Murphy's Mitre 10 Monbulk, Victoria
Julie Murphy shows mighty potential
Murphy's Mitre 10 is perched on a round-about in Monbulk (VIC)
Murphy's Mitre 10 is perched on a round-about in Monbulk (VIC)
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Tucked away in the Dandenong Ranges, Murphy's Mitre 10 has inherited a long history, and is breaking new ground under its owner
HI News Vol. 3 No. 11
There is something a little mystical about the journey through the steep-sided hills that lead up to the low mountains that make up Victoria's Dandenong Ranges. One moment you are driving through what seems like dense bushland, and the next it is as though you have entered a different realm, one of tall trees and low, spreading tree ferns. Early tales tell of trees that were far taller and wider than the giant redwoods of California. All gone now, of course, but there remains something a little primordial about this place.

Monbulk sits on the edge of this area, surrounded by a patchwork of small properties, cleared 100 or more years ago by those early settlers. It's the kind of place that has a main street named "Main Road" lined with all the usual suspects: a great bakery, a Chinese restaurant, a couple of banks, the fancy cafe where the "in" crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings go, a cafe for the older or less hip, a big Woolworths supermarket, a primary school, and, clustered around that, a bowls club, playing field and recreational centre.

And at the very top of Main Road, where it intersects via a giant roundabout, at the point where the Monbulk-Olinda Road becomes just plain Monbulk Road as it turns away north into the nearby area of Silvan, sits Murphy's Mitre 10.

Potential, real potential, is something you don't see too often in retail - not even in home improvement retail. But if you want to see what it looks like, then Murphy's Mitre 10 could prove to be a good example.

Potential is seldom made up of one element. It is more likely, as in the case of Murphy's, to come from a range of sources. One element is certainly the premises themselves, which have a great location, with both room for expansion and a built-in diversity of retail space. A second element is the community of Monbulk itself. Unlike modern suburbs, Monbulk is not just a line on a statistical map somewhere. It's a real and genuine community, with a unique history, and many personal and family links.

The third element is that Monbulk is poised on the brink of a likely change in its demography, as the increasing house price pressure of the Melbourne suburbs converts it into a more viable "dormitory" suburb.

All that counts, but the main source of this potential is, without doubt, the current owner and manager of Murphy's, Julie Murphy herself. It is a potential that is already reaching beyond her Monbulk store, which she has been managing full-time since 2016, into the home improvement retail industry itself, as she has become one of the driving forces behind the launch of the "Women in Hardware" movement.

This potential is a consequence not only of the evident abilities of Julie herself, but also because she brings with her one of the things the Australian home improvement industry is in urgent need of: cross-fertilisation from other industries and areas.

To get an understanding of how all this could come together, we need first to look at the history of the Monbulk area (including its economics), the legacy effect this has had on town-planning, the shift in the region's demographics over the past five years, as well as how all this plays into some of the effects-at-a-distance generated by Victoria's capital city, Melbourne, some 45km away to the west.
The Store

On entering Murphy's Mitre 10 your first impression is that Julie and her floor manager Nick have managed to create a space that feels bigger than its nominal 2800 square metres of floorspace. That is quite a feat in hardware retail, where both very small and very large products are featured, and part of the name of the game is to have as broad a range as possible. Many hardware stores, even those larger than Murphy's, manage something you might call the "reverse Tardis effect": they make a big space seem much smaller than it really is.

What Julie has done with the space is to clearly follow through on three basics of good retail design: "staging" of the customer journey through the store, the application of appropriate scale to the displays, and a good understanding of how to manage standard sales displays of typical merchandise, and the display of more "impulse" buys.

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Of the three, the one that Julie and her team excel at, and which is, for a smaller store, of key importance, is staging. Staging really refers to tracking the progress of customers through the store, and providing them with a set "view" at each stage of that journey.

In Murphy's Mitre 10 this begins with the first thing the customer sees when coming in the front entrance: a long, wide discount table, with two levels of discounted goods. Immediately to the right of this are two aisles of power tools.

These aisles and the adjacent aisles are kept low, providing a clear view of the back walls, and promoting the open, spacious aspect of the store. Turning right and facing towards them, behind to the right are power tool accessories, such as cutting wheels. Along to the left, are the more specialised power tools, such as nailguns.

The endcaps on the power tool aisles are used for a mixture of seasonal sales, in spring barbecue charcoal and storage containers (spring cleaning), along with more discount stock, such as the last of the winter's electric heaters. Turning back to the main direction of entry, the endcaps of the aisles just beyond the big discount table are a mixture of more seasonal goods, in this case axes, along with "specials" that hint at the products on the aisle shelving, such as fasteners, in this case for nailguns. This meshes nicely with what customers looking at the nailguns along the back wall will see these when they turn back towards the centre of the store.

One of the important elements to creating successful staging is the colour palette used in the store. All too often stores tend to use a dominant darker colour (in Mitre 10 usually the brand's darker blue). That can work in larger spaces, such as the dominant red that runs through Bunnings stores (dark green is actually the brand's foreground colour). In smaller stores, the dark colours tend to add to the reverse Tardis effect, shrinking the space.

