Friday, January 22, 2010

Interview - Terri Winter

Terri Winter of Top 3 By Design, and her husband, Bernd Winter

All photos from Top 3 by Design's new Crows Nest store in Sydney

Shelves and shelves of stunning functional designer homewares - especially love the Aalto Vases.

Missoni soft furnishings - another favourite. Also loving this sleek stainless outdoor grill by Eva Solo.

Just over 8 years ago, Sydneysider Terri Winter struck gold with a unique retail concept. Top3 by Design is based on a simple, brilliant premise - to source and sell the best designed products and homewares from across the globe - but to offer only the top 3 in each category. What is genius about this philosophy, is that it means every single item instore is, well, excellent. All killer, no filler, as they say :) For Top 3 customers, there's no wading through endless 'samey' options - all you are offered is the best of the best.

Top3 has gone from strength to strength since Terri opened her first store in Bondi in 2001. The business has won numerous accolades both here and overseas - most recently being awarded the 2009 Global Innovator Award In Chicago last year - an incredible feat for a small Australian-based business! Melbournians might not have visited a Top3 by Design store just yet, as they have yet to open up down here (soon soon!) - however, Sydneysiders would most certainly know their 2 popular Sydney stores, and most discerning Australian shoppers would be well aware of Top3's excellent online store.

This is such a great and inspiring interview for anyone running their own design-focussed business. Terri has been so generous with her responses - I feel I've learnt a lot about daily efficiency and work/life balance just from reading about her 'typical day'! But I think what I love most about this interview, is that Terri offers proof that inspiration really is everywhere! Who would have thought that a chance encounter with a trapeze artist and a woman with a walrus (!!) in Germany could have spurred one of Australia's most successful design-based businesses? Just goes to show - no matter where you go, you should always carry a notepad!

A huge thanks to Terri for her time with this interview! x

Tell me a little about your background – what path led you to found Top3 by Design?

When my husband and I met we both worked in the advertising and design industry. I was running a boutique design agency (graphic) and he had (and still has) an advertising agency (DDI Adworks Filmworks)

We discussed our common interest in design and the lack of opportunity to purchase many of the amazing products we saw throughout Europe in Australia.

We were in Germany when we saw a cabaret show that was booked months in advance, you did not know anything about the show, or who would perform, other than that there were a variety of "acts" who were the best in their field.
We saw the show. There was a trapeze artist, dancers, a shadow puppet guy from India and a woman with a walrus! We were so impressed with this incredible concept. It blew us away. We got to thinking…. the idea was to only have the best of the best - the editing or research was done and the customer simply could enjoy the results of the research, knowing they would see something wonderful.

It got us to thinking about editing products to a selection of the best. As consumers ourselves we are constantly frustrated by the ridiculous amount of "choice"…. from butter, to wine, to stereos and pepper grinders. We simply wanted to know what was good. We discovered that many of our friends found the amount of choice did not give them a feeling of comfort, but was a source of frustration. Especially with the accompanying lack of information offered alongside the multitude of product.

The discussions became more constant and finally we really wanted this to be a reality.

So along came the idea of a store that would offer an edited selection of quality design. top3 by design became the name that we felt best described the concept and would ultimately be the brand. With the following mantra we got started: top3 by design carries up to 3 products per category, deemed the best in the world by merit of design"

We opened the first store in November 2001.

What were your initial goals when setting up Top 3 back in 2001, and how has your vision for the business evolved in the last few years?

As I mentioned it was about editing options, not limiting choice, but reducing excess that falls outside the set parameters of quality, innovation and style.

When we originally set up we wanted to offer design to people who didn’t go looking for it – customers who appreciated quality products – and ones which worked, but did not frequent “design” areas or perhaps were put off by the often gallery style snotty-ness that some of those stores could have. It was important to us that staff did not snicker to customers who could not pronounce a brand name for instance – we wanted to assist people to understand what design could offer them in day-to-day products, design is not just about big “investment” pieces.

I think mostly that is the same, however, the ability to grow that audience through the internet has given us a stronger platform to provide this to customers who cannot walk in the door. Faster internet connections and more access to the internet for more people have helped to evolve the way we can offer this information to our customers. On the other hand, it also offers them further opportunity to look around, and it makes me happy that they come back to us regularly because they understand we look after them – from product range, to price and most importantly – customer service.

I think customer service as a term is over used these days – overall I still find the LACK of customer service prevalent, so perhaps many businesses simply have a low expectation of their staff or their own customers for that matter! Top3 has a culture made up around the integrity of products and the customer relationships. The entire ethos is about quality not quantity.

Unlike many other Australian design-focussed retailers, you have an incredible web presence – How has this web-focussed approach helped carve out your unique position in the market?

