Here at the Retail Learning Channel, we feature personal journeys of retailers across Australia. The first in our ‘My Story Series’ this month is from Dean Salakas, Chief Party Dude of The Party People. This family business eventually grew to be the biggest party store in Australia. The Australian Retail Association also recently named The Party People as the Independent Retailer of The Year (2nd year in a row) and the Online Retailer of the year. Dean was also named the “Retail Leader of The Year for the second year in a row for his contribution to retail.
RLC: What inspired you to stay in your parents’ business in the retail sector? Why was retail an attractive career option for you?
Dean: After leaving school I studied a Bachelor of Business and Commerce with majors in marketing and operations management. At university one area that I particularly enjoyed was supply chain and logistics.
When I left university I contacted Woolworths who was at the time the biggest and best retailer in Australia to see if they had had any roles in logistics. At Woolworths I gained an even bigger appreciation for retail and became a senior business analyst.
At Woolworths, I loved a challenge. This was best illustrated when I was ordered not to work on a particular project, so I went home, solved the problem in excel and presented an annual $4m saving to the company the next day. The project was implemented, and I won the innovation award for that project.
While I loved my job at Woolworths, my brother suggested we take over the family business and at that time, it was obvious to my brother and I there was a huge gap in the party supplies market. The opportunity and challenge looked exciting too for me to resist so I resigned from Woolworths and took on the job. I actually stayed on with Woolworths in a part time capacity for 2 years
RLC: What has been the biggest change to the retail sector in your experience?
Dean: It might seem boring but the shift in mindset from bricks-and-mortar to an integrated online and offline strategy. I think people can now see the best approach is being strong at both online and offline and so we are seeing heavy investment in digital strategies.
RLC: What can you advise retail students who are also following this path in their studies?
Dean: I think anyone considering starting a business needs to find a niche and be the best at it. When you start out, be the best at a small area and grow from there.
RLC: What were the tools to success for you in the digital marketing space? How did you compete with other retailers in the market?
Dean: To put it simply, competing in our market was as simple as asking the question, “what do consumers value most” and providing that to them. The answer to that question has changed over time so we keep asking it regularly.
In terms of tools, we used many tools like Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access to automate solutions to problems while we were small and as we grew those were replaced with more advanced software. We use ASANA (free) for task management and on occasion Microsoft project for specific projects.
RLC: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your business and how did you overcome this?
Dean: The biggest challenge we had to overcome were capacity related. As we grew, we ran out of space, so we took on extra leases, ran out of people so we hired, ran out of stations so we built more and then as we solved each of them, they became a problem again because we had outgrown the solutions. Eventually we learned to plan better to avoid capacity issues and we also opened a new site with significant scope for growth.
RLC: What is unique about the party industry and why do you think you’ve been successful in this area?
Dean: When it comes to parties, people don’t want to have the same party as everyone else, they want their party to be unique. To achieve this, they need a large range of options and we have been successful in party because we offer the largest range of party supplies in Australia.
RLC: What are your tips for retailers on how to survive immense pressures in managing and growing a business?
Dean: Take the time to plan effectively. When you are under pressure the immediate reaction is to put your head down and dig yourself out when that’s the worst thing you can do. Best thing to do is sit back, plan even if it takes you a day or a week. From there you can prioritize what’s important and what’s going to get you the best results for your investment in money/time. Then you can get stuck into executing your plan. If you don’t do this, you will always work hard on the wrong tasks.
Dean is an eCommerce pioneer and also the Advisory Board Member of Tilly. He has lead teams and also spoken in various conferences as a thought leader in the industry. Get inspired by Dean at New Retail ‘19 this coming February for an immersion into the future of retail.