COMPANY PROFILE: Alex And Ani
Founded in 2004 by Carolyn Rafaelian and based in Cranston, Rhode Island, Alex And Ani is a jewellery producer and retailer that focuses on bangles, necklaces, earrings and rings. Alex And Ani embraces a business model that incorporates corporate consciousness into all directives, with the wellbeing of the environment and the empowerment of customers taken into account with every decision made. Materials used in the production of Alex And Ani jewellery are sustainable and derived from eco-conscious processes.
Justin Grey: It’s been a very productive six months for Alex And Ani since you announced late last year that you were bringing the US brand to Australian market…
Karin Adcock: Yeah, it has been. We are close to it. We started third of December and we are now across all states and in New Zealand as well, with almost 100 accounts across the two countries. We have state managers in all the states consulting with us.
JG: Alex And Ani has achieved ranging in quite a lot of jewelleries in short time. Was there a groundswell of local interest in the brand from the start?
KA: We have; it’s just been great. We were getting road shows across the country and have met with many retailers face to face and established that first contact, then brought [the product] into the stores. It’s very satisfying to see that it’s starting to sell well out of the stores. But as with any new brand it takes a little while to get proper traction because it’s still new and people just have no idea what Alex And Ani is.
JG: You’ve been operating primarily as a wholesaler for Alex And Ani to date, but what can you share about your plans for Alex And Ani stores?
KA: So we launched online and are selling Alex And Ani online, then we are going to have solid wholesale partners across the two countries, and now we are just finalising the first two leases, which will be in two Melbourne shopping centres. And we’re actually finding more leases and we will be opening up more retail stores in the second half of this year.
JG: Where centres in Melbourne will those first two stores be in?
KA: I don’t know if I’m jinxing it by saying it because the lease has not been signed as yet. But we are 99 per cent there and we take over on the first of September. We’ll be opening by the end of the September in a very prominent shopping centre in Melbourne, so that’s very exciting.
JG: You’ve been in discussions with Westfield for possible store locations. Where are those discussions at at present?
KA: Ongoing, definitely. But the challenge is it’s actually quite hard to find the right sites. We have been presented with a number of sites that we just didn’t feel were right for the brand and with the right adjacencies. So we are just working through that. We have had meetings a number of times and [Westfield], and they are very keen to work with us on getting the brand out.
JG: You were initially looking at one store in Melbourne and four in Sydney to launch Alex And Ani. Are those Sydney locations any closer to being locked in yet?
KA: We are actually looking in both Sydney and Melbourne, and it just so happens that the two in Melbourne are just straightforward and we have decided to go ahead with those. The couple we were looking at in Sydney, for various reasons, they’re either too small or way too big or wrong location. But we will be in Sydney before the end of the year.
We are probably talking about a two-tier [store] model. We would like to do a retail store in each of the states by the end of the year. We actually have a great segment in each state, so it would make a lot sense to have a concept store in Perth and one in Adelaide and Brisbane and Auckland, just so we have that beacon of the brand in each of the states. Australia is such a big country, and if you really want people in WA to see what Alex And Ani offer, you’ve retail got to have a retail store there to show that.
KA: It definitely has a big market outside the US. Fundamentally the fact that the collections are created of recycled material, as opposed to new, that’s a whole new way of looking at jewellery. And a lot of people are really quite intrigued by that and like that idea that we are reusing. Then the fact that most of our bangles have a meaning, so what happens once you look at the collections, you’re looking at the different symbols and what they mean, and then you see what you aspire to be, or where you see yourself. Or if you are gifting to somebody, you are looking at what it is you want to communicate with that gift, and then you hone in on exactly what symbol you want to buy for that type of person to symbolise that. Once you have decided on the bangles and meaning, and all the bangles are either a silver finish or gold finish, then you add a strap of colour or some texture to the bangles.
It’s also quite unique in that it is a jewellery concept that is made in America. You could argue, ‘why do Australians care about that?’. But the fact that it is made in America as opposed to a sweatshop in China is big for us. It’s made in Rhode Island, and Rhode Island used to be the jewellery capital of the world, back in the 50s-60s before many manufacturers moved out to southeast Asia. They have a very strong history making jewellery in that area and Carolyn’s [Rafaelian, Alex And Ani founder, CEO and creative director]
father started the factory where Alex And Ani is made. He started that back in 1966, so a lot of the staff working at the factory have been there for generations and there’s a very proud value setting in the factory. And what attracted me when I started looking at Alex And Ani was that very strong sense of contributing and making a whole different, new concept, which is contributing to making people happy with the messages that are communicated in the bangles. And also that it is made out of recycled materials; we are reusing and are very conscious about the environment.
