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Simon Schofield: Despite the impact 2020 had on the retail sector, it certainly was a special year for Witchery. It was an honour to lead such an iconic Australian brand through that monumental milestone, and I am excited for what lies ahead. Since its beginning, Witchery has sought to dress the working woman with premium, quality-led designs, and five decades on, this is still very much at the heart of what we do.
Today, we have grown to be a source of daily style inspiration, and that has never been more evident than in our most recent collections. While we are still very much committed to providing modern and sophisticated workwear, in the past 12 months, we have evolved our product offering to be more trend-led and fashion-forward. Leading a brand with such a rich heritage is continuously inspiring. That inspiration stems not only from our incredibly talented team and what they’re able to produce day in, day out but also from our customers.
IR: A lot of retailers have done some significant work since last year. Can you tell me what the past 12 months have been like for Witchery?
SS: The market trends are consistent with what Witchery has experienced in the past 12 months. As forced closures came into play across the nation, we saw a rapid upswing in online traffic, which has continued even after the reopening of our stores. Our team was well-positioned to adapt quickly and cope with this sudden shift. However, to ensure we were maintaining our service standards and meeting customer demand, we also introduced ‘dark stores’ during Victoria’s stage-four [lockdown] period. We were able to engage our store teams to assist with online fulfilment.
While growth across e-commerce continues, we’ve also experienced a steady increase in store traffic since lockdowns have come to an end across both Australia and New Zealand. Customers have missed the experience of shopping in-store, and we’ve seen strong support across our suburban stores, with improvement in CBD locations in recent months.
IR: How has Witchery responded to customers and their new lifestyles since Covid hit?
SS: The idea of workwear was flipped on its head last year and has since adapted more of a high-low aesthetic across the board. As women continue to move between the office and working from home, we were conscious of our collection reflecting this. As such, our product offering and styling within our brand content has evolved significantly. As Covid hit, our team also worked tirelessly with suppliers, who we are fortunate to have long-standing relationships with, to turn around the launch of our W-1970 sweats collections in record time. The introduction of this range ensured we had product relevant to what customers wanted to wear then.
While sophisticated workwear is still at the core of our business, we’re now looking to educate our customers on how they can mix these pieces with the casual styles within our collection to suit their lifestyle today.
IR: How would you describe the impact Covid has had on customers and what they want from fashion?
SS: Covid has undoubtedly impacted the way consumers are shopping, and it’s impossible to ignore the consistent growth in the digital space as a result. When the pandemic hit Australian shores, the immediate shift saw Witchery, like many retailers, gain traction from customers who wouldn’t have historically purchased online.
From a product standpoint, in short, customers want newness. At the height of the pandemic, we saw 40 per cent growth in the knitwear category, and we couldn’t keep our loungewear pieces in stock. Still, as things have opened up again, we’ve definitely seen the desire to dress up return, with customers wanting to inject new, elevated, trend-led and quality pieces into their wardrobes — be that a micro floral printed dress, a strong-shouldered blazer or a timeless leather trench coat.
IR: I know that for the Country Road Group, diversity and inclusion are becoming significant topics to address and embrace within its brands. How has Witchery responded to the issues?
SS: As an Australian fashion brand, we recognise the role Witchery plays in embracing the diversity of our people and building a culture of inclusion that embraces the differences that exist, both in the workplace and the wider community.
In the past year, one of our proudest initiatives has been formalising our commitment to Reconciliation through our first Reconciliation Action Plan. Over this period, we have focussed our efforts on how we as a business can support and engage First Nation’s peoples, employees, customers and suppliers.
In addition to our commitment to the Reconciliation Action Plan, Witchery has implemented a number of initiatives that support this shift, including engaging a diverse range of talent in our brand content, sharing the stories of women who are creating change, and continuing our long and proud history of championing causes that support and empower women, which includes our commitment to the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation. We are on a journey. However, we are strongly committed to creating positive social change within the communities we reach and are always striving to improve in this space.
IR: Witchery collaborated with Toni Maticevski recently for the White Shirt Campaign. What was that creative process like?
SS: We’re honoured to have collaborated with Toni on this year’s white shirt design. It is the first time in the history of the White Shirt Campaign that we have collaborated with an internationally renowned designer, which has made the process all that more special. Toni was very generous and gracious with his time, and the design process was a collaborative one, always with the customer in mind.
