Catherine van der Meulen – Transcript
In this episode, we speak with Catherine van der Meulen. Catherine is the Retail Relations and Academy Manager at Inside Retail. Inside Retail is Australia’s leading authority on retail industry news and trends and has been a trusted source of retail industry news for more than 45 years. Catherine’s father founded the famous Australian retailer, Supre, so she has a very solid background in fashion and retail having grown up in that family business.
After the company was sold due to financial difficulties, Catherine decided to try her hand at entrepreneurship and launch THiNK Business Services, which is a business coaching and advisory business. Catherine’s one of the organizers of the Retail Cutting Edge Forum, which will be on the very first day of the Startmeup Hong Kong 2017 Festival. And she shares with us the latest trends that she’s seeing in the retail space today.
Jay: Catherine, thank you so much for being on the show. I’m very excited. We have a huge week coming up, with the Startmeup Hong Kong 2017 Festival. Can you please, for the audience out here listening, introduce yourself and maybe tell us a little bit about what you do.
Catherine: Yes, sure. I’m Catherine van der Meulen and I work as the Retail Relations and Inside Retailer Academy Manager at a group in Australia called Octomedia. We also have an office in Hong Kong and Singapore and all across Asia. And at the moment, we’re working on the Retail Cutting Edge event as part of the Startmeup Festival which is on next week in Hong Kong.
Jay: Yeah. I know you do a couple of things. So, in addition to Inside Retail Academy, you mentioned Octomedia. So is that part of the same thing?
Catherine: Yeah. So Octomedia is the group that owns Inside Retail. Inside Retail is a publication and it’s been around for about 40 years. So it’s got a longstanding history and amazing trust with retailers for publishing great content. And Octomedia is the group that owns Inside Retail as well as a number of other publications across [FMCG 00:02:48], across Asia and New Zealand, that sector. So there’s multiple different publications that we publish across.
Jay: I see. Okay, so it’s a magazine publisher type, online news source, I guess.
Catherine: All of that, yeah.
Jay: Okay, [crosstalk 00:03:04]
Catherine: Everything that you need to know about retail globally, you’ll find it in the Inside Retail.
Jay: Ah, so is it almost like a industry trade journal equivalent?
Catherine: Exactly, yeah.
Jay: Got it. Got it. Okay. And before working there, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background.
Jay: How you got into retail.
Catherine: Yeah, so I’ve been in retail all of my life. My father founded a fashion company, which is an Australian company called Supre. And he founded that back in the eighties. And I worked across brand and we really were building an amazing and fun company across retail. And we had 160 retail stores across Australia and New Zealand. And the business got sold three years ago and I was out into the wider world and I started to connect with businesses that I wanted to work with and came across Inside Retail actually by chance. I was on a flight up to Queensland to go and host an event, and ended up getting a taxi with the then CEO. And he said, “I’ve got some great opportunities for you.” And they all just fell into place.
So we started on the World Retail Congress in Rome and also building Business Academy which we still work on today. So, yeah.
Jay: Wow, that’s quite serendipitous. So you have a family background in retail and fashion. And you’ve done it your whole life. And then was it something that was impressed upon you, like okay, you’re part of the family so you have to do this. Or did you generally have a interest in it?
Catherine: It was never pressed upon us, that’s for sure. So when I was 18 and I left school, I just naturally went straight into the family business. I’ve been there all of my life. I’ve grown up in and around our factory. Our school holidays, we’re always going to that factory in Marrickville and Sydney. And so it’s just a natural progression for me to go into there and I had a great admiration for what my father did and I just naturally wanted to be a part of that.
When I look back, should I have spent so many years immersed in a fast fashion business? Maybe not. I really wish back then I would have spent more time educating myself in the lead up to that, so I’ve now gone back to university and studying business and psychology and stemming towards that human rights and sustainable business models, and supporting businesses to be more conscious and ethical in their efforts.
So, my only regret is that I didn’t study and educate myself more back then rather than going straight into the family business.
Jay: Well, the thing is Catherine, there is definitely something to be said about education, but as well, I think that you probably got a whole different side of education that you can’t even attain going to school because you were deep within the inter workings of an actual business.
Jay: And there’s a lot of things that you learn on the ground there that you can’t even pay to learn.
