Owned by South African retail group, Pepkor, Harris Scarfe is an Australian department store with a history dating back more than 150 years. With more than 55 stores across department and homewares formats, Harris Scarfe has recently announced a new product offering that will see it stock a select range of Debenhams’ fashion lines. The Debenhams concessions are a lead-in to Pepkor launching standalone Debenhams stores in Australia, from September 2017.
Inside Retail: How has Harris Scarfe’s brand developed since you took over as marketing manager in 2014?
Simon Burrett: Definitely a lot of development in that time. I think the first thing has been a real engagement with our customer in terms of understanding our customer better. That’s helped us see that what they love is great brands and great prices. From a brand point of view, what we’ve realised is that we need to be happily high-low, but do that in a fashion that doesn’t take away from the quality of the branded fashion quality offer.
IR: Harris Scarfe has just finished an 18-month project researching its customers to better understand them. Who is a Harris Scarfe customer?
SB: We can see that there’s a very strong market for a particular customer. Now, this is someone who loves shopping, she goes shopping all the time and she enjoys it. She shops everywhere. It’s someone who will put up a hand in a focus group and say, ‘yes, I’m a bargain hunter, I love a bargain’. What we’ve also found is that, to her, a bargain is not something that’s poor quality. The role for us in having such a strong brand portfolio is about her knowing that if she sees something at our place that might be on discount – it might be at 40 per cent off – that it is a brand that she knows and trusts. She can be assured that it’s great quality.
IR: Following that research you’ve decided to refurbish your stores, what insights informed that decision?
SB: A fantastic new store concept for a start. Our customer is responding very well, it is a much lighter, brighter store with wider aisles. We’re finding that when our customers go shopping, they’re discovering departments and brands that we’ve always had, but that they couldn’t find before.
In terms of marketing, it is about being clearer and more consistent with our message. Being clear about our high-low price offer, but also making sure we’re getting across the quality message. Our recent changes to our fashion portrayal, for example, is much more about less product, more fashion, clearer, simpler pricing.
SB: I’d call it a high fashion experience, but I wouldn’t call it high fashion. I think part of what we’ve been able to access here is expertise and volume on a global scale. That means that we’ve tapped into this range that’s been developed overseas in tandem with leading designers, and tap onto the volume that is already being brought overseas. It means that this is a product designed for our customer. The vast bulk of the range is well under a hundred dollars, but the quality, the finishes, the fabrics, the style and the designer brands are really outstanding.
IR: As part of the Pepkor group, Harris Scarfe has teamed up with Debenhams to open up concessions in Harris Scarfe stores. How are customers so far responding to the Debenhams range?
SB: It’s early days for us. The range of product that we’ve installed through our partnership with Debenhams only hit the stores last week. So far what we’re seeing is that our customers are seeing the lift in VM standards instore. They’re clearly able to see the quality of the style and the quality of the fabrics. Our customers think that fits really well within what they know Harris Scarfe to offer. Just as they see in our homewares brands like Sanpan, Reiko and Tefal, but in apparel now. They see brands like Principles by Ben de Lisi, Red Herring, Vera Wang and that seems to fit really well with what they want Harris Scarfe to offer.
IR: Moving forward, how do you see the relationship between Debenhams and Harris Scarfe playing out in Australia?
SB: I think there’s a long way to go on that yet. It’s a full 12 months until we see a standalone Debenhams store. In that period of time, we will stock that range of brands that are sourced from Debenhams, but this range of brands will come into more and more Harris Scarfe stores in the future. I think the relationship with the customers first will involve asking: will these be great brands? They will get to know and love the brands themselves, and they’ll give credit both to us and to our partner for having developed and delivered those.
IR: Harris Scarfe has partnered with the Adelaide Crows as their women’s partner, supporting their women’s AFL team. Where do you see that partnership fitting within Harris Scarfe’s brand positioning?
SB: The first part of that relationship was around a recognition that we’re now ready to spread the word about the changes that we’ve made. It’s time for us to stand up, be proud and invite new customers to come and take a second look at Harris Scarfe. Now, with that in mind, it’s about raising the visibility of the brand in a way that will cause more people to reassess and to discover us that might have passed by our catalogues or our existing advertising before. That means looking in different places.
