business. It’s what makes Adairs great, and it’s actually what can make any retailer great,” Mark reveals.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Culture isn’t something that’s a given. It’s a consistent daily practice woven with each and every thread into the fabric of a business. And as that piece of fabric grows, it’s important to stay on top of every stitch so the integrity isn’t lost.
“Culture is action, not words,” Mark stresses. “You have to make sure the business understands and lives by it, and it’s not just words on a page. It’s embedded in the business, so it can’t be lost. The tricky part is, as the business gets bigger, it gets harder to make sure the culture remains. You have to be committed to it.”
As such, Mark now invites all new employees to a culture breakfast with him. “Our business was getting to a size where I was worried that we might lose a bit of that culture. We weren’t telling people enough about it and creating that expectation,” he shares.
“But culture is so important. So we’ve actually just gone through a process of refining our culture commitments and relaunched that back into the business. And it’s been fantastic.”
Especially in regard to COVID-19. The pandemic forced every Adairs store to close, basically overnight. And in an unprecedented event, everyone in the company heard the news from the government at the same time.
It wasn’t a case where those at the top knew first as with typical business challenges. This time, the whole company was in the same boat. “We all watched the same press conference. We were all sitting there wondering what this meant for the business,” Mark recalls. “COVID-19 is the true test of a business culture.”
The hardest part? “Standing down an entire team,” he says. “At that stage, we didn’t have JobKeeper. They were all going home without pay. I’ve been in the business a long time. I’ve worked with those people for a long time. And while I wouldn’t do it again, it was great to see our culture in action; to see everyone step up and come together.”
With its one-team culture and a steady flow of communication from management, Adairs was able to successfully navigate the pandemic – even if it didn’t necessarily feel like it at the time.
Corporate social responsibility is quickly becoming a must for modern businesses, and Adairs is happy to oblige. The leading Australian retailer of homewares and furnishings is dedicated to giving back. “We always look at how we can add value. More and more, customers are expecting us to give back to the community. A brand needs to be more than just product,” says CEO Mark Ronan. As such, Adairs is a proud supporter of Orange Sky Australia (the charity that offers a free mobile laundry and shower service to the homeless) and the national women’s basketball team, the Melbourne Boomers.
“We were all in uncharted territory. We had to increase our communication and trust in each other. It got to a point where we were almost over-communicating,” Mark shares.
“But we got some incredible feedback from the team. They were really grateful for how well we communicated with them, and how we were just really open and honest with them. They respected us for showing that vulnerability. It was a real stand-out for us as an organisation.”
Flexibility was also key. While Adairs is a leader in the retail space for its solid execution of business plans, there was really no way to plan for this unprecedented crisis. But being the people-centric business it is, it understood where to start.
“We knew we had to look after our team, our customers and the financial health of the business, and ensure all of those pieces fit together so when we came out on the other side, we’d all have a business to come back to,” Mark says.
“So, we got less rigid on plans and learned to change and adapt.” By remaining open to change, Adairs was able to reopen stores quicker than expected. “We originally had a plan to reopen the stores over 12 or 13 weeks,” Mark remembers.
We’re more likely to break up a relationship on quality than we are on price because quality is what we stand for in the market.
“But what we found as we were opening the stores is our customers were rapt that we were back open. And our store team felt comfortable working instore again. The work we’d done on creating a safe work environment really paid off, allowing us to roll out store openings much faster.”
If COVID-19 has taught the world anything, it’s the importance of home and the power of the digital world – luckily, both are things Adairs excels in. So it comes as no surprise then that during the pandemic, the homewares retailer saw its online sales soar as people were forced to stay home.
“Not only did our online sales surge, but 30% of those sales were from new customers,” Mark beams. “I think we have a big opportunity to take what we learned through COVID-19 and enhance our digital experience. It’s sharpened our minds as to where we can invest to make it easier for customers on our website to get styling and product advice. We want to make that process really simple for them.”
As it stands now, Adairs is a stand-out in the customer service space. Its stores are outfitted with a highly knowledgeable team, well versed in all of its products. “A lot of retailers see ‘team’ as an expense,” Mark says.
“I see team as a key part of how we go to market. Without them, we don’t sell as much. Making sure our team has all the knowledge and tools to provide a great customer experience instore is a critical part of how we think about the business. Their job is to serve our customers, and it’s one of our key differentiators in the market.”
Fusing the outstanding instore experience with the convenience of its online store is challenging, but it’s something Adairs is dedicated to achieving. “Omnichannel retailing is the one that wins in the long run or, at the very least, the one that survives and thrives,” Mark explains.
“We have to give our customers the ability to shop how they want, where they want and when they want.” He also wants to make sure that after it invests so much time and energy in the digital experience, that it extends to the enhancement of the instore experience as well.
“There’s no point in creating an amazing digital experience that’s different to our store experience,” Mark says. “We’re really focusing on bringing these together.” In addition to developing the online and instore shopping experience, Adairs is also working on enhancing its Linen Lovers loyalty program.
