In an exclusive interview, Sharon Webb, Debenhams’ head of buying and design for lingerie, explains how her team is playing a vital role in turning the ailing retailer’s fortunes around.
Ten months ago, shortly after joining Debenhams as chief executive, Sergio Bucher unveiled a new strategy, Debenhams Redesigned, to position the struggling department store chain as the leader in ‘Social Shopping’ by presenting a revised product offering and new services and experiences both online and in store.
As industry data has confirmed, 2016/17 was a tough year for retail and Debenhams continued to see volatility month on month. As a result, the retailer began to build foundations for longer term growth by becoming a ‘Destination, Digital and Different’.
Looking back, Lingerie Insight was sceptical as to where Debenhams’ lingerie division would fit into these bold plans. As with so many announcements about structural changes within department stores, intimate apparel is usually seen as an afterthought.
But, this was not the case at Debenhams. In fact, the lingerie division has been a huge focus in Bucher’s transformation strategy, according to Sharon Webb, Debenhams’ head of buying and design for lingerie.
“Sergio is massively supportive of lingerie – it’s part of his history. Previously he has worked at Women’secret and was general manager for Oysho, so he knows product,” she says.
“When he joined, we were all really excited because, actually, we are really proud of what we do and we wanted someone that would understand our product offer and could recognise what we were doing.
“It’s quite easy for a small department inside a big department store to not sometimes be the focus, but he came in and recognised our hard work. He said ‘I’d like you to do this and that, but the quality is there, customers love the fit and you get good feedback. We just need to build awareness because even some of our womenswear and beauty customers don’t think of us for lingerie’.”
Bucher challenged Webb and her team to review two lingerie departments across two stores and give them a complete makeover. They got to work immediately and since January 2017, the lingerie departments at Debenhams’ Milton Keynes and Leeds stores have been transformed.
“They have been refitted along the lines of the whole look of Stevenage, our brand new store,” says Webb.
“So they’ve now got fitting room suites rather than a corridor of fitting rooms, and they are much bigger, with dimmable lights on the mirrors and dressing gowns. They have been a resounding hit – customers have loved them.”
A cleaner environment
Across both shop floors, the lingerie department has reduced its stock density by 20% with the aim of creating a relaxed environment with a cleaner look and feel. “It was clearly a case of we’ve got to clean it up. We do like to put a lot of product into our stores – I think that’s one thing Sergio has talked about across the whole company – and he just wants to make it a nicer environment,” explains Webb.
“In the early days there was lots and lots of product, and now there’s a tighter, more edited, focused collection and we make sure everything stands up for its worth. When I first joined, there was one T-shirt bra that we had in five continuity colours and we used to run three seasonal colours in it. It was a sea of bras. Sometimes people still see it like that, but when I look back to when I first joined, we have evolved so much.”
For spring, Debenhams’ lingerie team is rethinking its entire merchandising strategy in order to let the product breathe.
“So on our fixtures and walls, we’ll have three across instead of four and we’ll have four down instead of five,” Webb reveals. “We did some trials on it earlier in the year and both customers and staff in different departments would walk past lingerie and say ‘what have you done differently? It looks amazing’.”
Supply chain review
So how did the lingerie team decide on which products to edit out of its collection, and how has the number of available sizing options been affected by the edit?
“It’s been a really lengthy process,” reflects Webb. “We don’t want the customer to walk away, so we need to make sure we are editing out duplication, but we still keep choice,” she explains.
“We’re presenting the customer with a focused offering, rather than giving her seven different options in one style.”
In order to create a cleaner environment on the shop floor, whilst still offering a choice of sizes, Debenhams has shaken up its supply chain across the whole business.
“We used to send everybody the same ratio of sizes and we’d push it all out onto the shop floor, leaving little replenishment in the warehouse,” says Webb.
“Now we’ve changed that. We want to make sure the merchandising is neater, so rather than cramming loads of stuff on the shop floor, we’ve got less on the floor and more held centrally.
This allows replenishments to be dictated by the stores, based on their sales.
“So, if certain stores sell bigger backs, they’ll get replenished on those. And if others sell smaller backs, they’ll get replenished. It’s all about the push-pull of customer demand.”
When it came to rethinking its design strategy and transforming itself into a ‘destination’, it was important for Debenhams’ lingerie division to match the breadth of choice that consumers have come to expect from a department store, with a high level of customer service.
As such, the team has trained 180 colleagues on its new bra fit process and services proposition.
