x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Anthony James: The shopaholic who wants to reinvent retail

Anthony James is by no means thrifty, having lost count of the number of pairs of jeans he owns. But despite being a self-confessed shopaholic, his own retail venture allows customers to walk away with goods for free.

Illustration of Anthony James by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration of Anthony James by Christopher Burke for The National

Anthony James has lost count of the number of pairs of jeans he owns, but he admits it is well into the hundreds. His wardrobe, which is about the size of his bedroom, is larger than his wife's and spills over into two spare rooms.

And during one of his more extravagant months - although certainly not one in which he would buy a watch - he typically spends about US$25,000 (Dh91,832) on himself.

As for watches, he owns about 70 of them and typically travels with up to 10 timepieces in his suitcase.

He is the first to admit that he is a shopaholic but would refute any suggestion he is materialistic. "Absolutely not. I actually don't regard myself as materialistic," says Mr James, a 43-year-old Australian from Sydney who still calls the city home.

The founder of Sample Central, a store that officially opened in Dubai last week, Mr James sees himself as more of a collector.

But perhaps it would take someone with his level of obsession with shopping to reinvent the retail model.

After all, companies now pay his outlets to display their products, while customers walk away with them for free, in return for a Dh100 membership fee and their feedback.

"The currency is your opinion," says Mr James in an oft-repeated catchphrase during our interview at the launch of the Dubai Sample Central branch.

He is happy to speak at length about how his company's "innovative approach" is different in matching retailers to potential new customers.

"The toothpaste you used this morning is probably the toothpaste you have been using since you were a little girl, that probably your parents were buying you," says Mr James.

"When was the last time [you saw] a TV ad with a guy and a girl with big white pearly teeth running down a beach, when did that make you run out and buy a new brand of toothpaste?"

Never, I admit, as I find myself nodding along in agreement with his argument, succumbing to his persuasive sales pitch.

"I looked at these factors and said: 'You know what? There has to be a way to reinvent the retail model'."

But Mr James is more cagey about how his model makes money, although he admits that is roughly based on fees brands pay for placing products in store and the customer membership charges.

"We keep our business model quite close to our chest, mainly because we have had copies appear around the world. They have never lasted very long."

But then again Sample Central nearly did not survive.

The company made "monumental mistakes" in its first store in Japan, a location he partly chose because two of his business partners were from the country, including signing up 1.8 million members in less than eight months.

"That was a big one because we couldn't get them all through the store in a year," admits Mr James.

"It was fine because the Japanese market is very compliant with a lot of these things."

But while Mr James is humble about the mistakes he made early on with Sample Central, he does not hold back when speaking about some of his achievements.

He started out in IT, and worked with IBM for 19 years before getting into the promotions business.

"I was one of the principal architects of the IBM e-business division worldwide. Everybody's heard of e-business. There's one person sitting in this room who invented the name e-business," he says.

"I decided after a period of time to get out of IT and I went into the promotions industry. I ran the largest promotional agency in the world."

He quickly follows the statement up with the name of the company - Creata - admitting that nobody has ever heard of it. But he is right in saying it is a big deal.

While working as the chief creative of Creata he was responsible for the design and manufacture of every McDonald's Happy Meal toy on the planet. "That's 1.3 billion toys a year," he says.

In addition to the McDonald's account, Mr James also ran the Kellogg's promotions, which means anything that came out of a cereal packet or involved the collection of barcodes, he designed.

All of the work for McDonald's was "pitch and win", meaning he visited many restaurants around the world to suggest promotional campaigns.

"Basically we were selling ideas, creative ideas to the organisation worldwide. We used to joke because I used to go through three or four passports a year."

Living on a plane for 70 per cent of the year was not exactly fun, even though travelling business and first class helped to soften the blow.

"I'm also a great people watcher. I like to observe and watch people not only in retail but in life as well.

"My preference was sitting outside in the terminal watching people rather than sitting in the stuffy lounge. Often the same people, but certainly the same staff and the same bad food and coffee. It was better to sit in the terminal and see travellers and their excitement going on their first trips."

He credits his own trips with helping him to come up with the idea for Sample Central.

And the extensive travel in his promotions role also allowed him to pursue his other passion. "I got to shop everywhere I went," he says.

"I collect a number of things. Shoes, jeans and watches are my favourite but nothing is out of my realm of shopping. I love shoes. I love retail anyway."

He is a far bigger shopper than his wife, whose wardrobe is "relatively small" compared to his. But she does have a large collection of Jimmy Choo handbags. "I happen to like his designs," he says.

However he insists that he is not all about designer brands. "It's really more an eye for detail, eye for attention and uniqueness as well … I have a large number of handmade or hand-painted jeans that are quite special and I know nobody else has."

All his clothes are hung "nice and straight" so he can look at them.

"This is the first time I have been in this suit in probably 20 years. But I had to do something different to surprise the staff."

For him, shopping is already a fun experience but he hopes that by making everything in his store free, it will become more enjoyable for those who are more reluctant to part with their cash.

"At the end of the day we're all consumers. We're all out there and we've all got to buy products."