Celebrating 25 Years of Amazon

Founder and general manager Steve Alach on how Amazon has remained relevant

Amazon store. Picture / Supplied.

Steve Alach was 26 when he started Amazon, having chucked in architectural studies and walked away from a marketing role in the gas industry. “I wasn’t into surfing and skating. I’d always been into the beach but it was just the way the cards fell, really,” he says, sitting in Billabong Group’s Albany HQ, next to a serious stash of tequila bottles, leftovers from Amazon’s 25th birthday party last week.

The affable founder is now 50, and acts as a consultant to the iconic surf, skate and streetwear retailer, which started as a 90 square-metre store in St Lukes, and now numbers 30 stores nationwide. Initially Amazon stocked just Billabong, Hot Tuna and Rip Curl.

Now, it peddles nearly 60 brands. Naming it the unisex ‘Amazon’ rather than ‘Surf, Skate and Sea’ (or something similar) was as much a call to the wild as it was about not pigeonholing the business, Alach explains. It’s a move that has paid off, given that much of the skate market has since moved online, and that Kiwis, while deeply wedded to beach culture, aren’t necessarily to be found with a surfboard under their arm.

Starting with “A” also meant the store would often get deliveries up to three weeks before their competitors, Alach says, laughing. About 15 years later they’d discover the pitfalls of the name, when a certain online bookstore launched, stymying plans to move offshore.

Not that it curtailed progress here. In 2001 Alach sold a 50 per cent share of the business to David Wright of Max Fashions, allowing him to expand their operations from 12 stores to 18. Five years later they partnered with Billabong Group, and grew to 30.

The company is now run by Billabong’s Jason Neely, who greets me at the Amazon Albany store — having high-fived one of the young staff — in T-shirt, jeans and jandals. A longtime surfer and skater, Neely has steered the store through the global financial crisis, and competition from online and global fast fashion chains.

The partnership not only meant Amazon could tap into Billabong’s large stable of brands, it also allowed them to invest in their retail spaces, creating the so-called “customer experience”, a necessity once the internet came along. “Rather than getting a high-end designer in, we got all our staff and suppliers to come into the store one night, got in beers and pizza and put a few ideas on the wall,” Neely explains. “What came out of it was a move towards being more environmentally friendly. It allowed for a lot more creativity.”

Customers at Amazon Albany are now greeted by colourful repurposed walls, promotional images featuring staff members as models, and even board shorts made from recycled plastic bottles. Inevitably, staff are more invested in the store.

To cope with rising rents, they’ve worked to reduce their store sizes, the original St Luke’s shop evolving from 90 sq m, to 200 to 600 and recently back to 300. In Albany, the space has almost halved. Is it enough to keep young shoppers from heading online? Not entirely, says Neely, but he points out that Kiwis like brands they can trust and Amazon is one people have grown up with.

The first item Neely bought from Amazon is a Stussy T-shirt from the Lambton Quay store in the 90s. “It’s really coming back,” he says, pulling a grey tie-dyed Stussy T-shirt from the rack. Over the years he’s seen labels come and go but the perennials tend to be the “heritage brands”:

Nike, Converse, Vans and even old-school Etnies, which, along with Stussy, are currently enjoying a renaissance. Neely also singles out Tauranga’s RPM Clothing as a local success story; co-founder Mike Smith still surfs and snowboards regularly. Action sport brand iLabb, which has its roots in motorcross, and Thing Thing from former Huffer designer Dan Buckley are others. Southern Californian RVCA is also “trending”, says Neely.

“The brands are the difference between authenticity and global fast fashion, knocking off trends,” says Neely. “Billabong was founded by surfers or skaters or creative people and those people live those lifestyles, the brands are a reflection of those lifestyles. They make products that are technically right for that market.”

Today, for instance, Neely is wearing Element jeans, regraded to fit Kiwi men’s calf muscles — apparently our guys are better endowed in the leg department than the Aussies. Another advantage we have on this side of the ditch, is our fashion sense. In the last five years, pocket tees, long tees, drop-crotch denim, chinos and big monochromatic printed tees have proved a hit here. But when Billabong talked about bringing longsleeved tees into Oz, they were almost laughed out of the building.

“We’re 12-18 months ahead, fashion-wise, to Australia,” he says.

Where does all of this leave Amazon leading into the next 25 years? Neely says they always keep one eye on the future, the other on staying true to the past. He still refers to Alach as part of the “Amazon family”; he’s always been a mentor to him. Says Alach, “[Amazon] just needs to keep on inspiring youth and keep on moving, in store and online. If they keep offering youth what they’re after, I still think there’s a future for them.”

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New Zealand Herald

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