Jay: Any amount of education. So …
Catherine: Yeah. I think it’s just the foundations that you can get from education. And yes, having that applied in an environment like that where you’re working at every day. But the things that I’ve learned from my education have just opened my eyes in the last four or five years that I’ve been studying, have just opened my eyes to just different, amazing opportunities that I probably would never have even thought about if I continued to stay in the family business. So, it’s opened my eyes and it’s taught me a lot. And it’s really shaped, I think, who I am and which direction in life I want to take.
Jay: Awesome. That’s a great background. And okay, so you’ve been working at Inside Retail, for you said five years, was it?
Catherine: No. In the last three years.
Jay: Three years.
Jay: Okay, and so can you tell us specifically, day to day, what your job entails?
Catherine: Yeah. So my main focus is on retail relationships. And that is really building relationships with all of our retailers, to engage them in a number of our projects across the publications, not only from an editorial perspective, but also our events and our different programs that we run through Inside Retail and also across [00:06:59] the media as well. And I also run Inside Retail Academy, which is our education platform and those one day forums in Australia, at the moment, and in Hong Kong as well. We just ran one in Hong Kong in November. And the event that we’re working on for next week, is actually just an extension of that particular Inside Retail Academy program.
And we’ve also been working on, we’ve got a three day event coming up called Inside Retail Live which is a festival of ideas and experiences within retail. So it’s a massive event for 3,000 people coming up in March in Sydney. Yeah, so we’ve also been working on the content and connecting with retailers from all over the world and also interesting psychologists, and customer behavior specialists, and relationship experts, and tantra experts, and all sorts of random things, where retailers can learn not only from within the industry, but also learning from other verticals. We don’t just need to be applying what’s actually working in the retail industry to other retail organizations. We can look to aviation. We can look to food. We can look to as crazy a thing as tantra relationships and what do relationships, and what do relationship experts have to do with brands and retail. There’s an amazing relationship that goes on between brand and customer that is much like a marriage.
So we’ve really started to look outside, beyond just retail of the types of companies and the types of people that we’ll have speaking at our events in the future.
Jay: That’s very true. There’s a huge psychology behind certain behavior.
Catherine: Huge. Yeah.
Jay: Yeah. That a lot of people don’t think about when they think about retail on the onset. So you mentioned the Inside Retail Academy. So what exactly is that? And let’s say I’m a young enthusiast and want to get into the business, what sort of things do you have to offer there at the Academy?
Catherine: Yeah, so we have, at the moment, it’s one day events. And so we run those in Sydney and Melbourne, and obviously Hong Kong. And it’s a mix of content. So we have case studies of brands, and those are delivered in workshop style formats, or round tables, or interviews, or keynote presentations. And really, it’s about supporting retailers and not only established retailers, but emerging retailers as well, to be able to continue their education and learning from other people. To give you an example, we recently had at one of our events, a man called Douglas Nicol who spoke from a company called Our Message. He was talking about the emergence of things like WhatsApp as communication tools within organizations and bots and robots and all sorts of things.
And you kind of go what’s WhatsApp got to do with retail? And then I was on the phone with [00:09:48] KMPG last night in preparation for the event next week. And they were talking about how we will need to use WhatsApp as our communication tool for our event next year. So we kind of missed the boat on it this year, but making sure that WhatsApp is a part of our marketing strategy.
So it’s about finding emerging trends, and what technology being the enabler for retail. And so it’s a combination of both things.
Jay: Okay, so it’s just keeping up with trends, and also doing some one to one type introductory stuff if you’re just new to the industry in general. If you want to just learn, then you can attend the Academy, right?
Catherine: Yeah. That’s right.
Jay: Right. Okay. Interesting what you say about WhatsApp actually because globally every market is nuance and in Asia a lot of people use WhatsApp. I know I use it and that’s pretty much the only … WeChat is very China-centric. But WhatsApp, I use that in all of my network, all my friends just use WhatsApp. And then I go to the States, and people are like, “Oh, we don’t really use WhatsApp a lot.” Well download it, you know. So, but the good thing about WhatsApp is that it is encrypted in theory. So it is one of the more secure ones. So that’s nice.