Allowing customers to receive a discount each time they shop and giving them access to member-only events, this paid membership allows the company to create a more personalised experience with each of its customers.
“We’re looking to bring even more benefits to our customers through our loyalty program. We want to up the ante on loyalty and build brand engagement and customer engagement, as we saw how beneficial it was during the pandemic,” Mark shares.
At the end of the day, though, he says it’s all about delighting the customer. “The customer is first. And it’s our aim to make sure they have an amazing customer experience. But a very big part of that customer experience is giving them a great product.”
From bed linen and bath towels to home furnishings and kids’ decor, Adairs has an extensive range of high-performing, aesthetically pleasing products to help its customers create a home they love.
“We’re here to deliver and develop great products for our customers,” Mark says. “We can get excited about technology and loyalty programs, but if the product is no good, then we’ve missed the boat anyway.”
A lover of the brand’s Parisian-quality vintage wash linen, Mark says Adairs’ product innovation falls under two categories: core staples and fashion trends. The core products are found instore yearround and are available in neutral, classic shades and fabrications, whereas the trendy pieces are a bit more fun and seasonal.
They continually drop in limited numbers and create a reason for customers to revisit the store or website. Many of the trendy, fashion collections are a result of designer collaborations, and they’re often a sellout success.
For example, Adairs’ recent product launch with the Indigenous Australian artists and mother/ daughter duo Lauren Jarrett and Melissa Greenwood of Miimi + Jiinda sold out in just three days.
“These elements allow us to expand our design handwriting, helping us appeal to a very broad customer base,” Mark says. “If you have too much of a niche market, you limit yourself. Our angle is that a mother and daughter, regardless of age, can both come into Adairs and find something they like.
“All of these designers we collaborate with provide us with a point of difference. And for us, it’s great to work with local artists and designers, take their artwork and apply it to homewares, creating beautiful products our customers love. With our broad reach – we have 800,000 members and 600,000 Instagram followers – we also help them get noticed in the Australian market and even internationally. Just by putting their personal designs in front of a really big audience, we help elevate these artists. This is very exciting for me.”
Beyond beauty, Adairs prides itself on designing and creating quality homewares and bedding that withstand the test of time. It’s about creating an environment that encourages repeat visits by maintaining customer satisfaction. And it’s able to achieve this by partnering with the best of the best in the industry.
“I love partnering with suppliers who are committed to making sure the quality meets our standards,” Mark says. “Equally, I love those suppliers who are brave enough to stand up and say that they aren’t able to make a product at a certain price to meet our quality expectations.
That’s a good relationship for me because there are a lot of people out there who will say they can do it and then skimp on quality, which results in a poor customer experience at the other end.
We wouldn’t have been able to evolve as quickly without these established true supplier partnerships.
“We’re more likely to break up a relationship on quality than we are on price because quality is what we stand for in the market. We want to make sure that our partners have the courage to have those conversations with us, so it feels like a true partnership. It enables that two-way communication that allows us to achieve the right outcome.”
MiniJumbuk, which crafts beautiful, high-quality Australian wool and quilt products, is a supplier that gets it and shares these values. “Our two businesses have grown alongside each other,” Mark shares.
“Over the years, we’ve been able to build this great partnership and relationship. The folks at MiniJumbuk are in our stores all the time, sharing their product knowledge with our store team members.
“At the same time, with this relationship, innovation becomes a two-way street. MiniJumbuk are in our offices, talking to us about new products and fabrications that they’re coming up with. It creates a collaborative environment where no-one is scared to have a conversation and see where it goes. It doesn’t always lead to something, but if you’re not having the conversation, then it definitely leads nowhere.”
Mark acknowledges that if it weren’t for strong supplier relationships, Adairs wouldn’t have the success it does. “They’re a big part of the business. We wouldn’t have a business without them,” he admits.
“Whether it’s our product suppliers, our landlords or the shopfitters, it all comes together to help us create the customer experience we’re after. “These great partnerships last a long time and deliver more and more each year because the knowledge we share grows. If we had to start over each year, it’d be really hard work. We wouldn’t have been able to evolve as quickly without these established true supplier partnerships.”
Innovating the future
From great partnerships to great products and superior customer service, Adairs has it all. Looking to the future, it’s important to keep anticipating its customers’ wants and needs. And innovating to stay ahead of the curve, Mark says, goes far beyond products.
“We, of course, innovate to create great products for the customer. But at the same time, we’re innovating the business too,” he explains. “We work to create an ongoing relationship with our customers, so products are always where we start. But equally, over the years, we’ve also innovated the entire shopping experience.
“And I’m really excited by the thought of our next evolution over the next year or two. When I think about the digital technology, I’m also thinking about how we make our stores more experiential; making it more than just going in and selecting a product. At Adairs, we’re looking to make shopping a more engaging experience. And we’re always thinking about innovating the business over time.”
Proudly supported by: