The sometimes glamorous world of luxury retail can seem a very different lifestyle to working in high street multiples but, as Katie Kilgallen discovers, there’s plenty to learn from both sides
The prestige of working for a luxury brand is undeniable, but under the glamorous veneer is a head office environment where you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and muck in if you want to get on.
Some of the key differences between high-end and high street retailing are down to contrasting infrastructures. Luxury retailers are often small in terms of head office numbers, but, at the same time, they are also multichannel and global businesses. Essentially, you are often operating complex business models with fewer human resources. Agent Provocateur head of commercial operations Andy Waters says: “It’s always a bit of a juggling act, but you get a lot of exposure to different areas and have the luxury of making decisions and having them carried out quickly.”
Browns merchandise manager Katie Oldhan agrees. “You have to be very aware of the business as a whole. The luxury companies I have worked for have been smaller, so you get involved in lots of different areas,” she says.
Luxury companies can seem disorganised by comparison when you move from a more corporate high street multiple. Mary Anderson-Ford, principal consultant at recruitment consultancy CVexecutive, says: “When they join, if they come from a high street, there is a lot of disarray compared with what they’re used to. Systems aren’t as effective – it can be absolute pandemonium. But they are no longer pigeon-holed. They have a broader scope and can do a lot more.”
However, in some areas, the luxury sector is moving towards a way of working that is more similar to what you would see at high street retailers. Waters says that when he worked as an assistant store manager at Browns and then Joseph in the early 1990s, there simply weren’t the merchandising opportunities he wanted and he was forced to move to the high street to follow his chosen career of being a merchandiser.
The skills he acquired working in mainstream retail, for companies including Select, Habitat and River Island, are now being recognised as useful at the premium end. “Luxury retailers are now bringing in skills to tighten up planning, analysis and stock control – it’s allowed me to get back to a sector I enjoy,” says Waters.
Exley Hervey managing director Lesley Exley points out that certain skills are essential at both high-end and high street retailers. “In terms of doing business, commercial acumen and commercial skills are fundamental to both,” she says.
From a merchandising point of view, Waters says he now actively seeks out people with high street experience when recruiting. He explains: “Ideally, I recruit those with a high street background. I know they will have had all the training. It’s about taking those skills and modelling them to the way this business operates. A good high street background is quite essential.”
Oldhan has spent most of her career at luxury fashion companies, but says she benefited from a period working in the corporate environment of high street brand Timberland. She took back some useful experiences and a different perspective. “It gave me a slightly different commercial awareness that I wouldn’t have got if I’d have just stayed in luxury,” she says.
Different pace of life
At the high end, business operates at a slower pace than the high street. Commercially, the luxury end of the retail spectrum is characterised by lower sales rates, but higher price points. Brand protection is also fundamental and the opportunities to offload end-of-season stock are limited. This means that attention to detail and thorough pre-season planning are fundamental to a business’s success. There can often be a 12-month lifecycle from planning to delivery, compared with three months at the value-volume end.
Similarly, when building a luxury brand, you have to appreciate the investment curve is different. Exley says: “If you are going to have a successful, profitable, sustainable luxury business, the investment curve is longer and more deep upfront than for mid-market and value.”
Given that the pace and way of working can vary so much, switching between the two – in particular, moving from luxury to high street – can be difficult. Anderson-Ford says: “For someone used to that pace to then go to the high street is a challenge.”
Lead times are longer and volumes smaller, but the hours can be just as long and gruelling as they are for their high street counterparts.
Oldhan says: “People might think there’s a whole Ab Fab thing, but people work extra hard because there’s lots to do and lots at stake. It’s not all drinks and parties – there is an element of that, but there’s a lot of hard work to do. You start early and finish late.”
She adds that, to be able to perform for the business, you need to both be commercially aware and appreciate the product. “From a merchandiser’s point of view, you can’t look at it as just numbers on a spreadsheet. You have to be completely passionate about product – you have to live and breathe it.”
Crucially, a certain attitude and specific skills are needed when working in the luxury market. Exley says: “You need a special attention to detail in every aspect, right down to how you present the receipt.”
Likewise, Oldhan adds: “One piece can retail at£10,000, so each item of clothing is really important to sell-through and budget.” Exley believes a service ethic is fundamental throughout the business. “You can’t short-change on the quality of pre- and post-service,” she says.
As in any retail business, good relationships with suppliers are also essential. However, those relationships can take on a different form and importance when dealing with high-end brands. Oldhan explains: “What’s really important is building good relationships with vendors; then we can get shipments ahead of the likes of Matches, Harrods, Selfridges and so on. Exclusivity is key for us.”
Browns was established in 1970 and founder Joan Burstein has developed personal friendships with designers and brand chiefs. In a similar vein, the retailer supports young designers who may struggle with cashflow by not cancelling orders when they are late – something that larger companies often do.
Individual relationships with customers are also often much more important. And it takes a lot longer to develop those relationships. “The higher up the scale you get – the super wealthy – you have to communicate in a very different way,” says Exley.
It may seem far removed from life in the value and volume world of the high street, but in a sector that is outperforming the high street at present, it is a serious business with big money at stake and the hard work, attention to detail and commitment needed reflects this. But creativity and passion are still essential attributes for a successful career in luxury retail.
For Waters, the love of the product is the ultimate draw. “My heart was always in luxury,” he says. “A good understanding of and affinity to the product makes the job rewarding.”