Okay, so it sounds like you’re into a lot there at Inside Retail Academy. What are some of the other things that you are doing because I know that you were or are still working at something called THiNK Business Services.
Catherine: Yeah, so that’s my own business that I have, a consulting business. And the main focus for me is about supporting businesses to be more conscious in their efforts. I think we can’t afford to start another fashion label or another retail organization. I think the world is pretty much at its capacity. So we really need to be working with what we have, and really converting our businesses to be more sustainable. In the end my family lost the business. We had to sell the business because it went into financial disarray. And so I’ve learned a lot from that and I really want to be able to teach other organizations how to create sustainable business models to be able to stay in business.
And those things come from building the foundations of the business and creating a sustainable organization, building the foundations, making sure that your ethics, your values, your mission and your purpose are in place. Because I feel like a business without purpose really is no business at all because it doesn’t engage the culture and it’s hard to grow a business if it has no meaning. And I think instead of starting another business, we really need to refine the businesses that we have and grow those businesses from within rather than just always jumping ship and finding what the next organization that we can be involved in. And that’s a very entrepreneurial spirit and I love that.
But it’s also about making other businesses work rather than just jumping to the next thing. And that is my personality as well. I grew up with my father who’s an incredible entrepreneur and we were always looking for the next thing. And I think that’s my life motto and I’m always looking for what’s next. Not just about career and life, but more about life really. How can I educate myself more? What kind of adventures can we go on overseas? Taking the kids on adventures, but adventures with purpose. So I don’t just want to travel to New York to go check out the fashion and check out the retail. I want to go to New York and work with homeless people or go on a mission and work with the United Nations, and doing things that actually have more purpose than just another business.
So I really set my sights on those kinds of things and then engage in businesses along the way who are already working in that kind of way. We recently with Inside Retail, started working with a company called Reho Travel, and they give 10 percent of their profits to a micro-financing agency in Malawi in Africa. And so for me, it’s not my trip to Hong Kong was booked through Reho Travel, so it’s not only about that, I’m traveling to Hong Kong next week, but also then we were able to contribute to this micro-financing. And I really believe that micro-financing as a model can really change the lives of millions of people all over the world. And so you can contribute in small ways. It doesn’t have to be center your whole business around micro-financing, but knowing that just my trip for next week contributed to this micro-financing agency in Hong Kong, it makes me feel a whole hell of a lot better than just filling in the pockets of the airlines.
Jay: No, absolutely. I think you’re completely right. You hit the nail on the head. You don’t have to 180 and just be all in but it’s the little steps, just the building blocks that you take to give back that I think matter. One of my friends, he runs a pre-accelerator program in the Philippines because obviously web developers and coders, the cost is much lower there in the Philippines to hire that sort of … And they’re very talented. And so one of the things that he does, is he set up a social employment type program where Hong Kong companies can actually hire a high school student to work on their SCO and web marketing and social marketing. And they’ll have a dedicated person that will work on it for a fraction of the cost that they’ll pay to a large organization. They’ll be teaching underprivileged high school student how to work on it. And oftentimes, the results are even better than what you’ll get at a large organization for 10 times the cost, right?
And it’s just one of those things where it’s like, exactly what you said. You’ll feel good about spending that money because not only are you getting results, it’s also going to a good cause.
Jay: So I think that’s fantastic.
Jay: So who are some of the companies that you would … What’s the situation where I would hire you as a consultant for let’s say, your THiNK Business Services?
Catherine: Again, it could really be any business and not so focused on … I was very focused when I first came out of our fashion business, I was very focused on fashion organizations. But I’m not so focused on that area. My great passions are around travel and humanitarianism and philanthropy and things that are for the greater good really. Again, I’m not very interested these days, just to work for another fashion company because I don’t see the purpose in it, in it for excessive consumerisms.
So it’s really about the individual organization and who’s behind, most importantly. Who’s behind the organization and what their purpose and what their meaning is. I enjoy working with those kinds of companies, because at the end of the day, again it’s that entrepreneurial spirit that is driving these organizations. And if I’m not interested in that person’s spirit, then it’s hard for me to engage in the business. So it really can be anything. It’s really more about the connection between myself and the person that we’re working together. Because that again, can create that relationship and building on that relationship.
Jay: Right. I guess one would be surprised, I guess, to see large organizations that perhaps don’t have a clearly defined purpose oftentimes, right? So I guess that’s where you come in. What are some best practice type procedures that you would suggest to let’s say, maybe not a huge company, but let’s say a medium sized company that may be struggling or just doesn’t have their stuff together and maybe doesn’t have a purpose? What are some of the things that you would implement right away?
Catherine: I would first do, in a very simple way, not like a massive process, but I would do an audit of the organization. I would understand the culture of the people. I would understand the supply chain and the impact. And that can be service orientated as well as product businesses understanding the supply chain. And also understanding the impact. But most importantly, understanding and connecting with the people in the organization and find out what’s going on.
I know that back in my days at Supre, if we had really just dug a little bit deeper, and connected further with our team members in more of a meaningful way towards the end, I feel like we probably could have saved the business because we could have understood the business a lot more than just looking at what products we were selling, at what price we were selling, where the fabric was coming from. And if we can really engage the people internally, I think you can build an amazing, amazing culture. I would start in that way and identify really what the vision is for the business. What do we really want to be creating in this business? What’s the outcome? What’s its purpose?
And I think really defining that purpose, defining the culture, engaging with people, educating and empowering people, would be the places that I would start. You may have a tribe of 1,000 people or you may have 10 people in your organization. They are probably your biggest asset over rent and things like that. But they will probably biggest asset and biggest investment so why not start with them to understand what’s really going on in your business?
Jay: Right. Okay.
Jay: That’s very interesting. Catherine, I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about the big event.
Jay: For Inside Retail it’s retail’s cutting edge, which is the very first day which is January 16th. And so can you please tell us maybe some of the keynote speakers and the highlights that we can look forward to when we attend the event?
Catherine: Yeah. We are super excited about this. We partnered with Invest Hong Kong at our November Inside Retail Academy. And then they approached us and said, would you like to run a one day forum as part of the Startmeup Festival in Hong Kong, which is obviously on next week from the 16th to the 20th. And we are running the first day which is a forum bringing together retailers, startups, investors, entrepreneurs, tech companies to really cultivate the ecosystem of startups in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong really wants to be known as the gateway to the world for startups and the Asian version of Silicon Valley, basically. And also to enrich the retail ecosystem of Hong Kong as well. A lot has changed over the last five or ten years in the retail ecosystem where Hong Kong used to be known as that amazing place to go shopping. And they feel like it’s lost its edge. And so what they’re trying to do is really build on that which is why we’ve been engaged by Invest Hong Kong to work and build on this day for the Startmeup Festival. So we’ve got some really interesting speakers, and again across all of those different areas.
So we’ve got retailers speaking. We’ve got investors speaking. We’ve got entrepreneurs speaking. And all businesses that are influencing, engaged in, or in some way, shape or form, part of the retail industry. We’ve got a number of sponsors at Tofugear, Cooper, and brand [Roamer 00:20:48] and [Real Vision 00:20:49] on board, and they’re really bringing to life an empowering day with different elements. We’ve got a startup village setup downstairs. So it’s at PMQ and it’s over two levels. And we’ve got all the latest technology. I think there’s gonna be about 40 different little stands with all the latest technology being showcased.
Then upstairs, we’ll have the main theater. And then also, the things that I spoke about like brand [Roamer 00:21:14] and [Real Vision 00:21:15], and Cooper and Tofugear, who will be showcasing some of their projects and some of their technology and what they do as well.
So we’re really excited to bring it all together. It’s been probably the fastest turnaround event that I’ve every worked on. From idea to delivery’s been six weeks. And obviously we’ve had Christmas and New Year in there as well. So it’s been a really fun and exciting and fast-paced project to work on.
Jay: Yeah. It sounds like it. I personally sat in on a couple of those meetings, the calls with Invest HK and yeah, everyone’s operating at optimal level right now and trying to get everything done. But I’m very confident that it’s gonna be a fantastic event.
So you mentioned some technology. We talked about WhatsApp obviously, and what are some of the other things that are gonna be showcased specifically at the … When you talk about retail, you don’t necessarily think about technology. So what are some examples of stuff that might be showcased?
Catherine: Well technology’s obviously everywhere. So it’s whether it’s on the front end of retail like physical things in store, to create a better customer experience. Or really the back end, on creating better systems processes and procedures for supply chains, delivery, optimizing, optimizing websites. So there’s so many different ways and we’ve got now about 11 different startups who are each pitching their ideas. So I’ve got two pitch [rests 00:22:49] in the afternoon which we will be judged by a series of four judges. And they are really pitching their latest, not only about the technology, but it’s an idea that is the enabler to creating better solutions for retail, so that the whole customer experience has a much stronger flow and it becomes a lot more customer-centric.
Catherine: So yeah, the technology that lies behind retail are quite varied. They’re obviously consumer facing and then there’s also the back end to optimize businesses and create, the end of the day what people are trying to create is better customer experiences, which create more profitability and overall grow an organization.
Jay: Yeah. Technology’s everywhere and it’s … Gotta jump on the train. You can’t resist it but oftentimes, it does make our lives easier and it’s for the better. Catherine, we have to look to wrap up soon. I have a couple more questions for you. The first is, and it’s part of one of the things that you’re gonna talk about, or your panel or your event will address, is what are the trends do you see in the retail space in the coming two to five years?
Catherine: Yeah, again I think we’ve got a big focus on technology and so I really feel there’ll be a strong emergence of that in physical retail to create better customer experiences. And also the things like 3D printing and the way stores are using different visual aids and different concepts within a store to create a better navigation. So when a customer first sees the window of the store, and then they walk through the store, and then getting a whole brand experience. And I think overall, brand are really looking for experiences. Customers are looking for experiences.
How that then is delivered in a retail environment, can be the make or break of retailers. And people want to be able to walk away and go, “Oh my god. Wow. That was amazing.” Whatever experience it is. But I think people are now looking for more memorable experiences. They don’t necessarily just want to buy something online. Wow. I got another t-shirt. Or I don’t just want to walk into a store, pick up a t-shirt off the rack, take it to the counter. They want to immerse themselves into something greater, and something that’s got more fun to it.
Like one of the speakers is Jeremy, Jeremy Meltzer, who’s coming over from Australia and he’s got a company that’s called i=Change. And so when customers are shopping online, they can basically go on and they can choose one of three charities that two dollars from every one of those sales will go to a particular cause like educating children in Africa. And they’re specific causes, so we’ve selected three causes for every ticket that’s purchased for the event next week. That money is being chosen as, taken … It’s our money. It’s obviously the customer’s money but we’re donating two dollars from every one of our sales. So it’s just about, I guess, doing more with what we have. Again, not being so static, that relationship and that connection between brands and retailers.
With something like i=Change and having that concept on our set of websites, it’s getting 20 percent more conversion of sales at the end, the shopping cart because people are like, “Ah, they’re actually doing something for the greater good. I could donate two dollars to this particular project in Africa or this particular project in Asia.” So it’s giving brands more meaning again. And I think those things, the experiences, technology being the enabler of those experiences, [are 00:26:29] we doing more with what we have?
Jay: Right. Right. Yeah, that’s fantastic. I think that, yeah, the trends that we’ll see with technology, and just the social consciousness side of things are quite exciting and they’re all very meaningful as well.
Well Catherine, thank you so much. I appreciate your time. The final question is, where can people find you, follow you, maybe learn a little bit more about what you’re doing at Inside Retail?
Catherine: Yeah, my space is LinkedIn. I spend my life on LinkedIn. So it’s just Catherine van der Meulen and so yeah, I list all my projects that I’m working on in there. And also engaging in different conversations with white papers that we release and different projects and media [inaudible 00:27:12] that we’ll have following the event for next week. So it’s a bit of a hub for me, that space that I use.
Jay: All right. Great. So you can connect with Catherine on LinkedIn and head on over to edge.insightretail.hk which is where you can pick up your tickets for the Inside Retail event, which is on Monday, January 16th, part of the Startmeup Hong Kong 2017 Festival at the PMQ. It is going to be great. I am very much looking forward to it and Catherine thanks again. Thank you so much for your time. We had a great time talking this morning.
Catherine: Thanks so much. I’ll see you next week.
Jay: All right. Take care.
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