Perfect Fit

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-By John Boley

No question about it: retailing in today’s Australia is tough. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good place to be or that no-one is keeping their head above water. Take Suzanne Grae, for example.

Suzanne Grae started life as a country girl in the New South Wales town of Dubbo, according to the company’s own website. “That was in 1968. Now she is a member of one of the most successful fashion families in Australia alongside Sussan and Sportsgirl.”

Suzanne Grae Corporation’s chief executive, Carole Molyneux, came a slightly longer way round, with an impeccable department store background (Harrods, then Grace Brothers and Myer) as a prelude to her 18 years with the company. “When I decided that it was time for a career change from the Myer/Grace group, I had both buying and operational experience, and it really has served me well coming into this role having worked on both sides of the fence,” says Ms Molyneux.

Carole calls the current economic climate a “monumental challenge,” especially in the fashion business which she perhaps surprisingly describes as “very much a discretionary item. Our customers tend to be pretty selfless,” (though a quick survey of married guys elicited some surprise about this!). Seriously though, “women’s apparel will go on to the back burner very quickly if things are tough in the family,” and spending on fashion has actually not grown despite higher incomes. “People are still spending about the same on fashion as they did 15-20 years ago. But there is no doubt that if you can come up with a unique differentiated offer and if you can make an emotional connection with your customer on a number of levels, you are on the road to holding it together well.” That connection might be established through value, exclusivity or other brand characteristics.

There are still ways to turn a profit in mainstream retailing. “It can be done. But it is not easy,” says Carole. “You have to manage every facet of your business within an inch of its life at the moment to be successful in this industry, and you need to make sure that you have a really good team at your side to make it all happen. Yes, it is tough but you can succeed.”

Carole says she was pleased with the outcome of the summer season, which was a “marginal improvement on last year in a difficult marketplace. Every business at the moment is driving at the margin; they are looking at costs and other factors. But I still feel it is the relationship with the customer that makes the difference and all of our energies and investments are going into developing our girls in stores so that they can really get it together with their customers and provide a wonderful level of service.”

Carole believes the in-store experience is what sets Suzanne Grae apart from the rest. Staff is the secret – train them well, pay them well and treat them well. “It’s amazing, frankly, what the girls do. People are buying 40 dollar pants and 20 dollar t-shirts but you would think they were in Giorgio Armani the way our girls look after them in the fitting rooms.”

The company has a certified agreement with its sales staff. “It is a very comprehensive package. It is not just about the rate of pay which we guarantee for them, it is all about the extra little things that we give them, such as flexibility with their rostering. They all get an additional day off each year that we call their ‘passion day’. It is about the whole package. But it’s also about the development that you give your girls that makes them feel valued.

“We’ve been doing personal and professional development for years and years now in this business because it is a focus of mine. I am passionate about looking after our people, developing them, helping them with their careers, rewarding them and recognising them. Loyal staff that think the world of your company are the best people to talk to your customers.”

Suzanne Grae’s target market is “not young women; they are women ‘of a certain age’,” Carole explains. “They are women who lead busy lives, are very outwardly focused; they love fashion but there is a limit to what they are prepared to spend on it. They also sometimes have some quite significant body image issues, so we have to work very hard on translating current fashion looks into shapes and fabrics that will flatter all ages and sizes.” The company develops all its own products. “In the old days when I was buying for department stores, we range-bought. But now you do all of your own development work. It is really skilled work, but you will still inevitably go into your competitor and see a garment that is very similar to something that you have. It is inevitable because we are all using the same influences and inspiration. We all do the same research on the internet; we are all following the same trends.”

But not, significantly, using the same suppliers. Inevitably there is some overlap but, “we guard our major supplier jealously. We have a wonderful supplier up in China. There are major advantages to having a supplier working solely for your brand,” Carole says. “It is a very close relationship. We have been dealing with these people for 15 years.” In general, she says, the relationship between buyer and supplier has changed during her career – very much for the better. “When I first started buying, the supplier was in almost an adversarial relationship.” The only thing that mattered was getting the lowest price out of a manufacturer. Nowadays, “we are working together on the specs for the garment to try and make sure that both businesses can make good profit out of it. It is a huge change. We’ve got some fantastic suppliers and service providers that help us in all sorts of areas, whether it is in training and development, logistics, or fashion and trend information.”

Suzanne Grae operates 210 stores, including those in New Zealand, where the company is this year taking over the Sussan brand, adding another nine outlets in a move due to be completed by August. Carole says there is unlikely to be much additional growth in the near future although “there are a few centres that we would consider if the price was right.”

She agrees that at the moment there is extreme concern about the “rate at which rents are escalating in the context of current retail trade. Certainly in the short term we are battening down the hatches; I can’t see us opening any stores in high profile centres because I just don’t think it is going to be financially viable for us to do so. Our most exciting prospect at the moment apart from New Zealand is the prospect of going live with e-commerce before the end of the year.”

Internet retailing has most retailers looking like rabbits frozen in headlight beams, but not Carole, who is looking forward to it. “I believe that because of the work we do to make our products very wearable, we will be a marvellous internet brand. Customers are going to unpack the garments, put them on and they are going to fit. So I think e-commerce is going to be a great opportunity for us as we head towards 2013.”

From the customer’s perspective, internet shopping “should be seamless. For her it is just another shop. I don’t get as panicked about the internet taking away from bricks and mortar as some [companies] do.” Carole is convinced the customer will find her own balance between online and in-store. “So if you go to your local Suzanne Grae shop and the pant that you want is not there in the size you want, you can stand there in the shop with your iPhone and order your size online while you are talking to the girls. To me it is just another way of shopping; I don’t think the customers make the same distinction that the pundits do. They are still shopping with Suzanne Grae.”

E-buying is nothing to fear and something to embrace, Carole is certain. “We are taking a conservative view of the first year’s trade, but I would like to think before too long it will be our number one turnover store. From the customer’s point of view, she is going to switch seamlessly between store and internet, and she will still go to see her girls in her local shop. She will still get advice from them; she will still go and have a look at the product in the store.

The two modes are complementary: the customer may “buy something in-store and then come home and think ‘I wish that I had bought that piece of knitwear that just goes so well with this, I think I’ll just pop online and buy it. To me it’s an add-on, it’s an extra, it’s another service, and it’s another way of treating with your customer.” Online retailing is here to stay – there’s no need to be scared of it.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

January 18, 2019, 3:34 AM AEDT