In January 1995 I paid an absurd amount of money for a product I'd never seen or touched. I still have this item, which I'd ordered from a mail-order catalog based in Sydney, Australia. "Sea Shell Headphones: Hands Free Sounds of the Sea" reads the label on the box. As advertised, each earpiece is a genuine cowrie shell; when I put on the headset, I can hear the faint sound of gentle surf. You probably won't be surprised to learn that the prototype was created for an art installation.
There were a bunch of other things in that order (I know because I saved the receipt)--mainly swim caps (I swam on a masters team back then) imprinted with odd, neatly rendered images: a fez, a light bulb, a smile. On another occasion I ordered a set of seven handkerchiefs, each with the name of a different deadly sin in wickedly appropriate typography: E NVY says one of them, spacing [sic]. Then there were the soft, creamy T-shirts with the tidy, quirky designs. This was pre-Internet, so I had to handwrite my orders and send them by mail. It took about a week for my order to reach Sydney and another couple of weeks for my shipment to reach me. Once I tucked a note into my order, mildly complaining that here in California I couldn't find Vegemite--the thick, salty yeast paste that's the Australian national food, and for which I'd developed a craving when I lived overseas--in jars larger than 2 ounces. To my amazement, when my order arrived I discovered a pint jar of the stuff.
The company that delivered this serendipitous happiness was called REMO, and if it seems too good to be true...well, it almost was. REMO had been founded in 1988 by a lapsed lawyer and Sydney native named Remo Giuffré who nearly broke his mother's heart when he told her he wanted to open a general store. Giuffré had something unique in mind for his store, which he articulated in a 1991 catalog: "Store as information broker. We see this as the ultimate service. Enabling our customers to communicate with each other by virtue of their shared relationship with the Store."
In other words, REMO was an Internet brand before there was an Internet.
REMO didn't just sell things (the catalog liked to refer to products as "things," as in "stripey things" and "spotty things"); it told stories about them. And the stories were so compelling and well written that you had to buy the things so you could keep telling yourself the stories, and telling them to your friends. REMO also believed in the power of community: it willingly accepted product ideas and critiques from customers and actually did something with them.
Alas, REMO hit a patch of very bad luck. The company had taken on an operating partner to facilitate growth, and in late 1995 the partner defaulted. In 1996 REMO was forced to close its landmark store, and in 1997 the wonderful catalog went into "hibernation." Giuffré and his family moved for a while to the U.S., where Giuffré worked as a branding strategist for frog design and later Organic.
I didn't know any of this until a few days ago; all I knew was that the catalogs mysteriously stopped arriving. Then I read a post by John Dodds at Make Marketing History about Remo Giuffré, with a link to--mirabile dictu--the REMO General Store web site. Turns out that back in 2000 Giuffré had put together some angel investors and launched a small, nontransactional web site called "The Gathering." It was an overnight viral success: starting with just 90 email addresses, the site drew 6,000 registered CustOMERs. (That's how REMO always spells it; OMER is, of course, REMO spelled backward.) More than 12% of these customers recommended other customers. Even though--here's the incredible thing--there was nothing to buy.
Today we'd recognize this phenomenon for the social-networking miracle it is. But six years ago the market had decreed that online retail was passé. Giuffré couldn't attract a single investor. Still, he refused to give up. He heard about a fledgling online T-shirt company in California, CafePress, and struck up a deal that required only a small capital investment. And REMO was reborn as an e-commerce company, selling a handful of T-shirts, in March 2002. Later that year the first tiny REMO retail "pod" opened in Sydney's domestic airport. Several more have opened since then. Meanwhile, the online store continues to grow. And the principles on which it was founded are stronger than ever.
Chief among those principles is the one articulated in the company's tagline: The Community is the Brand. As Giuffré writes, "We hoist the flag to see who salutes. Whoever salutes probably belongs in our tribe." Go to the General Store web site and you'll see customer photos, customer polls, a customer blog, and--oh yeah--things to buy. You'll also find communications from Giuffré, like the post John Dodds cites, about getting jilted by a long-time supplier because REMO lacks a bricks-and-mortar presence. Characteristically, Giuffré reproduces both sides of the correspondence, including his fervent manifesto, "The Internet is not simply another sales channel for REMO, but rather the means whereby we are able to manifest a merchandising and business model that INVOLVES the community of customers in the development and expression of our brand(s)."
After all these years, I'm thrilled to see REMO back in the game. I'm a sucker for scrappy underdogs (especially Down Under underdogs) with unwavering standards and a generous, inclusive spirit. I cheer when customers hijack a brand and make the brand stronger and more vibrant. And I love those things REMO sells, too. I don't see the Sea Shell Headphones on the site right now, but I'm patient. If REMO could come back from an early grave, maybe they can, too.