The world of retail is so vastly different to the era USG started trading in that you could be forgiven for thinking it was another century altogether.
A store ahead of its time
Last century, when Patrick Whelan opened his store in Regent Arcade – US Gear – he found it difficult to get a meeting with a key supplier, Nike.
“They were still very sports focused,” says Patrick. “When I first approached them in the late ’90s I couldn’t even sit down and have a conversation with them. We couldn’t make them see what we saw in the brand and how we wanted to work with the brand.”
That was back in the day of Rowe & Jarman and Nike were probably sensible to give first drop of the new Air Jordan to a larger store rather than to a little store like Patrick’s. But Patrick increased USG’s store size twice in Regent Arcade before eventually moving to a larger store again in the Myer Centre and, well, Rowe & Jarman closed down. And Nike?
“We’re a part of their ‘neighbourhood program’ – a select group of boutiques which are getting access to some quite exclusive and really good product,” says Patrick. Patrick knew back in the ’90s that Nike was a status symbol more than a sporting good.
USG today has undergone another facelift, with eye-catching design features like a stunning, illuminated wall of sneakers and a locked glass cabinet for the real-deal NBA jerseys Patrick is importing.
Patrick’s journey over nearly three decades in retail has always been focused on his customer and making sure he’s selling what they’re buying. In this way, he’s managed to build a following and culture around the shop that brands like Nike, Reebok and Adidas want to be a part of, even though they’ve got flagship stores close by in Rundle Mall. Thanks to social media, big brands can see the cultural capital and the very real following a shop like USG has.
This gives Patrick equity in the industry and a point of difference to his chain store competitors.
“The biggest change is social media,” says Patrick. “There was none of that for the first half-life of USG.”
Patrick can release exclusive sneakers online, he can manage customer expectations and hype new products on Instagram, but he’s always conscious to leave his customers wanting more.
“You’ve got to give them a reason to come in store,” says Patrick. And that means not putting everything online. It means, “doing a new shop fit to look attractive and make our store look like it could absolutely be in a Hong Kong, or a New York or an LA.” says Patrick.
Indeed, Patrick’s been getting a lot of comments recently about the shop, about how it looks like it belongs in Melbourne or Sydney. But he’s not buying it. ” I just think, ‘Well no, it’s in Adelaide, why can’t it be in Adelaide?’” he asks rhetorically.
Gone are the days when you used to need to fly interstate to get what you want. Now you can buy whatever you want on your phone and that’s the benchmark Patrick believes in.
“Even though I’ve been doing this for so long, it doesn’t feel like that,” Patrick muses and then clarifies, “It feels like I started yesterday.”