Retail has seen its fair share of fashion casualties in recent years. Just ask Esprit, Oroton, Pumpkin Patch, Payless Shoes, Marcs, David Lawrence, Herringbone, Rhodes & Beckett, Metalicus – the list goes on.
Major department stores have not been exempt from the culling. Bottom lines in this category are far from robust.
Retail executives continue to throw out excuses like tough trading conditions and the weather. Perhaps fairly so. But then again, will trading conditions ever be good, or the weather entirely predictable? What if we are simply seeing the consolidation of the sector and
eradication of mediocre players? Possibly harsh, potentially true.
But rather than focus on why things are difficult, let’s consider for a moment why, given the technological advances of digital platforms and effects of globalisation, there are more opportunities for success in retail than ever before.
Spoilt for choice
Selfridges, Harrods, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, David Jones, airport pop-ups, several third-party marketplaces including Net-A-Porter, standalone stores, an e-commerce site … Oh didn’t we mention? These are all the retail channels where Australian fashion favourite Camilla is present.
In contrast to the brands mentioned above, Camilla has grown over 700 per cent in the last five years. Clearly, if a brand stands for something, offers a true point of differentiation and treats its customers halfway decently, the opportunities for growth exceed those of any previous decade of retailing. “The customer is definitely in the driving seat now,” Camilla CEO Jane McNally tells Inside Retail.
“Actually, we welcome that because it keeps us on our toes.”
With consumers holding more buying power than ever before, Camilla is quite specific about the retail partners it works with to ensure customers have a first-class brand experience wherever they shop.
Whether it is the fashion firm’s visual displays, its customer care or the availability of its products, McNally says the brand has to work hard to create a point of difference between its outlets in a given geographic area. This involves curating merchandise to ensure each retail partner has exclusivity of offer.
Camilla’s focus on differentiated offers for its long list of retail partners is clearly working, particularly with the rise of online shopping, which has encouraged the brand to work closer with pure play retailers.
“We’ve known for a decade that consumer expectations are increasing on every criteria in retail, whether you’re talking convenience, speed, inspiration, choice or price,” Clair van Veen, a brand and customer experience strategy consultant, tells Inside Retail.
“Retailers have been responding with front-of-store transformation faster than back-of-house upgrades, which in many cases has left them behind.”
The huge advantage brands have entering the retail arena on their own two feet today, says van Veen, is that they don’t have to overcome the hurdles of legacy systems, outdated retail cultures and expensive upgrades, and can leapfrog their retail peers with systems and processes that support the future of retail, not the past.
“They can be the Uber of the retail sector,” she says.
“Did Uber make the public transport system obsolete? No, and nor will brands pursuing direct-to-consumer models make retail partners obsolete. But what Uber did do was raise the bar, a benefit these new entrants could also deliver with their retail footprint.”
Historically viewed as a resortwear brand, Camilla has invested in growing its year-round range.
Instant feedback Keeping up in today’s retail world means furnishing retail partners with as much knowledge as possible to handle the pace of change across the brand’s product ranges, McNally explains.
“We are unusual as a designer brand in that we drop ranges fortnightly. We drop about 400 options every quarter – it’s quite a big range so it does enable us to be able to offer bespoke product and provide a lot of content for our partners to help them promote the Camilla brand on their own social channels,” says McNally.
“It’s very much an interdependent relationship, so we work with their buying teams as well, and get knowledge back on their customers to evolve our buy for them as we evolve.” The direct-to-consumer model has allowed Camilla to get instant feedback, enabling the company to understand which products are resonating with consumers. But McNally says it is not to be confused with the Zaras and H&Ms of the world.
“We’re actually not a fast-fashion operator because we originate our designs from scratch,” she says.
“We have an 18-month gestation period of design and all our products are manufactured individually, mostly by hand. However, what this information is giving us is allowing us to adjust our in-season production to make perhaps more or less of an individual item.”
McNally says the company is excited by the fact that this season represents the first time it has been able to customise limited-edition products, targeting specific groups.
“So, if we see that some of our customers are responding to and particularly liking a certain type of product, because we are hand-making our product it’s enabling us to start targeting special runs of just 10 to 50 pieces.”
Camilla holds ambitions in the medium term of fast response on an individual made-to-measure basis.
“Because we do have some really good direct-to-consumer partners, some of our largest retail partners now are actually pure play like Net-A-Porter.
“Net-A-Porter have been really, really helpful in telling us what their customers want in different parts of the world, so that’s also been helpful in terms of our responsiveness and product design for them.”
Future is physical Camilla has experienced strong growth in its online channel in recent history. Currently online only in Australia, Camilla has seen a 40 per cent increase in traffic on its own website, driving online revenue up 80 per cent over the last 12 months. Camilla will be launching online in the US within the next four months.
“We’re fortunate at Camilla in that a lot of our product, not all of it, is quite lightweight. We have a very strong mix of silk product that we’re able to fly to our warehouse here in Sydney and that speeds up the supply chain quite significantly,” says McNally.
From Camilla’s perspective, it’s not a case of physical versus e-commerce. Physical stores are brand showcases that give customers a consummate brand experience.
“To persuade the customer in the future to come out of her living room and away from her computer and into store, you actually have to give the consumer a real experience that’s worth the journey,” says McNally.
So despite all the impact of online on physical retailing, Camilla sees the store as a key component of growth, not an obstacle.
“We haven’t stopped opening physical stores, and in fact, probably one of our biggest initiatives for this next financial year is actually opening up physical stores in the States because we believe that will do in the States what it’s done for us in Australia, which is to show the brand off in all its glory.”
According to van Veen, the brand and customer experience strategy consultant, the future of retail has less to do with the front-of-store, online or off, and everything to do with the supply chain and distribution models.
“Yes brands need to get pointy on their value proposition, uniqueness and experience instore and online, but that has always been the case,” says van Veen. “Back-of-house is where the revolution is still taking place in Australia.”
Camilla’s “fully sensory” stores are designed to allow consumers to leave the everyday behind – and it seems to be working. According to its data, customer dwell time in Camilla stores obliterates the industry average of approximately four minutes. Customers dwell in Camilla stores for over 60 minutes.
“There’s no pressure on our customers when they come into our stores; they can stay, drink some special kind of tea, a glass of champagne, we show them how to style the product. If they actually want to bring in one of their existing Camilla wardrobe pieces they can literally just come in and we’ll seam it for them instore,” says McNally.
“It’s all about an interaction and showing our customers how to wear Camilla to her best advantage.”
Though some analysts and retailers use online as the reason for the death of the physical store, McNally says this isn’t the case.
“We do see some sales moving to our online channel … but that’s fine, it doesn’t devalue the importance of bricks and mortar. The important thing is that we offer them every touchpoint to connect with our brand.”
Camilla’s head of marketing Elle Turner says an airport pop-up store launched last year has proven to be successful, with a large amount of foot traffic passing through the store.
“For us, that Camilla experience has immediately put us into their consideration set for their next purchase, which for a brand like ours is, I think, absolutely what sets us apart amongst our competitors,” Turner says.