5 Minutes With, John Cheston, Managing Director, Smiggle

It's been four years since Smiggle opened its first store UK, and the Australian stationery retailer now boasts an estate of 125 shops nationwide. With plans to employ 2000 and operate 200 stores by 2019 - one of which will be a massive new flagship in Oxford Street, London - the Retail Gazette caught up with managing director John Cheston to find out what's spurring the brand's ambitious growth.

John Cheston Smiggle MD

Smiggle is in the middle of an expansion drive in the UK. What brought this strategy about?

Since we opened our first store in the UK in 2014, the response from our customers has been phenomenal. We felt that there was a gap in the market for specialised, lifestyle stationery and gifts for kids. With over 132 stores in both the UK and Ireland now, we’re confident our customers agree.

Can provide some more details on the expansion drive?

The latest stores to open in the UK were in East Kilbride and Newport on December 15, and in Ireland, Swords Pavillion on February 16.

We are finalising our plans for the next year, but have four new stores confirmed across the UK and Ireland in the next six weeks and we are very excited to be opening our brand new flagship store on Oxford Street soon.

Why did you bring Smiggle to the UK in the first place?

First and foremost, for the fans. We’d received a large amount of requests to open in the UK from customers who had experienced our brand while holidaying in Australia or Asia, and from shopping online.

“Bricks-and-mortar stores are so important for us – we want our fans to experience the colour, fun, and interaction our products bring, even if they don’t choose to purchase that day”

Plus, the UK market has a lot of similarities to our home market of Australia, the desire for our brand from the landlords in the UK was high, coupled with the size of the stationery market and opportunity, all helped make the decision to bring the brand to this side of the world.

Why do you think there is still a high demand for stationery in a highly-digital world?

For kids, we believe the two sit side by side in terms of entertainment and educational value. But as a parent, you still want your kids to have a tactile experience with products, to feel, smell, play and create, and that’s what Smiggle products will always provide.

We strongly believe that Smiggle provides a wholesome, educational and important alternative to screen time, and we know our parent and gift giving customers appreciate that in an increasingly digital world.

What does Smiggle offer that makes it different to other stationery retailers?

I believe it’s our commitment to innovation, the speed and frequency at which we release new products, and our dedication to delivering a fun in-store experience.

We never rest on our laurels when it comes to design or customer service, and our thinking is led by what we believe our fans want most.

Our very talented in-house design team is based in Melbourne, and we have a commitment to local design and product development, while still learning from the markets we trade in.

How is Smiggle addressing some of the challenges facing the high street as a whole?

We are very careful when planning what stores to open, and in what areas. We do our homework. We want the best locations so we do not settle until we find the perfect spot. We have been able to continue our success as we have diversified beyond school supplies, and are increasing the rate of new product rollout.

We aim to drop new products every week now – it used to be every two months. We embrace the fact that we rely on kids’ pocket money so every time somebody comes into our store on a Saturday or Sunday, there’s something new and something for everyone’s budget.

Bricks-and-mortar stores are so important for us – we want our fans to experience the colour, fun, and interaction our products bring, even if they don’t choose to purchase that day.

What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector, given the current climate?

For us, we saw no immediate impact to consumer confidence after the outcome of the Brexit vote. We did take time afterwards to evaluate the market but if anything business has been better.

One of the great things about our brand is that it offers a fun and playful reward or present at an affordable cost, so even when things like Brexit happen, people still want to treat their kids.

Describe your role and responsibilities as managing director of Smiggle.

We have a big team that helps ensure that our brand and products are the best they can be every day. I look after all areas of the business across the world and remain very hands-on across all markets.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before Smiggle.

I worked for Marks & Spencer for 17 years, having roles in retail operations, buying and merchandising, and ending up as Asia Pacific Managing Director after relocating to Hong Kong.

I joined Robinsons PLC as their group chief executive in 2005.

“To stay relevant and innovative you must be dedicated to product development and customer service”

In 2010, I moved to Australia to take up the role as chief executive of Country Road before moving on to Webster Holdings.

Then I returned to Melbourne to join the Just Group as Managing Director of Smiggle in October 2012 and haven’t looked back.

What got you into retail in the first place?

The pace and the challenge. The innovation in product, and the dedication to the customer experience that is required to keep your brand at the top of the most desired list, keeps me challenged and motivated every day.

How has your previous experience aided your current job?

Whether you’re leading a department store or specialist store, and irrespective of if you’re selling apparel or stationery, the business focus is always the same; the customer comes first. To stay relevant and innovative you must be dedicated to product development and customer service, in line with your customer’s wants and needs.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Juggling the growth of online with traditional bricks and mortar retail, and making sure we do our homework on the next best market opportunity for Smiggle as we expand this great brand internationally.

And the most rewarding?

Seeing the smiles on kids’ faces when they first come into one of our stores, the reaction is the same wherever we open in the world.

What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in retail?

Be prepared for hard work, an extremely fast pace, an ever-evolving landscape, but a great deal of fun.

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