The Specialists. Just surviving or thriving?

By Jess Brunette August 01, 2015 Industry features & issues

In recent issues we’ve looked at the changing marketplace of the independents and the service industry. This time we turn the spotlight on the specialists. Seemingly massively outgunned by the national retail chains, can they compete? Jess Brunette reports.

To view a PDF of the complete feature as it appeared in Wares magazine, click the download button at the bottom of this page.



What they do – Single store in Warkworth specialises in all things photography with a full photo lab in-store.  

How are they doing?The Camera Shop has done very well in recent years with “huge and surprising growth” in a declining market. Rather than damaging its business, the emergence of several chain stores in Warkworth’s small town centre has increased sales, drawing more shoppers to the area as a shopping destination for the wider region.

What makes this specialist special?

  • Experienced, passionate staff.
  • Strong online presence with significant national sales.
  • Expert advice through blog posts and online interactions with customers building trust and consumer confidence.
  • Strong after sales service.

Managing Director, Colin Stables: “It’s the end to end solution. We listen to people, ask them questions and find out what they are looking for and we give them solutions. And we have always been true photo specialists. It’s very tempting to do something else but we don’t sell phones, scanners or printers – other stores are seen as a destination for that kind of stuff.”

Tricks of the trade – “We have to be very clever to retain customers. Once we show them what they want we are up front and say ‘please don’t showroom me, we are competitive, and can match prices so let’s keep this process going’ and we invite them to shop with us.

"They will make the effort to shop with you if you ask them, but if you don’t they will just compare on price.  

The success of the store’s website has also helped to temper the effects of showrooming on its bottom line: “The in-store customers we lose to online shopping we gain in our own online sales and nationwide presence. And that’s why I work hard on the website so that the more we lose to online sales the more we gain, so it’s a win-win. So you’ve absolutely got to have both bases covered even if it is very hard work!” 




What they do – With three stores in Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, EES specialises in the selling and installation of heating and air conditioning solutions using a wide range of heat pumps and ducted ventilation systems for residential and commercial projects.

How are they doing? – Since starting in 2011, EES has quickly grown from a two-man band to an operation with 95 staff and is currently the largest heat pump dealer in the country.

What makes this specialist special?

  • Leaders in the design, manufacture and installation of cutting edge ducted central heating solutions for residential homes.
  • Ducted systems maximise the effectiveness of heat pumps, reducing the need for multiple units for a best value heating solution for the whole home.
  • Large scale operation with a wide range of brands and models and fast turnaround, “even in winter”.

Team Leader, James Logan: “We offer a cohesive service that you wouldn’t get through a chain supplier. There is a lot of technical knowledge that goes into selling and installing a heat pump and, when they are trying to do that, there are probably things they don’t know which, being a specialist, we do.”

Tricks of the trade – “For most people, ducting is quite difficult to install but it’s what everyone wants: for the whole house to be comfortable for a decent price.

"So we have innovated in terms of our install strategy and have five ducted systems going in per day now and we are helping people to get a good result for a good price without the need for units all over their house.”

EES also runs a very tight ship behind the scenes: “I have a good IT and sales background so all our back end processes are pretty slick. We run pretty mean in terms of admin and sales and we have very ambitious people managing in those roles. We have also been recruiting trades all year to bring on more installation resource and anyone that’s ambitious, good and can be trained, we will take them on.”





What they do – Games and hobby specialist with a single store in Central Auckland and an online store shipping nationwide. Livewire Games is a close partner of Vagabond Games & Collectables which operates next door in downtown Auckland.

How are they doing? – Since opening in 2006, Livewire has done strong business with excellent responses from gamers nationwide building a very loyal customer base. The GFC saw a dip but the last 12 months have seen sales increases. The physical store does excellent trade particularly with international students living in downtown Auckland. 

What makes this specialist special?

  • Carries “the widest range of video games in the country”.
  • Product specialisation – along with the major titles, Livewire stocks (or can order) popular Asian, Europe and US releases that are unavailable in New Zealand chain stores as well as niche and independent titles.
  • Experienced multi-lingual staff with a comprehensive knowledge of games that goes well beyond what’s on the box.

Store Manager, Amol Singh: “In chain stores the knowledge of a product by their staff members can be pretty limited whereas we know each item, where it comes from and who made what in the design process.”

Tricks of the trade – Singh has found an honest approach, based on real staff experience has been a great asset to building a loyal customer base: “Trust is a big part of it. Some games get a huge hype but maybe aren’t that good so people remember if you are honest and steer them right and will trust you in future.”