As we did in 2020, we have simplified this year’s campaign to centre around our classic white cotton shirt. The exclusive design nods to Toni’s signature style and, with its strong shoulder detailing, is a modern take on the wardrobe staple. We recognise the integral role both this campaign and the shirt itself play in raising awareness and funds for the early detection of ovarian cancer. Together with Toni, we were mindful of creating a shirt that would resonate with all women wanting to support the cause. The White Shirt Campaign is now in its 13th year, and as a team, we’re proud of the instrumental role that Witchery’s donations make in aiding the OCRF’s mission of raising awareness and developing a readily available early detection test.
IR: Many retailers in the past year have been revisiting their store networks and considering consolidation. What is Witchery doing in the bricks-and-mortar space?
SS: Before the pandemic, you could practically throw a stone from one Witchery store to the next. In the past few years, we have taken a rational approach to our store network, reducing our doors from 170 to 116 and putting a more significant focus on revitalising our service proposition in the existing locations.
While our team has been working on refurbishment concepts and planning to put these into play for more than 12 months now, shifts in consumer behaviour during and following the height of the pandemic here in Australia informed final decisions regarding particular design and service elements.
We recently opened the doors on the first of our new store formats at Westfield Bondi Junction in Sydney, and the site truly embodies our vision for the future of physical retail spaces. We have completely evolved the flagship concept we launched at Chadstone back in 2018, advancing our omnichannel capabilities and building a stronger connection between our offline and online functions. The role of retail stores has changed off the back of last year, and we had to put the customer first and think about how they want to shop when leaving their homes. We set out to create an inspiring and seamless experience, a destination for every customer, no matter whether they’re visiting the store to be styled from head to toe or to exchange an online order.
The new format features two service hubs: the first being our main counter where click-and-collect, online returns or our store-to-door transactions can be facilitated, and the second being a concierge space located in our styling zone, where customers can finalise their purchases straight from the fitting rooms, without needing to queue at the main point of sale.
From a design perspective, the new look reflects the evolution of our product and aligns with Witchery’s exit out of men’s and children’s wear. We’ve shifted away from the monochrome aesthetic it was known for and have instead incorporated a modern blush and millennial-pink colour palette, luxurious Italian terrazzo finishes and softer, ambient lighting. Large digital screens have also replaced window fixtures in a move to inspire and educate our customers through an array of beautiful, engaging video content.
IR: What are your plans for Witchery going into the next financial year?
SS: Like many local and international brands, advancements across our e-commerce network will continue to be a significant focus for the business moving into the next financial year. In addition to functional updates to our website, we’re also currently exploring new marketplaces and channels to launch Witchery and broaden our reach. In line with the revitalisation of our store network, we will continue rolling out our new retail format in other key destinations nationally, with the next being our Westfield Doncaster site in Victoria come August.
We’re fortunate to be in a position where we can continue introducing new innovations across both our e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar channels. Our customers’ response to the new Bondi Junction store has been overwhelmingly positive, and we’re pleased to be able to open up this offering to more Witchery customers over the coming months.
From a product perspective, in addition to another exciting collaboration we have in the works, this year will also see Witchery dial-up its gifting offering, particularly as we near the 2021 holiday period. We have an array of exciting new product categories set to launch. We will also be looking to support emerging local brands through curated gifting edits, available exclusively in Witchery channels.
IR: Tell me about your plans for the e-commerce side of the business.
SS: From a sales perspective, beyond the promising introduction of Witchery into new digital marketplaces, we will also be expanding our e-commerce offering through several functional updates and improvements, including advanced site search capabilities and on-site merchandising tools. Continuously building upon and improving UX is a key focus for the business. Further, to the above developments, we’ll be looking to implement a front-end redesign that is consistent with Witchery’s 24/7 style aesthetic.
IR: During your career, you’ve worked at some great brands within the CR Group, including Country Road and Trenery. How would you describe how the Australian fashion landscape has evolved in the past few years and what are some of the trends you are most interested in?
SS: When I first started at Country Road almost 11 years ago, all our focus was on the three seasonal catalogues that were dispatched to loyalty members via post, and we barely uttered terms such as “online” or “digital marketing”. The speed with which e-commerce has grown has been incredible, and the continued evolution in this space and the seamless integration with the overall customer journey, including their bricks-and-mortar experience, interests me greatly. As does the growing focus on circularity — resell, rental, recycle — through innovative retail models.