Universally, you really need to go with a light colour, accented with darker colours. Murphy's has a very tightly controlled palette, with the main background in a softer white, outlined with racking and shelving in a "clay" colour, which splits the difference between a soft grey and an off-white. This is accented with the three shades of Mitre 10 blue, which contrasts with the whites to produce a sense of crispness and liveliness.

There is a lot going on in this entryway space, but it's not annoying because underlying the displays is a form of "narrative" that helps to make sense of what is seen. The discounts are enticing, and, like the "pods" of specials in a Bunnings warehouse, they provide the drama of "surprise", resetting customer expectations of what they can afford. The seasonal goods trigger the "oh, that's right, I'm going to need that now" buying behaviour, which can turn a $10 pick-up-a-lightbulb shopping trip into a $100 buying-the-essentials shopping trip.

While she has been very inventive, Julie has some concerns about the displays, and the ways in which she has changed the store. As she explains:
I like the merchandising side of it. When I first started here full-time last year, I spent a lot of time cleaning up what was done, changing areas. We re-jigged the paint area and changed where plumbing and housewares were placed, as previously this was stuck in the corner. But I wonder if that's because we have got a few females on staff, and females look at it a bit differently.
Sometimes I find I put my views across more than probably what I should, I should probably be thinking more of the customer. I often think I like it like that so that's the way it should be. But then I wonder if the customer likes it like that. Is a male customer going to look at it and think, "That's not the way to do it"?

If there is something that could be identified as "feminine" about the layout of the store, it's that it is borrowing heavily from the way that women's fashion and homewares retailers design the shopping experience. That design, however, has as much to do with male designers as women, so what Julie is doing here is very far from the idea of a "woman/s touch" and more to do with a cross-fertilisation from forms of retail that are considerably ahead of home improvement retail in this regards.

"Traditional" home improvement retail design relies primarily on defined categories that are laid out in an understandable way, like an indexed collection for the customer to browse, with the odd impulse-buy, cross-category display thrown in. This is, essentially, the way goods for the building trades get displayed, because tradies (mostly) know what they want, and need to get in and get out and back to the job as quickly as possible. Particularly when it comes to Mitre 10, this has been (unfortunately) a little cross-fertilised with supermarket-style displays.

The kind of display that Julie and her team are promoting at Murphy's Mitre 10 is actually needs-based. Good fashion retailers are not just putting goods out for sale, they are also informing and assisting their clients, reminding them what is in style, and showing how they can follow those styles in a way that suits their body shape and the rest of their wardrobe.

The entryway at Murphy's is showing off what is new, what is discounted, and what the customer will be needing this season. It is prompting, reminding and enticing. This enticement takes place at both ends of customer expectations: this is going cheap, and this over here is brand new and different.

One area that Murphy's Mitre 10 really shows up as lacking industry-wide for many independent hardware stores is power tool ranging. Julie mentions this as one of the areas that she and Nick are concentrating on developing.
We fixed that [the power tool display] about six months ago. Mitre 10 do an HSA , they come through the store and critique you, in a way. They say this area needs doing or improving, and they do it once or twice a year. And they did it not long after I started in the chair full-time. The first results were not really good. One of the things they mentioned were the power tools. It was pretty messy, so we decided to focus on the power tools. Nick and I did the power tools.
We did the first bay of power tools that features Rockwell/Worx and that is nice and bright. But the next bay we are still working out what to put there. It's hard for me at the moment know which power tool sells. It's really hard to know what will sell up here.
It's getting to know your demographics. At the moment, we have Makita and DeWalt and Bosch. So with got a bit of everything at the moment to trial it but we're trying to streamline it now. And now I'm looking at the Makita MT series which is slightly cheaper, but still has the name. But you get to know what sits there on the shelves for a while.

While Julie, in typical good retailer fashion, looks to herself and her store's own practices in relation to fixing the power tool range problem, the reality is that most of the power tool manufacturers distributing in Australia are really letting down independent retailers in terms of the ranges they offer. Instead of providing clear "hero" tools that consumers and the handyman trades can buy with confidence, they've presented a bewildering range of possibilities, that only an online-based retailer, a specialty shop, or Bunnings could possible begin to stock. For example, Makita alone now offers 18-volt, compact 18-volt, 12-volt (aka 10.8-volt), and the MT Series.

Julie thus faces the same problem that most smaller independents face: find a way to work with the mainstream brands, or head off into some of the better-suited, but less known alternatives. For example, Hitachi offers just the right kind of range for smaller independents, but it's a lesser-known brand with which consumers are not comfortable. The Bosch Blue 12-volt range is a great choice for consumers as well, but none of the manufacturers have done a decent job in marketing 12-volt.

There is a lot more that could be said about how Julie and her team have developed staging in Murphy's, including making the back end of the lower level which leads directly on from the entrance into a packed ranging of a wide variety of essentials, including automotive, fasteners and clothing, where it's easy to select goods and the main choices are displayed clearly. It is not universally great everywhere, but the places where attention has been paid, Julie has found some slightly unconventional solutions that really work.

The above is an extract from a longer article. To download the full edition of HI News, complete with this article, please click link below:
HI News Vol. 3 No. 11: Murphy's Mitre 10
HI News Vol. 3 No. 11

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