The Briscoes lady—AKA Tammy Wells—has been invading New Zealand's living rooms and mailboxes for almost a quarter of a century and, after thousands of ads about massive savings and red hot sales, the 'You’ll never by better' slogan has been well and truly etched into the nation's consciousness. And this week the Kiwi retailer marked a significant milestone as it celebrated 150 years of business.
To mark the occasion, author and business historian Dr Ian Hunter has charted the evolution of the company in a new book Briscoes: 150 Years in New Zealand, going from its formative days as a British trading company that started supplying gold prospectors with shovels, picks, tents and lanterns in the early 1860s in Dunedin, to the modern era of homewares.
“Briscoes brought the best manufactured goods of the world to our shores and became the first, international mercantile business to establish a presence here,” says Hunter.
Dr Hunter says Briscoes’ rapid expansion in its early days was tightly connected to the country’s own economic progress, as it became a major supplier of products for the building of New Zealand’s core infrastructure.
“The company was the national supplier for government contracts to construct bridges, railroads, stations, telegraph lines, water systems and tunnels, to name a few,” says Dr Hunter.
During the Depression of the 1930s, the business sustained its biggest financial loss in its history. And there was talk about closing down at the time. Instead, to survive, the company enforced a ten percent pay cut, single staff were let go, and married staff assigned every other week off without pay.
“Wartime also had an effect on Briscoes’ bottom line with shipping disruptions, but the Second World War was vastly different from the First and the company managed to turn a modest profit by 1944,” says Hunter.
Fast forward to the 1980s, and the firm found itself in trouble again, caught halfway between the perception of being an outright wholesaler and a wannabe retailer as product ranges struggled between premium and bargain-basement goods.
The company was rescued by a ‘white knight’ in the form of Australian retail entrepreneur Rod Duke, who took over the running of the business in 1988. Duke, who also runs Rebel Sport and Living and Giving as part of the Briscoe Group, recognised the company needed a major shake up and believed it would be highly profitable once again.
“My original contract had been for a maximum of three years to get the company out of trouble and to find a buyer. But the longer I stayed at Briscoes, the more potential I saw,” says Duke. So he bought the company.
Under his leadership, Briscoes ditched popular sellers like toys, boats and building products to concentrate on a strategy that focused on becoming the leading retailer in homewares and it now boasts 41 stores throughout the country.
"Rod Duke was aiming for leadership, not followership,” says Dr Hunter.
Duke’s philosophy was simple: "You don’t want to be number three or number four in New Zealand selling particular categories. Unless you’re number one or two you’ll struggle to make money,” he says.
The 1990s signalled Briscoes’ repositioning, as Duke continued on a course to swap the chain’s industrial image for a more customer-friendly retail destination.
In the decades since, Briscoes has kept on top of costs during the recessionary environment and recorded a 6.5 percent sales increase in the first quarter of 2012.
Just as Briscoes has been a one-woman brand with Wells, it has also been a one-man brand when it comes to advertising and has been under Greg Partington's watch since 1989. And while the sales-focused, low-budget approach to advertising still certainly fits into David Ogilvy's 'sell or else' mantra, Briscoes has changed its approach slightly over the years, as evidenced by a TVC from last year that is probably about as close as you'd get to a Briscoes brand ad.
"We continue to deliver results that outpace our competitors, with strong sales recorded in our core homeware category [homeware sales are up five percent in the recently released statements, but sporting goods sales are down nine percent on last year's RWC boon]. Along with our birthday milestone, it’s another reason for Briscoes to celebrate,” says Duke.
- Briscoes: 150 Years in New Zealand are on sale at Briscoes branches ($49.99 RRP, Hunter Publishing).