Freemans chief executive Ann Steer speaks to Retail Week about a year of “aggressive” change for the business following the move that transformed Freemans from a traditional mail-order catalogue business to a modern digital department store

Ann Steer

Since being named chief executive in January 2020, Ann Steer has been the driving force of an “aggressive” digital transformation for the retailer. It announced earlier this year that it would stop printing its catalogue after 118 years.

With visitors to its website up 23% in the week following the announcement in September and the launch of the ‘Made You Look’ campaign, Freemans certainly drew attention to its new way of doing business.

With the shift to ecommerce taking priority and more than 55,000 products available to buy online, in comparison to the few thousand previously available to order via the catalogue, Steer told Retail Week about the importance of taking risks, communicating with customers and how Freemans managed to navigate change in a challenging environment.

Looking back on 2023, how has the year been for Freemans?

“It’s been a challenging year, for sure; I think it has been for everybody. There was clearly a challenging external environment with political upheaval and weather causing chaos, so the external environment continues to throw challenges at us all.

“I think doing transformation in the middle of that is very difficult, but transformation is always difficult, it is not for the faint-hearted. My view is to drive the change as quickly as possible so that when the external environment becomes more benign, we’ve got a leaner, fitter, stronger business that we can then accelerate into when the market is a bit better.

“We’ve taken this opportunity, irrespective of the difficult external environment, to drive change very quickly. I’ve been driving a change agenda aggressively, not recklessly, and testing where needed but also trusting our judgement, being clear about what it is we’re trying to achieve and just making it happen and getting it done.

“Freemans is a very long-established brand, which was very well known but over recent years has been forgotten. Coming into the business, I knew there was a really big opportunity with Freemans to play to its core strength but reinvent it in a way that is much more relevant to today. We did it in a risk-managed way and our customers have responded really positively.”

What has been the impact of the ‘Made You Look’ campaign and stopping the catalogue?

“Standing down the catalogue was a big step forward and the right thing to do because customers don’t shop with catalogues anymore, they shop online. Putting all of that focus and effort into driving our online business and reinventing Freemans as a digital department store was quite a natural next step.

“Our new communications campaign was customer insight-driven. We knew that brand awareness was high but it was very much still thought of as a catalogue business so we put out quite a bold campaign to get people to look again at Freemans.

“We tried not to be too clever, just trying to talk to customers in a straightforward way. It was about communicating that it is still offering great products, great prices and all the things you love about Freemans are still there. The difference now is that it’s not an old-fashioned catalogue business, it is a modern digital retail business that is open and accessible for everyone.

“We called the campaign ‘Made You Look’ to jolt people into coming and having a look at us – and so far, so good. You’ve got to take risks to move a business forward and next year, the initiatives we launch will further build on that to give customers reasons to keep coming back to us and looking again.”

Who do you see as your biggest competition now?

“I can understand that people would have mixed opinions [about competitors] and we talk about it internally. We run our own race and it is really important that what we obsess about is our customer and what is important for her, rather than looking sideways at what the competition is doing. That is very much my mantra internally.”

How was Black Friday and how are you feeling about Christmas?

“Black Friday has become a mini-trading period in its own right. Black Friday was better year on year; the weekend was stronger again and Cyber Monday was also stronger. Our experience this year was that it strengthened up to and through that weekend.

“In terms of Christmas, it started earlier than I thought it would. Overall, I’m pleased and with a few days to go, we are still trading hard and obsessing with making sure we get our parcels out to customers. This year, delivery has been a lot smoother, there is a much better customer experience and our customer satisfaction is much higher as a result of that compared to the disruption with delivery last year. It bodes well for next year and we are pleased to be continuing to drive double-digit growth.”