Iconic Sydney Retailer Woolys Wheels has just reinvented itself. This large store has been running for 36 years in the same location on Oxford Street Paddington, about 1.5 kilometres south east of the city centre of Sydney.
The business occupies all three floors of a large old building in an upmarket retail shopping strip. Located on a block that slopes down away from the main street, the store appears to be two levels high from Oxford street, but has a lower floor which is at ground level via rear lane access.
Wooly’s started in one part of the main floor, but gradually grew to take over the entire building.
Throughout this time it has been owned and run by Michael Kamahl, who hosted a lively relaunch party on Thursday 3rd December.
“I’m very happy,” he said. “I couldn’t visualise how good it would look and it certainly surpassed my expectations, just bringing it back to openness and a rustic feel.
“Our brief was to make it feel like it fits in with the area and was respectful of the old building. I think we’ve achieved that with the timber floors and bringing back the bricks and the general openness and airiness of it.”
The many suppliers who have dealt with Michael over the years would not be surprised to see that the renovation has been done to such a high standard. But what may be more surprising is Michael’s decision to pare back his brands.
For years he was one of the strongest proponents of stocking a wide range of bicycle brands. With the relaunch, he’s gone very heavily with Specialized for both bikes and P&A, although not down the Concept Store path.
Michael explained his seemingly dramatic change of heart.
“I sat on the fence for a number of years, just seeing what happened and wanting to keep my independence. Specialized said they didn’t want to take over the store feel like other stores.
They recognised that Woolys Wheels had its own brand and heritage a long time established, so they didn’t want to feel that they were taking that over.
“They wanted Woolys Wheels first, selling Specialized. They really stuck to it. There’s only one sign in the whole shop that says Specialized.”
“I would say it works for both of us. We’ve been working with them for years and they’re still the best wholesaler to deal with.
“They contributed to the fit out, so we’re sharing the cost.”
Michael is still stocking a couple of other niche brands, plus one other major brand, Giant.
“We talked about it years ago,” Michael recalled. “They said we couldn’t have Giant here if they did a fit out, but now they’ve actually decided that they’re not worried about it anymore. So we’ve still got Giant, maybe a lesser percentage than it used to be, but the door is still open for Giant.”
Wooly’s is also stocking niche high end UK brand Enigma.
“Enigma has certainly been fitting in to our market,” said Michael. “We had aluminium and we moved on to carbon and now titanium. It’s old school, but it’s beautiful.”
Another surprising change in the new Woolys is seemingly wall to wall
high end carbon road bikes and high end full suspension mountain bikes.
The old Woolys had more of a commuter bikes feel.
Michael explained that this was a deliberate strategy.
“We do the commuter thing really well and we still want to keep doing that, but there’s a deliberate shift to get the middle to high end. We’re in this area with the highest income in the country and the lowest unemployment rate and we should be servicing that market.”
The final big change was to go from trading on three floors back to two.
To achieve this Wooly’s moved their entire workshop, which was previously downstairs up onto the main level.
Then they moved their office / admin area which was in an old apartment at the rear of the top floor, down into the bottom level, which it shares with a bike storage area.
This allowed them to open up the top level entirely to retail space, so they did not actually lose any trading space in reducing the public access to two levels.
“The service guys do so much work and they wanted to be interactive with the customers,” Michael explained, “And now we’re not trying to staff three floors, so I think that’s going to save wages. Also, customers don’t have to lug their bikes down to the service guys anymore.”
The mechanical servicing area itself has no high walls or barriers, so customers and mechanics can easily see and talk to each other.
Meanwhile during the formalities of speeches, Store Manager Nat Richards said, “Thank-you to Specialized. We could not be happier with everything that they’ve helped us deliver. They’ve put in some pretty serious hours of planning and execution and obviously quite a bit of investment as well and we can’t wait to see where the next few years take us together with that.”
During an at times emotional speech, Michael Kamahl began by saying, “I think the most important thing for me is seeing some really old faces,” to which an immediate loud reply from a senior member of the audience came back, ‘Get stuffed!’ which earned plenty of laughter and applause.
Michael continued, “When I was 17 or maybe 16 and lying about my age, Tony Cook gave me a start in the bicycle industry. Also here is Warren Salomon, who I was having dinner with in 1979 and I wanted to open a bike shop in Bondi Beach because that was where I lived. But he said, ‘Have you thought of Oxford Street?’ That night I drove past and I saw this building for $85 per week rent. (Oxford Street was run down then. These days, rents might be 20 times that amount or more.)
“The other crazy guy is Ken who I sat across the road with when I wanted to buy this building and he said, ‘Yeah mate just visualise it! It could be yours.’ And I said, ‘Man, I’m 24!’”
Suffice to say that Michael took that big step at age 24 and is still selling bicycles in the same premises three decades on.
Before and After Series
When we heard that Woolys was about to undertake a major refit, we visited to take a series of photos, just before work started, followed up by photos from the same vantage points on opening night.