Our web presence has always been an important component of top3. We started the first online store just 6 months after we opened and there were really not many online stores in Australia then, certainly not in design or homewares. The website has grown as technology and internet speeds have increased and is an ongoing project. In fact, today I sat with my web technician going over the details of our new website (going live some time in the coming months!). The great opportunity we have been afforded starting early online is learning the customers expectations and growing with them as their expectations increased.

It would be difficult for a business to “get started” online now as expectations are now very high and there is very little room for learning on the job. If you did not know how to handle the logistics, you would simply lose customers when you could not satisfy them.
Getting the website up is only the tiny tip of the iceberg, following through on that, keeping it up to date, maintaining inventory, keeping it fresh – that is the real challenge.

We are very proud of our online business, but are still working daily on improving it. The internet is an ever-changing environment and you need to change constantly – it is not like a bricks and mortor store you can build and then it is done. The online store is a never ending story.

I am very excited about our next chapter, and the new site offers of heaps of new benefits and opportunities for our customers to shop easily and safely online.

It must be really tricky choosing just 3 key products within each category! How do you choose what to buy for the store? Is it an intuitive process, or very deliberately researched? Are you constantly on the lookout for new design, or do you find yourself inundated with requests from designers and manufacturers these days?

All of the above!! It is often very difficult to select the top3 designs – and I have heaps and heaps of products that are great – but miss that little extra wow factor - or the idea is great, and the follow through may have let it down with a poor quality product in manufacturing. That is always my biggest disappointment, a great idea that falls down in execution, so sad! :(

There are also many products that I Iove personally that do not meet all the criterion for inclusion.

Some product selections are intuitive to start, but then we need to follow up to make sure it is backed by the right stuff. I am ALWAYS looking for new designs, it is my favourite part of the job, and hard to call “work” really. I research design awards (and have been involved in a few judging panels like Bombay Sapphire Design Discover Award last year) which is a great way to keep an eye out for new design, and very rewarding.

I do receive hundreds of emails every month with products for inclusion. Some clearly send out a standard letter or email to everyone that might fall under “gifts” or “homewares” in the phone book and have never been to a top3 store... Then there are some amazing products that come through too, so a large proportion of my time is spent syphoning through what is appropriate and what is not, getting initial email information, then perhaps samples or a meeting to go through a range. It all depends. For International products, we arrange samples to come over first, then go from there.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

The great thing about my job is that each day tends not to be “typical”. The exception is Christmas time – December is early starts, late finishes just keeping up with ordering and customers!

I like to start my day with an hour or so of exercise. Okay this is where I admit that I am Wii-Fit freak! I love it, and am totally addicted. For my birthday my husband got me more Wii-Fit training games and we had to get another console because the kids kept pinching MY Wii remotes… :) On nice days I alternate and do the Wii routine on my deck outside instead of actually at the Wii console in my ‘home gym’.

Then it is into it.

Several days a week I work from home as in the office it is difficult to actually get to the structural parts of the business as day-to-day calls and store goings-on take over my time. I have an amazing team now running the day to day so am planning to spend more time away from the office focusing on the business, buying and online store in the quiet of my home :)

Either at home or in the office, the morning coffee is always first.

I check through emails. I get hundreds per day.

I do try and block my time. Sort emails, return phone calls, sort through new products, send out media requests of images or arrange instore product loans… I have meetings all on one or 2 days of the week etc.
I dedicate at least one day a week entirely to the online store and updating on the products available online.

I have a daily chat with each store manager in the evenings.

So generally each day is dedicated to a particular type of task, interviews, new product research, online updates etc. alongside the regular response to emails each day.

Evenings are most often spent browsing the internet for research or completing emails. I don’t watch TV so looking through design online is like downtime for me.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, local and international design trends and events, magazines or the web etc?

Creative inspiration is everywhere, magazines help affirm what is happening in the media, and although often that is interesting, by the time they are published it is more affirmation of what is going on, as we aim to be ahead!

Searching blog sites globally is a constant past time and the immediacy of information and the personalisation of it is awesome, however, primarily I think travel is the most important one for me.

Searching online gives a great overview of what is happening globally, however travel is the only way to see the tiny small variations in daily routines that offer amazing insights and ideas. The simple way a grocery store in Beijing can vary from one in Chicago or Berlin is the most inspirational. After all, life is in the details. It is often these small differences in signage, wording or product display that sparks ideas for me.

Innermost Pendant Light by Tina Leung ...and I love these cashmere travel pillow/eyemask sets by Banjo & Matilda

Which designers / creative people do you admire?

Zaha Hadid is one of the most inspirational and forward thinking designers of this Century. My husband and I stayed on the Zaha Hadid floor of the Peurta America Hotel in Madrid (given I got food poisoning I got to see a lot of her gorgeously designed suite….!)

I was blessed to meet the late Vivianna Torun who designed some of my favourite Georg Jensen pieces and is truly an iconic designer.