“I believe that the best in class service would be fitting without a tape measure because that’s what a boutique would do and we should be offering the service of a boutique. There’s about nine stores that have been trained to do that,” says Webb.
“We gave the staff really intense training and it was hard work but really, really rewarding. They all came here and my entire team was involved – the buyers did product knowledge sessions and consultants supported us in specialist fits.
“We drummed home the message that fit and service is paramount because we can supply them with the best product, but at the end of the day it comes down to the staff on the shop floor to sell it.”
Debenhams’ Basildon, Lakeside, Leeds, Milton Keynes, Romford and Stevenage stores also received extra staff to deliver this service.
And the lingerie departments at Leeds, Milton Keynes and Stevenage have been fitted with a meet and greet desk where customers can reserve a fitting in advance. They are also trialling an online booking tool.
“We can retain customer details, communicate with them and the next time they come in we can personalise their service a little bit more,” explained Webb.
The lingerie division is now in the process of reviewing the performance of stores that have received a physical makeover, training and/or extra staff.
“We are learning all of our trials at the moment. My challenge now is tweaking and fine-tuning and cascading. We are now in a place where someone could go to one store and have once experience and another store and have another experience, but we need to try it out.”
Away from her Debenhams Redesigned projects, Webb’s role is to constantly update the retailer’s lingerie product offering, including own-brand and branded collections, to keep it relevant for today’s consumer.
Reflecting on her career as a lingerie buyer at Debenhams, which began in February 2007, she says her department has changed dramatically over the years.
“From an own-buy point of view, we have introduced new products that if I look back 11 years ago would never have been on the horizon,” says Webb.
“[New products] come in reaction to shifting trends, so with the whole Fifty Shades thing, when that all kicked off, we said that this was the start of a revolution of sexier lingerie coming to the forefront and we decided to push Reger Noir, which had a darker side to the original Reger collection. So we took a brand that had been really strong for us, and has got a lot of heritage, and made it more relevant,” she explains.
“And when Nine by Savannah Miller was launched, this had a real place in our offer – there was a real gap for elegant, contemporary, modern lingerie.”
The Debenhams lingerie division has also removed some own-buy brands from its offering that have failed to shift enough stock.
“We used to do Jasper lingerie and we still do Jasper clothing – that’s brilliant for us – but we could never get Jasper lingerie to quite resonate with the customer. There’s no particular reason why, but that’s just part of the job of constantly reviewing your brands,” says Webb.
“From a sleepwear point of view, we had Mantaray, which is brilliant for clothing, but just didn’t work for us.”
In terms of branded lingerie, Webb and her team have strict criteria when it comes to ordering stock.
“We need to offer contemporary, classic, fashion and trend-led product, a bit of age, and a bit of good, better, best in terms of pricing structure. And we plot where brands are within that,” notes Webb.
“Because we’ve got that complexity of own-buy and international brands, we need to make sure that they all fill the right space. And because we have got so much own-buy, any brand we take in has got to fit into one of two categories – niche and specialist or well-known and loved by our customers.”
For new lingerie brands, this could explain why they are often not stocked on the high street.
“I suppose what’s a little bit sad at the moment is that everyone is a bit more risk-averse to newer brands and I do think that for some of those evolving brands, it must be a really hard place to be at the moment,” Webb comments.
“But we’ve all got to be sensible with what we are delivering. When you’re editing a range, I can take risks in own-buy because I’ve got margin to support that, but with international brands, I really want product that is fulfilling something we can’t deliver or that is something the customer knows and loves,” she explains.
Digital shake up
Despite still being risk averse, Debenhams’ approach to bringing in new brands has evolved, and online has become a testbed for their collections.
“Rather than taking a risk and sending a brand to 50 stores, we generally start with online first and build that up,” notes Webb.
“So the approach to bringing in brands has changed quite a bit and actually, with some of our brands, 40% of their sales come from online because the customer knows about it and they search for that product.
“Online is consistently outperforming store,” adds Webb. “Customers are much more confident about repeat purchasing and it’s convenient.”
So with the majority of sales coming from online, how can Debenhams ensure that customers are buying the right size?
“The brands that sell a large amount of product online include Wonderbra, which is very established and has key products that people search for,” explains Webb.
“When it comes to well-known brands like Wonderbra and Triumph, we see a lot of repeat purchasing. So customers know they want to buy their Amourette, or whatever it might be. They believe it’s more convenient for them to go online because they know their size, they’ll find it quicker, they can have it tomorrow and they can do their shopping in their pyjamas.