We did a little bit of work with the Crows last year, just experimenting on some things, and found them to be extremely professional. Then when the AFL came up with what we see as an up to the minute innovation in elite sport, we thought that was a really good partnership, so it’s just a really nice fit. There’s something in there too about all that history of 100 plus years of the AFL now, turning forwards and creating a different future, an innovative future. That’s relevant for us. We’re doing the same thing.
IR: In relation to that, the women’s AFL competition is obviously becoming a lot more prominent in the last few years …
SB: Isn’t it? They’re doing a great job.
IR: What does the future hold for Harris Scarfe’s partnership with the Adelaide Crows AFL club?
SB: Most of it is for development now as we head into the off-season. What we do know is that the start of the women’s league is great timing for us. In February next year, we’ll have another range of stores with this new British product coming in. That gives us the opportunity to tie the two things together. The women’s league starting in February and our new invitation to customers. There will be things like bringing the players into our marketing and launches of stores. As well as that, there’s some engagement we’ll have in the men’s competition throughout the rest of the year. [It’s] a bit early to give you specifics, but we’re excited about the possibilities.
IR: There’s been a big push in recent years towards digital marketing and digitally integrated marketing. How has Harris Scarfe approached digital marketing, and what are you doing in that space that’s allowing you to remain competitive?
SB: There are probably three areas. The first one is what we call e-tail. Sales of product online, that’s an area that’s developed massively in the last 12 to 18 months and is performing very strongly for us at the moment. We know that’s one of the first places that a customer who is taking a second look at Harris Scarfe often goes.
The other part is social media. We have come a long way in the last six months on social media and now have a regular and broad engagement with our customer base. It’s growing in size. That includes activity on the main platforms but also work with influencers, bloggers and those sort of things. That’s part of the conversation about Harris Scarfe and what it is. Then the third area is digital marketing, which is just part of our marketing mix. Some of the stuff we do ends up in digital channels and some of it doesn’t. We try very much to go where the customer wants us to go, rather than try to be steered around doing a bit of this, a bit of that, and a bit of something else.
IR: In relation to social media, you mentioned brand advocates and how you’re taking advantage of them. There are obviously lots of opportunities, but also lots of risk with brand advocates. You have to find the right alignment between the right people that align properly with the Harris Scarfe brand. How do you approach that?
SB: We don’t seek to, if you like, control or own other personalities. We talk about associates, not ambassadors. Our goal is to recognise where there might be someone who is having conversations with our customers, that our customers respect and, where appropriate, invite them to get involved in a conversation about what we’re doing. Now, that means that we’re not so concerned about owning or steering their message. It’s about having something to say and inviting them to share it. That, so far, seems to work pretty well. For us, it’s less about having total control over the message and more about understanding where the right relationships are.
IR: Social media is quite a volatile area for businesses as well. There is a lot of room for direct customer engagement. How does Harris Scarfe navigate dealing with its customers directly on social media, in terms of maintaining that two-way community feeling?
SB: The first thing is we embrace it. We embrace all customer feedback, we love it. The second thing is that we have the appropriate contact points that are keeping an eye and monitoring the conversation all the time. Then we also have a very good process of just ensuring that any commentary that comes up is shared throughout the organisation to ensure it’s dealt with appropriately and quickly. For us, it’s part of the overall customer service ethic, the strategy we have built around that and are developing around that customer service area is part of the same thing. The fact that the customer is contacting us through social media to solve problems is not a lot different. However, we do recognise that we’ve got to stay right on it to make sure that we’re appropriately dealing with customers in a social space.
SB: In the last month or two, in line with our fashion reboot and in line with the roll out of our new store concept, we have also rebooted the landing page for our website to make it so that it fits in better with the bigger picture of Harris Scarfe. It better reflects the store concept and the way customers can now shop in our stores, lighter area, wider and that it has a greater range of news. It now has links or connections through to our social media feed. It talks about what’s on. It allows you to browse products. You might summarize that by saying a renewed engagement with the customer and a stronger focus on content.
IR: Harris Scarfe is in the process of opening new stores, what is that process based around? How are those decisions being made?
SB: We’re probably about a week away from the next announcement on that, to be honest. What I can tell you is in a market like Victoria there’s scope for growth for us. We are also very light north of the border. We definitely have, I think in the past, put on record that we’ve got to focus on Queensland and New South Wales as areas for growth for us. We’ve got a number of stores in Queensland. We’ve just opened in Cairns, and New South Wales is somewhere that we hope to be able to announce something pretty soon.