Australia's most progressively minded retailer launches a concept fusing traditional and digital commerce.

Since the internet came of age, there have been very few companies to find a successful mode of trading both digitally and in a traditional bricks-and-mortar set-up. Granted, e-commerce is still a somewhat new medium, so it stands to reason that local retail dinosaurs such as David Jones haven’t yet moved past clunky online stores while the likes of Matches, ASOS and Neiman Marcus – all international retailers recently in Australia to stir up further growth in local sales – carve out more of their territory. On the flipside, the aforementioned brands, amongst others, have been clever in hosting offline events, such as trunk shows and pop-up events, in a bid to connect with customers, but in the end, nothing beats the experience of walking into a store and physically trying on a garment.

Australian retail prodigy Chris Kyvetos might not have solved the problem, but he certainly offers a viable solution. Sneakerboy, his new retail concept, is by all accounts one of the first businesses in the world to fully capitalise on the benefits of trading both digitally and physically, earning him a place in the Business of Fashion’s inaugural Top 500 report earlier this year, one of the few Australians, alongside designer Dion Lee, to be featured. “We’re an online store with a physical display space,” explains Mr Kyevtos of Sneakerboy, a multi-site, multi-platform retailer selling, for the most part, luxury sneakers from the likes of Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Raf Simons, alongside a curated selection of t-shirts and sweaters and special, limited edition collections, collaborations and pre-releases. “Who said you can’t walk into an online store?”

Mr Kyvetos is something of a retail legend in the luxury men’s fashion business. Having served as a buyer for Assin until 2008, he then helped to revolutionise men’s suiting outfitter Harrolds with its bold new store ventures in Sydney and Melbourne, introducing a youth-focused portfolio of brands including Thom Browne, Rick Owens, Saint Laurent and its Tom Ford shop-in-shops. “What I started to see was this growth of a younger luxury market,” he says of the experience working with Harrolds, for which wealthy Asian youths became a target customer, expanding the stores’ customer base exponentially. “I saw an opportunity for a brand that didn’t remodel itself to fit a new market but rather was built from the beginning for that younger luxury market, and if that was going to be case, then it needed to be developed from the ground-up for how that customer shops.”

That is, on the go. With the digital age surpassed by mobile-native customers, young customers that have spent their entire life shopping online are used to controlling their retail experience, a detail not lost on Mr Kyvetos in his development of Sneakerboy that allows customers, both in store and at home, to manage their transaction. Essentially, the physical Sneakerboy stores – rather beautiful but compact retail spaces in the central shopping hubs of Melbourne and Sydney – are designed merely for customers to browse products in the flesh, with pods set up for them to purchase products via the Sneakerboy app, available for download on smartphones, and website. “Obviously real estate is super-expensive and when you’re dealing with shoes half the store is lost to storage, so these key locations are unachievable because of the amount of space you need,” observes Mr Kyvetos of the situation he faced. “Our web platform is our backroom, so to speak.” So while the business’ entire inventory is on display in store to view and try on, the purchased product is delivered to customers within three to five days of purchase via a shipping facility in Hong Kong.

Traditional retail aficionados might be skeptical of Mr Kyevtos’ approach given that it essentially eliminates the thrill of walking out of a store with a fresh new purchase in one’s arms, but when the concept is viewed through the vein of being an online store, it makes sense. “These customers are used to buying online, to waiting for delivery… I thought it might be a challenge for people to accept this model, but the acceptance has been mind-bogglingly fast. Our customers don’t bat an eyelid at the process.” In the first week of trading in Melbourne, a group of tourists from New York visited the store, having their purchases delivered directly to their home in the United States while still on vacation. For the global-roaming 21st century customer, the Sneakerboy model makes perfect sense.

Nonetheless, the physical outposts are architecturally significant examples of Sneakerboy’s artistic integrity, designed by award-winning March Studios, the firm responsible for particularly special retail spaces for Aesop. Although the Sydney store, located in Temperance Lane alongside to the Apple store on George Street, was still under construction at the time of writing, Melbourne has been trading successfully since September. “We were really interested in the idea of a retail store being an online store because that’s new territory for us – for everyone, particularly in this country,” says Rodney Eggleston, one of the architects of the project.

The architect describes the process with Mr Kyvetos as collaborative, noting that the idea for design concept comes from the birth of the sneaker. With the New York subway strike of 1966, “everyone was forced to walk to work, and so we’ve picked up on this subway culture and New York City to make the store a commentary on where its products really originate.” The store’s perforated metal ceiling nods to the design of subway stations with up-lighting giving a sense of space, while is via a tunnel-like door. But more than this, in many ways the store feels like the inside of an old-school computer with LED screens displaying product descriptions, curved glass shelves and square glass bricks, visually connecting it with the idea of an online store. For usability, customers are able to shop the in-store collections by scanning a product’s barcode with the Sneakerboy app on their smartphone, registering the number left in stock and in which sizes. “It really takes each situation and customises for the customer,” says Mr Eggleston.

Why sneakers? Like lipstick and high heels in the women’s category, sneakers offer democratic entry into the rarefied world of luxurygoods. “It’s the easiest way for young people to buy into luxury labels,” says Mr Kyvetos. “Our market doesn’t dress formally, but we wear sneakers everywhere. I found that the kids coming into Harrolds and Assin were worried they couldn’t wear Dior Homme because they’re not skinny rock stars, but they’re right into the [brand’s] sneakers.” It also ties in with the aspiration of celebrity culture, in which the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West will regularly wear unidentifiable jeans and t-shirts, but the sneakers, whatever they may be, are instantly recognisable. “They’re the equivalent of a woman’s handbag, a status symbol,” says Mr Kyvetos. And he should know. As he says: “I’ve never personally owned a pair of dress shoes."

Photography: Peter Bennetts.