“We see repeat purchasing in our own-buy as well, so styles that would have been number one best sellers in store a year ago are still best sellers online because customers have gone back and repeat purchased.”
Online is a huge area for growth at Debenhams’ lingerie division and this department was the first in the entire business to redesign its ecommerce pages.
“We have re-shot all of our photography and we’ve massively elevated the look and feel. We’ve worked really closely with the art directors, photographics team and creative team on how we want our photography to look, and it’s so much more elevated. We’re really seeing the impact that it’s having on sales.”
Despite the growing importance of digital, the one area that is still excelling in store is fuller-bust lingerie, proving that customers still want to have a proper fitting before they make a purchase.
“We know from our research that the fuller-bust customer is much more demanding of her fit and she’s more likely to fit and try a bra every time she buys one because she knows how important service is,” says Webb.
As the Debenhams’ lingerie department evolves, Webb believes the new design layout and fitting rooms will play an increasingly important role in driving customers to store. And she point-blank refuses to encourage online fittings.
“I will absolutely not engage in promoting some kind of bra size calculator just to make a sale because that’s not how you fit,” she insists.
“Customers constantly search for how to measure themselves at home. Well, you don’t measure yourself at home, you go to store.
“We provide video guidance on how a bra should look and feel and the signs it is not fitting, but don’t encourage home fitting. I need to educate the customer, but I’m not going to say ‘add this to that and subtract that’.”
One major trend that has stood in the way of Debenhams encouraging more customers to have a bra fitting, however, is the recent shift towards less structured, softer, casual pieces.
“When there are bras like that in the market, you don’t have to be technical to deliver that, so with the whole bralette trend, we saw loads of fashion retailers, which don’t sell or make lingerie, think they can enter into a market. That was quite tough,” reflects Webb. “You had younger girls saying, ‘I could just wear a bralette’, which really worries me.”
So how did Debenhams lingerie division overcome this challenge?
“We’ve struggled with bralettes because our customer does generally think of us as offering fit and support. So the customer asks for bralettes, but when they see the reality, they think twice about whether it’s going to give them support and structure,” says Webb.
It’s no secret that Debenhams has experienced a tough financial year, with profits falling 44% in the 52 weeks to September 2.
It has therefore taken a lot more than a new store layout and bra fit training programme to help turn things around.
Like most retailers on the high street, Debenhams faced price hikes from suppliers in the wake of the falling pound, and the lingerie division has had to come up with clever ways to survive this pitfall.
“You can’t compromise product and you can’t let the customer absorb the cost, but I’ve got margin to deliver. So that’s when the skills of my team really get put into play,” shares Webb.
“It comes back to great relationships with your supplier base, so working with fabric people and componentry people, and being smart across the division and consolidating fabrics. It’s also about looking at other routes and other countries to find ways, but the last thing I want the customer to feel is that her product is being compromised.”
One way in which the lingerie department has saved money has been tidying up its own-buy collection.
“We asked ourselves, do we need three bows on a bra? Actually, the trend was saying we needed things looking cleaner, so stripping things out that felt right to strip out saved me money.”
So how has Debenhams coped with lingerie brands putting their prices up?
“Some retail prices have gone up, but where we felt we had permission to do so because they were either selling fabulously well or were benchmarked against the competition that said yes, you are able to do that,” Webb comments.
“The area that was tough was the core area, where there is loads of competition, particularly on A-D, where you can get great bras for £5 or £6.”
Reflecting on the year, Webb says: “Obviously it has been tough and I think it’s been really tough across the whole high street. When Victoria’s Secret have got ‘buy one get one half price’ offers for a month, you know that the entire lingerie market is depressed and we know that the market is in decline.
“Your job is to hold your own in a declining market and, for me, that’s where fit, quality and service comes in,” she continues.
“So with my team I’m like ‘get your head down and don’t forget what we’re here for’.”
AW18 Trend Predictions
Sharon Webb makes her lingerie forecasts for the new trading season
We don’t see this trend going away. We sold Velvet last autumn in our more trend-focused brands and that will build momentum across more brands as we go forward.
In the 2000s we sold loads of basques and then they really declined, but we’re seeing them evolving and growing again along with waspies and deep suspenders.
While we’ll always sell non-padded bras in fuller bust, we’re not very good at selling non-padded bras in A-D. However, the customer is realising that the bralette isn’t giving them support, but they don’t want excessive padding anymore, so the natural place to go to is the non-padded bra.