JG: Sustainability and awareness of environmental impact is a big consideration across all manufacturing today; producers are increasingly putting more emphasis on that, and then communicating their efforts to their customers…
KA: It’s huge, and I think people are getting more and more conscious about what they spend their money on. A lot of companies are doing elaborate company missions – it takes them forever to come up with in and they spend a fortune on it, but never live by it. But Alex And Ani actually lives by their ethos, which is very much about giving back to the community and making a positive difference to not just each other, but also to the world and the entire environment. A very concrete way of showing that is that five years ago Alex And Ani created a part of the business called ‘Charity by Design’. And over the last five years they have donated more than $32 million to over 2000 charities now, which they have been supporting in all sorts of ways. We started by identifying one bangle for one charity and then 20 per cent [of the sale price] of that bangle will go to that charity. That’s a huge initiative and when we’re looking at the performance for Alex And Ani today, 20 per cent of their entire turnover comes from Charity by Design-driven activities and bangles they’re selling where 20 per cent is going to that charity. That’s exciting to be working with a company that is so strong in wanting to give back to the community.
JG: Are there certain learnings you’ve taken from your decade running Pandora in Australia that are informing your movements with Alex And Ani?
KA: One important learning has been with Pandora being the new, much smaller brand. Some people tend to forget that, or people think that Pandora happened overnight. That’s not the case. One thing which was challenging in the earlier days was to have a strong enough signature to be able to lift business to where we wanted it to go. So when we decided to do Alex And Ani this time around, we thought we got to make sure that we surround ourselves with a management team who can lead us where we want to be with the business in five years. So we set out the strategy together and are able to get the business there. It means that you’re cutting out a lot of the teething problems you would otherwise have in a small business environment where everybody is kind of learning on the job. We’ve gone straight to the best in the different skill sets. We have got a visual merchandise on board very early on.
We had been going for two months, and we hired a merchandiser. Most businesses that turn over say, $10 million, wouldn’t have a merchandiser because they think that’s not a wise investment at this point. But I believe it’s very important to have a merchandiser who can help you constantly analyse sales and make sure that you have the right product, in the right amount, at the right times. A great merchandiser can pay their own wage tenfold by having the right stock. If we had done that with Pandora very early on we would have saved a lot of money.
So there certainly is a lot of learnings there; we know what it takes so can go straight to that. For example, we know that we need to get very good sales managers on the ground from the start. So rather than getting the cheapest you could possibly find to go out and sell for you, we have found some very high-calibre people who are very experienced in sales and who are very passionate and aligned with the brand. They are out there working for us full time and are doing a fantastic job.
JG: What are your ambitions and long-term plans for Alex And Ani?
KA: I think that this brand has a real potential to make a real impact in this market, and I think there is a gap in the market. There are the chain stores in the jewellery industry which we all know, and there’s the likes of Pandora, and then there’s the real cheap chains type like Lovisa. But I think there is a gap that I think Alex And Ani fits right into. It talks to a young audience, it’s fresh, it’s aspirational, it’s different, it’s colourful. It’s not very specific fashionable – it’s something that you can take with you and you get a very strong personal connection with. One of the ways we talk about the brand is that the brand is designed to connect you.
As I look at it, it really is a brand that holds you together, brings people together to share their stories. We went to the US and we saw the way that people are really connecting with the brand, but they’re also very quick to, if they have a bangle on and they think there is a person that needs a bangle, they’re very quick to give it to the friend because this particular bangle has a certain meaning which that person is needing for right now, for wherever they are at their life at that time.
JG: As the focus on the physical stores ramps up, will the emphasis on the wholesale side of the business drop off?
KA: I think it’s always hard to say exactly how many retail stores you would be looking for, but we’re probably looking for 30, 40 stores maximum across the two countries. But we don’t wish to go out and compete with our wholesalers. We actually will be rolling out a licensing network so we can partner with store so they can have a full [Alex And Ani branded] concept store. So if there’s a store in Castle Hill who is doing really well with Alex And Ani, rather than us coming in and opening a full concept store, he will then have the opportunity to open a full concept store there. Guided by us on how to do that.
JG: Will the Alex And Ani stores be franchised?
KA: In the beginning it will be company-owned stories simply because we need to learn how to run an Alex And Ani store. But we will very quickly be moving into a franchise licensing model so that we can give our regional partners some pull by having full-blown concept stores.
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