Thomas Sotriffer from Premier Coast Tiles has made the successful transition from working as a tiler to becoming a retailer.

As a former tiler and now the proprietor of Premier Coast Tiles in Ulladulla (NSW) for the past three years, Thomas Sotriffer doesn’t think there is a major change from being a professional tiler to a retailer. He said, “I’ve got some experience in hospitality and I think I have developed good people skills. It was like second nature to drop the tools and come into the store.”

Thomas comes from Italy and has called Australia home since 2000. He was actually customer to the store he now owns. As he tells the story: “I said to John [the previous owner] that if he ever decided to sell the shop to let me know. So when he decided to sell, we had a chat and came to an agreement that was good for us both and I decided to give the trade away and go into retail instead.”

Not too surprisingly, Thomas is no longer doing tiling work. He said, “As much as I would like to but it is not physically possible. But in saying that…the experience gained in the tiling industry in having to deal with different products and materials is definitely a big bonus in doing retail because I can advise the customers properly when they make their choice.”

Thomas says he is knowledgeable on “tiles, adhesives, waterproofing, the lot”.

Product know-how is a very important point of difference for the store when competitors such as major hardware stores and tile franchises are located nearby. Thomas explains, “They compete with us by selling cheaper product but we can match their prices, dollar for dollar. By the same token, they do sell products for the home renovator who soemtimes don’t want to spend a great deal. They are also open seven days, whereas we can only manage five-and-a-half.

“I don’t think I am losing a lot of business to them…what they don’t get at Bunnings is the expertise and sound product knowledge.”

Thomas believes he serves a particular market where product expertise can be crucial. He said, “As a tile shop, we need to provide warranties and a guarantee for our products such as adhesives, for example. Whereas a hardware store can sell the same product that I sell without [the same type of] warranty.”

Target markets

Premier Coast Tiles services builders, tradespeople, renovators, DIY homeowners and local handymen in and around Ulladulla, a small town with over 15,000 people – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Census data – on the south coast of NSW. The spit between customers is 60% professional and 40% DIY.

Ulladulla is half way between Batemans Bay to the south and Nowra to the north. Thomas said, “There are quite a few new coastal developments happening with a lot of established and new builders moving to Ulladulla, as a touristy town. A lot of people have a holiday home or investment property for rentals, and there are many retirees relocating from either Sydney or Canberra.

To sell to a diverse clientele, Thomas needs “to keep a bit of stock or a rather large variety of it in order to cater to everybody’s taste and affordability. New home buyers tend to be on a budget whereas people who move from Canberra or Sydney seem to have more expensive taste and some are prepared to pay a premium for a high-quality product.”

Despite “sluggish but steady” trading at the moment, Thomas is confident he has a unique selling proposition (USP) with an “excellent showroom, well-displayed products, competitive pricing and excellent service” in addition to product knowledge.

Buying group benefits

Thomas has been a member of Tile Power since he took over the store, continuing on from the last store owners. He said he inherited membership to the group but it was his choice to continue with, and it wasn’t without an initial risk.

“Even with the up-front fees …you have to pay a bit of money to become a member and you don’t always know what you are getting yourself into. But John was very passionate about the group and he had been a member for over 20 years. He explained the pros and cons and I decided to go with it.”

Being able to access good prices as a member of a buying group is “first and foremost” for Thomas. He said, “You become an co-owner of Tile Power, basically a shareholder, so you effectively have skin in the game.

“One remains independent as a retailer and, it leaves you with the freedoms to buy based on what your [local] market needs.

There is also flexibility in terms of what products can be purchased as a group. “It may not cover all bases so I can purchase tiles from any supplier [outside the group] willing to sell them to me,” explains Thomas.

Every member has input into the products that Tile Power buys. He said, “If the group is not interested in a particular product put to them by the executive then a member or a smaller group of members can get together [to purchase it] if they are prepared to get it for themselves.

“As a group, we may not be able to decide whether a product is feasible or not to bring in. But if others believe they can sell it, they buy as a mini-group within the group. If the sales of that product get any traction then the other members of the group can jump on board and re-orders can be done. Sometimes this is the only way it works.”

Thomas, in conjunction with two other stores in in Batemans Bay and Penrith, have decided to import a colourful tile range. He said, “They are sourced from Italy. I went to visit an Italian company I had previous contact with, and they gave me a good introduction to their products.

When I came back, I put it to the board and the rest of the members. Two of them really liked the product and decided to jump on board so together we bought a container of a mixed lot of mainly coloured tiles, for both walls and floors. They are mainly blue with shades of green, or emerald and aqua.”

They seem to be colours that should work well for a tile store situated in a coastal town. Understandably, others in the group were more reluctant to import bright coloured tiles because they can be slower to sell in stores.

However, Thomas believes his local market only has “shades of grey and brown which becomes a little bit boring. It is more interesting and exciting to mix it up with bright colours.”

Allowing a great deal of flexibility, other group members can still purchase these tiles at cost through Tile Power Ulladulla, Batemans Bay or Penrith.

Premier Coast Tiles is also a member of bathroom group BIGA+ since late 2017. Thomas has seen plumbing shops starting to sell tiling and vice versa. “We decided to implement bathroomware with our tiles so it becomes a one-stop-shop for your bathroom renovation,” he said.

Overall, Thomas believes his membership to Tile Power has been so successful that he would like to encourage other Australian independent tile retailers to join the group for benefits such as great pricing, independence and networking opportunities.

Best sellers

The store sells a mix of Australian and imported Italian and Chinese products. “At the moment, concrete-effects and polished concrete are selling well for the industrial look. The greys are the safest options for people who are often reluctant to go for bold colours,” explains Thomas.

“More colour comes into play when it comes to renovating a bathroom or a kitchen. We also offer free local delivery and discounts on bulk buys. “We mainly rely on store displays that are constantly evolving.

“The store has been in its current form for 18 years so it is well established, and it has been in the area for over 30 years,” he adds.

Instead of focusing on traditional store promotions, Thomas said he is interested on developing on e-commerce in the near future. “The product varies so much but we [Tile Power] do have a corporate website that has all the products we carry in stock with features and explanations. [It also] has ‘sub-sites’ that go to each store individually. If people are interested in a product they can contact the store directly and make the purchase or get more information,” he said.

The website is regularly updated with new stock and brands. More interestingly, Thomas is also learning more about social media by doing an introductory course on Facebook and Instagram. “My daughter who is better versed in these things; she is part of the team and leads the way. She said she can easily take care of things for me and all have to do is feed her with pictures and promotions,” he said.

Story by Betty Tanddo.