Figleaves swimwear buyer Danielle Constable speaks about how the retailer finds its products and discusses the challenges inherent in her role.

“I have been with Figleaves for almost a year,” Figleaves buyer Danielle Constable says, “so I am just coming up to my first Fig birthday.”

Constable started as swimwear and hosiery buyer for the online retailer on May 10, 2010, after leaving her job as a hosiery buyer at Tesco. She has been a buyer for around eight years now and has worked for several different companies, including BHS and Sit Up TV. In addition to swimwear and hosiery, she possesses experience in kidswear, fast fashion, accessories, leather and footwear.

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“Unlike some, I sort of haven’t been pidgeon-holed into one area,” she says. “So, I like to think that all the skills I have sort of gained over the years have served me well.

“I love swimwear. I absolutely love it. It is not as technical as lingerie, but I think for us it is very much about the cup sized, structured swimwear. In concept, buying is buying wherever you work, but when you’re dealing with a two dimensional format like TV or a website, there are different considerations. You need to think about, something might look good in the flesh, but how does it shoot and how can we get the quality, the fit and the beauty of it across on a website? So, it has got different challenges.”

For its own brand products, Figleaves has items manufactured all over the world, including beachwear out of both India and Turkey, and swimwear out of the Far East, in China, and Morroco. Each country and each manufacturer works to different lead times, so the retailer is force to be flexible when ordering product.

Figleaves’ main swimwear manufacturer is reportedly a market leader in the sector and supplies a series of ‘huge brands’, so Constable says the retailer has to be realistic about the level of its own business, in terms of the volume, versus the ‘big players.’

“We are a growing business but we are not on a scale of someone like Tesco,” Constable admits. “So we have to work in partnership with our suppliers as to when their production downtime is... to make sure that we have got the time and the attention that we need.

“What is good is that we keep the factories ticking over. Because we have an all year round service offer, through winter, as well, it means that they have got that consistency of business through Figleaves, whereas the likes of Tesco and all the others, it is quite often high summer and then that is it; it is all quite dead.

The all year round nature of the business is partly due to Figleaves’ position as an online retailer. While, according to Constable, demand for the Figleaves’ products will tend to reflect what the high street does, they will not mirror it, as people will often come to the retailer when they are unable find what they want it the stores.

“Last Autumn Winter,” she says, “we were really surprised, ourselves, at the demand for swimwear. When people want to get away, because the weather is rubbish, and they can’t get a beautiful fitting bikini on the high street, they come to us. It really surprised us last year, so we have planned some big growth for Autumn Winter, this year.”

Figleaves currently stocks around 50 brands of swimwear alone, in addition to its lingerie offering, and is always looking for new brands with a unique selling pint (USP). Cup size is very important to the retailer, which prides itself on its breadth of product, so it will usually prefer to stock brands that offer DD+.

“When I’m looking at a new brand I want them to offer something completely different to the existing portfolio of brands,” Constable says. “Also, who they stock on the high street, that’s really important to us and online.”

From a competitive point of view, the retailer needs to ensure that it is offering the brands that its customers want and admits to an element of benchmarking with department stores and other online retailers, or as Constable puts it, ‘shopping your competition.’ Another important feature for the retailer of any brand that it takes on is fit.

“It is obviously imperative,” Constable says. “Obviously, with working online, we have to manage the returns rates. I mean, we can sell through hundreds, but if we are getting hundreds back again, it doesn’t make a difference.

“So, we fit our own brand products but we also fit the branded products as well to make sure that they are aligned with our expectations.”

PR exposure is another huge positive, according to the buyer. Recently, Denise Van Outen wore a Melissa Odabash bikini that the retailer stocks and it is already seeing a peak in its sales for the product as a result. And when Kelly Brooke was photographed in a bikini by Eda, a brand that the retailer works with, it also saw an increase in popularity.

“It is always good to know that the celebs are out and about wearing the brands that we stock,” Constable says.

But it is all about getting on the backs of the A-listers. Another way in which the retailer seeks to keep demand up is by identifying the seasons’ key trends.

Moving into 2012, Constable has already identified the looks that she consider are likely to be popular with consumers. These include the primitive trends, such as animal prints which will be further developed in ‘exciting colours’, and Island Life, a big trend for Figleaves, which incorporates Hawaiian prints and the Hisbiscus flowers.

“There is another that is quite unique and, for which, being a lingerie retailer, I think is going to work well for us,” Constable adds. “We are calling it Lady Rebel and it is a bit more corsetry inspired, so you are seeing lots of wet looks and more structured styles coming through, very glamorous and quite different to what everybody else is doing, so we are very excited about that.”

The new, sophisticated concept will be developed with mesh inserts and will be featured within the retailer’s more mature Sophina brand.

Figleaves is currently planning its SS12 range. It normally works seven to eight months in advance in terms of products and eight to nine months in advance for its trend predictions. Constable will be attending Miami Swimshow in July, where she will be on the lookout for any new brands. Figleaves introduced a few new brands from the show last year, which have reportedly performed well..

“One brand I met in Miami, we are only stockists in the UK to stock them,” Constable says. “They are an American brand – Anne Cole, they are called, and that has been really good for us... Miami is a good one for swimwear, because you have the show and also you can do a bit of people watching on the beach, and there are the shops, as well.”

The buyer is also hoping to visit Paris, this year, and may go to Barcelona, not for a show, but just to view the shops and ‘see what is going on in terms of inspiration’.

Figleaves reviews its labels on a seasonal basis, looking to see which are working and which are not, and who it wants to introduce as a ‘new, exciting brand’. It will usually feature the new names prominently on the site, in order to introduce them to the customers, raise their profile and ensure they are not lost in the ‘sea of brands’.

Helping up-and-coming brands is something that the retailer takes very seriously. In reflection of this, it is currently discussing launching a competition to take on a new designer for SS12.

“It was something. we were hoping to do this season,” Constable says, “but unfortunately with other priorities, we haven’t been able to land it. We are certainly looking into it for SS12.”

“I think it is a great platform for new designers to raise their profile. We are likely to do it through social networking, so it would probably be through Twitter and Facebook that we launched it, but it is definitely something that we are looking into.”

Constable claims that she is ‘inundated with e-mails’ all the time from new brands looked to get stocked. Her advice to designers is to get on the phone.

“It is always nice to receive a call,” she says, “because you can start to build a bit of a relationship and ask some questions then, and I think an e-mail can get easily binned or ignored, so I would absolutely say, yes, give us a call.”

The buyer claims that she is always open and willing to meet with new suppliers. She is in London fairly often and states she will often see people there. After receiving a call, she prefers to be sent a follow up e-mail with the products the brand has offered and that it has had success with, which will often lead to a meeting in which Constable can learn more about the label in question.

And there is no shortage of opportunities. Figleaves is already looking to expand in the years ahead. While some of this may involve the growth of its own brand product, the branded offering, whether swimwear, beachwear or niche labels, is also likely to increase.

It has already branching into different mediums with the development of its catalogue strategy, a project supported by N Brown, which bought the online retailer last year for £11.5 million

“I think the sky is the limit,” Constable says, “and I think we will be known as more than the people who just do bras.”