Fast Company

REMO: Selling the story, not the stripey thing


MOVIE CLIP: The Galfromdownunder visits REMO

A couple of posts ago I was hauled over the barbie for excoriating a company - or rather its heart-on-sleeve email - for giving its customers "too much information". Their cash flow was trickling through an s-bend (no crime in that), and they appealed to their community for help ... right down to baring their bar charts. Read that diatribe.

Well! You know when you've met your evangelistic match: after removing the axe from the webmaster's shaking hands and the pins from a small, Oriental looking doll in bicycle shorts, the owner invited me across town for the proverbial beer and banter. (Note: this is the way neighborly disputes are resolved downunder - with a beer, not a barrister or barrel of a .22).

Not only was I offered a custom minted t-shirt of my dreams, I received a personal invite to their Very Special Customer night, where I might videoblog their operations. I present my findings here for those interested in how an olde worlde business model works in this preoccupied and attention-deficient brave new world ...

20 years ago REMO was a hip and iconic "general store" occupying a corner of Oxford St Sydney. From the site:

"REMO was launched in Sydney Australia in 1988 as a General Store with a mission to seek out and celebrate Quality & Passion in people and merchandise gathered together from all over the world. From the shelves of that original General Store and the minds of its many CustOMERs sprang a thoughtful, high quality and unique brand of general merchandise."

The founding father is the equally iconic Remo Giuffre (pronounced "je-fray"), an affable Italo-Aussie who reminds me of an Alexei Sayle, a laughing Bhudda and a horn-rimmed metrosexual all cosied up on the same chaise. Since then, REMO the store has gone from curbside to cyberside with the same credo as when it started: it's not about the stuff, it's the story.

Stories were once the cornerstone of community, and, in this age of cyber-communing, REMO feels we need to listen 'n' tell more often.

"Let's face it, people don't need more stuff," he says, waving a hand over his signature stripey tops, a pyramid of yellow plastic banana valises and a giant spotted rubber duck. "But an inconvenient truth is that we need to sell stuff to survive. So, customers have stories, the products have stories, we share those stories and the buying is an afterthought ... it's the selling you do when you're not really selling."

The perfect-bound REMO "Printed Thing" - a hybrid catalog-planner-almanac - is a story book. There's equal bedtime reading between customers, products, and company philosophy, and not a price tag in sight - the buying really is an afterthought. A bit like ye olde corner store, where you might go to hang ten rather than tick off a laundry list?

"We've re-appropriated a very old fashioned term, 'General Store', for that reason," says Remo, pointing to a vintage poster of his then-fledgling operation. On his business card is the position title "Merchant".

"A general store is place you go to not just to buy things, but to linger, to check the notice boards, to check your mail, to have a cup of coffee, to belong, with others, in a community."

Then along came the internet ...

"... enabling us to take that traditional concept, and scale it for a global community."

Online communities aren't new, but REMO and his wily webmaster Adam have kicked it up several notches.

Their REMO Design-O-Matic t-shirt software was the center of some controversy recently, a sardonic Aussie public going literally berserk with designing anti-papal slogans for World Youth Day. The software lets members dream up, print, share and vote on original and famous designs. But wait, there's more. The website awards a member points and commissions according to "350 categories of involvement, including referrals, designing, participation in polls etc."

Surely purchasing a product would garner most points?

"Nope - referrals do," says Remo, cognizant of the olde adage: it's easier to keep a customer than to gain a new one.

"Anyone you refer gets sent a note telling them they can choose any t-shirt they like from our massive range, for free."

Wait, couldn't that send the company broke? I mentally line up ten friends from my address book.

"Like with any community, things tend to be self-selecting," says REMO, revealing another cornerstone of his business model - good olde-fashioned trust. As an artist once said to me, "Without trust, we cannot start."

The warehouse in Sydney's Surry Hills' former red-light district is a far cry from the prime storefront he operated 20 years ago. But trust doesn't need a room with a view - his wow factor website is a two-way window for REMO and 33,000 customers in 11 countries - and REMO's real home is a stone's throw from the beach.

He showed me the member page of one rabid customer who has designed 40 t-shirts. She's logged her entire life there, uploaded pictures of family, dreams and aspirations, and answered every poll - but has only referred two people. "Horses for courses," says Remo.

REMO's affiliate button is a work of art - a graphic of the phrenology "brain" with sections of grey matter that pulsate in and out - a rare, likeable banner ad on anyone's site. Moment by moment reports tell him exactly who has downloaded the button, bringing yet another member into the fold.

And what of the merchandise? Take a look for yourself. My lasting memory of REMO was of a little fake button with a metal spring that makes a man's shirt collar a couple of sizes bigger.

"Although we're tiny, we have to potential to be very big, because it's such a timely idea, the idea of belonging, using the merchandise as the glue that sticks everyone together."

Like that little molded suitcase for transporting a banana?

"Like this little bottle of Bo-Peep sweets."

Like those Cuisenaire rods with the fluorescent dye I use to love to sniff as a kid, and jumble about to make that clackety-clacking sound like the bleached bones of chickens, and wanted to eat?

"Like this stripey thing that makes you look like a Francophile with artistic angst when you're anything but."

So did we reach a truce on his SOS email strategy? We agreed to disagree.

"I believe in all or nothing honesty," says REMO.

"And I prefer gradations of honesty erring on the side of authenticity," says the Galfromdownunder.

But who cares what I think. I been to REMO, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt - because I got to design it.


The Galfromdownunder and REMO, both champions of their respective Lovemarks, agree on one thing: without a story to read, it's stuff you don't need.

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1 Comments

  • Adam Dennis

    It is indeed about the story ... and with this article the Galfromdownunder demonstrated her humility and openness. As the webmaster whose shaking hands were indeed divested of an axe on the day of Lynette's original commentary on REMO's habits of honesty, I was thrilled not only to read this piece, but also to see the video (linked above somewhere). It showed Remo-the-man's gregarious and natural presentation, the way he is when he's on his game, ebullient and enthusiastic ... and that's the guy the CustOMERs love to see personifying the brand. Great work on this article, and brilliant work on the vid. Keep it up, small Oriental-looking doll!