Henrik Holbaek and Claus Jensen (Eva Solo, Denmark.)

Top 3's store manager Juniper model's Zaha Hadid's Melissa shoes at the Crows Nest store. So weird and so wonderful!

What would be your dream creative project?

I would love to establish a design gallery. A time capsule of design through the decades. Not just the big glossy media driven impressive design, but also the smaller daily essential design pieces that change your day.

The paperclip, the post-it note…. right through to more recent clever products like the Royal VKB garlic crusher or apron with the built-in hand mits, lifefactory glass baby bottles with silicone coating, the Echelon wine rack, non drip dressing shakers from Eva Solo alongside reknowned design classics such as the The Australian Fink Jugs, the Bauhaus Chess Set by Josef Hartwig, the Stelton classic Cylinda Line series and the Aalto Vase.

Australian and International design side by side.

Ongoing I want to be more involved in more design judging panels as that is so exciting and invigorating, and a wonderful experience to chat with designers and see their work and what is coming. It inspires me.

OMG do you not just love these new red Dorothy-esque bejewelled Melissa shoes?

What are you looking forward to?

2010! It feels like a great year to me. (it even graphically writes so nicely!) Since winning the Global Innovator Award in Chicago last year, top3 has really been growing, the International exposure was fantastic and the “respect” at home is enormous. I am very proud that we have a concept in Australia that is unique in the world.

We often get asked if we are a franchise, or on idea we bought overseas – No!!! We have worked very hard to make it ours and the recognition was invigorating after so many years of just keeping at it....

So I am excited by 2010 and what the next chapter for top3 will be. My whole team is excited as we have many little “pet projects” we want to get off the ground this year as part of the overall top3 concept.

The new website is by far the biggest project that I am looking forward to seeing live, it has taken a lot longer than I anticipated, but will be worth the wait!

I am also looking forward to contributing this year… I am looking at several projects to help to better contribute to our society (other than handing over money to sponsor kids which I already do, but active contribution!)

I want to fine tune things this year, get things humming, but then am super super keen to get a Melbourne store going, so probably 2011.

I am also excited about getting a dog, playing with my gorgeous buys (Jay 9, Zac, 6) tending my vegetable garden and maybe getting some chickens this year :)

Sydney Questions -

Where is your favourite shopping/strolling neighbourhood in Sydney?

I love the relaxed atmosphere of Avalon on the Northern Beaches.

Where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?


Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

If not December (then I would be in one of the stores!) then in my garden with the kids, my gorgeous husband reading the paper and drinking coffee. (soon to be taking my new dog for a walk…) Sydney’s best kept secret?

Delicado tapas bar in McMahons Point.


  1. Terri Winter, a wonderful, inspiring Australian woman. Thank you for bringing her to the design files Lucy! xo

  2. Hi Lucy

    I am a Melbourne based craftster who has been subscribed to your blog for some time. I love Melbourne - it's got everything a creative mind could want. But my world was rocked a bit lately when my boyfriend was offered his dream job in Sydney and we decided to make the big move. I had a slight panic - can I get all my crafty, designy fixes in Sydney? Thankfully, your blog has reassured me of this. I love reading about Melbourne designers, but now when I read about Sydney designers I read carefully and intently, making note of the wonderful bars, restaurants, stores etc that will be on my to-visit list.

    Thanks so much!

  3. oh sigh. I cannot believe that you can consistently be so awesome.

    thank you so much for this amazing interview. truly inspirational. I must save this and read it again and again.

    renee x

  4. that was so bloody inspiring my head nearly fell off! i think that terri winter and i should be new best friends, if you could organise that the next time i'm in sydney, i'd greatly appreciate it! top 3 has been a business concept i have been interested in since returning to seemed like they were everywhere and i just had to know more! well done, terri, you sound like an inspiring, innovative leader. well done, luscious lucy, for getting this interview together. x

  5. Great interview, thanks! I love Top3 Design but knew nothing of its background so it was really interesting. It's made me want to pay another visit!

  6. Wow, great interview Lucy. Terri Winter provided such a great insight, it's really interesting to know the background as well as the day to day running of such a fabulous business. I have been a fan of Top3 for some time, I could pretty much just put anything on their website down on my wish list.

  7. hey guys thanks so much for all your lovely comments! I really appreciate all your encouraging words! Thankyou thankyou thankyou!!! x

    I totally agree with you all of course - Terri is such a brilliantly inspiring lady.. I wanna take a leaf out of that book :)

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  9. I work for the International Housewares Association that sponsors the Global Innovator Awards (gia) won by Terri and Top 3By Design last March. It should be mentioned that not only did she win the gia Australia Award but also one of five Global Honoree Awards and the Martin M. Pegler Award for Visual Merchandising. These are significant best-of-the-best awards as she was competing with 20 other gia Country winners from around the world. We again congratulate Terri on her success!