The store’s comprehensive stock of games has also helped to keep customers coming in the door. “If you don’t have a game someone asks for they will just go online and get it there and never come back to your store, or any store, to be honest. Where, even if you don’t have a great knowledge of a game but sell it on the shop floor, they will come back as you have made them happy on the sale.”



What they do – Specialist in German kitchens and kitchen design with over 35 brands of international kitchen appliances on offer. Six stores in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch, Timaru and Dunedin.

How are they doing? – Having started out with a single store in 2003, Palazzo Kitchens & Appliances has seen year on year growth as demand for a “Palazzo Kitchen” has grown among home owners. A national agreement with David Reid Homes and a new Auckland store promises even more business this year.

What makes this specialist special?

  • New Zealand’s leading stockist of Nobilia, the world’s largest producer of kitchens.

Managing Director, Ron Neale: “We employ 29 designers; they are our sales people and they sell on what will make a kitchen look good and focus on features, benefits and quality, not just price. And we are different from the appliance industry that gets caught up with what their competitor is doing and get into price wars which is self-destructive.”

Tricks of the trade – Palazzo’s meticulously designed showrooms are the cornerstone of its business, letting the kitchens sell themselves to their customers.

Says Ron Neale: “The quality of our showrooms is very important to me. We mainly use European appliances designed for integration so every one of our stores looks high-end where some appliance stores look like second hand outlets.”



What they do – Hi-fi and home theatre solutions specialist with a wide range of products from mid-range to high end audiophile level gear. Two Auckland stores in Mount Eden and Albany.

How are they doing? – While Paul Money has a loyal customer base of hi-fi enthusiasts, the audio market is increasingly tough with the hi-fi heyday of the mid-80s to mid-2000s giving way to the market for smaller systems favoured by millennials.

What makes this specialist special?

  • Knowledgeable staff with 18 years average industry experience.
  • Collated selection of products gives the best solutions at different price points rather than covering all major brands.
  • Creates custom audio systems based on user preference and budget rather than brand.
  • In-store demonstrations.

Director, John Tom: “I don’t see myself as a traditional retailer; I’m more of a solutions provider. So, whether they are after a certain way to listen to music, a certain size or colour we can find a customised solution and work to a budget. And we really do our homework whereas a chain will offer you models A, B or C – and they all have the same stuff.”

Tricks of the trade – “There is a real art to building up a good 2-channel system. It’s not always about the brands or the price, it’s about building the best you can with a given budget and knowing how to apportion that to do what they want best, whether it’s streaming or listening to vinyl,” says John Tom. 

Truly custom audio solutions require serous in store experimentation to find what he calls “hi -fi bargains”: “We try a lot of different combinations to learn the synergies that one brand might get with another. Sometimes you can put two top-end products together and be underwhelmed by the results, but sometimes you can get two good but middle range products together and they really sing!”




What they do – The core of this specialist’s business has moved over the years from shaving products to sharpening and servicing of shavers, clippers and repairs for major appliance brands. It still carries a select range of quality shaving and grooming products at its store on Dominion Road, Auckland.

How are they doing? – Formerly The Shaver Shop on Pitt Street for many years, this family-owned business moved and rebranded in 2014 to better reflect its focus on servicing rather than retail. 

When my father started the business in 1953, we were the only ones specialising in shavers but that has completely changed now so we have to change too,” says Kim Schiavi.

The move to the larger Dominion Road store has improved the service capability of the store while the rebrand has seen them retain their customer base and pick up new customers in what Schiavi describes as “a very tough market”.

What makes this specialist special?

  • Dedicated sharpening workshop with top-end equipment producing a longer lasting edge for shavers, clippers, trimmers, knives, scissors and gardening tools.
  • Authorised under warranty repair specialists for many major small appliance brands.
  • Knowledgeable, customer focused and friendly staff with generations of experience under their belts.
  • Carefully selected range of quality shaving products.

Tricks of the trade – “We put great energy into helping our customers and building good relationships with them is vital,” says Schiavi.


 As I look for commonalities across the specialists interviewed, they all deserve a solid B+ to A on their report cards. In the case of these successful specialists, to compete against the chains requires passionate staff with expert knowledge, an impressive online presence and to be more solutions-based than price-driven. Tick all of these boxes and you won’t just survive – you’ll thrive.


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