BIG INTERVIEW: John Lewis lingerie buyer Nancy Szachno-Dressel

In an exclusive interview with Lingerie Insight editor Sarah Clarke, John Lewis lingerie buyer Nancy Szachno-Dressel discusses the challenges and opportunities facing her department today, from competing with other high street stores and increasing the retailer’s share of the market to deciding on which brands to stock and growing own-brand. 

It’s coming up to five years since you joined John Lewis. How have you seen the lingerie department evolve in that time?

One of the main reasons why I was brought on board was to develop our own-brand collections. These are now our best-selling collections, and own-brand has grown more than 25% over the last five years. The challenge has been, because of the space we have in store, is how we grow both brands and own-brands at the same time. There has also been change in terms of brand performance over the last five years. For example, Calvin Klein has grown significantly over the last three years, with the rise of the modern cotton crop top. We’ve worked really hard with our top-selling brands, including Fantasie, Triumph and Calvin Klein, to really grow their business because it’s what our customers want. Sloggi has also done really well for us – seasonally, sales are up 159%. Some of the colours are very bright and vibrant, but it shows there is an appetite from our customers for this.

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What are some of the other main challenges you face as a lingerie buyer?

It’s no news that we share some of the same big brands as other department stores on the high street. The challenge for me is how we differentiate our assortment at John Lewis with a unique proposition.

So how do you do that?

We pride ourselves on our Partners in store and our renowned customer service and experience at John Lewis. We’re lucky that some of our Partners who fit lingerie are highly experienced and have been with John Lewis for over 25 years. By having strength in our own-brand collections we are able to provide our customers with unique designs and quality products they cannot find anywhere else. The launch of our new AND/OR collection has been fantastic and we have seen such a positive reaction from customers.

We are missing an entry price point fashion brand, but it’s really hard to find that because high street shops, like Zara or & Other Stories, are all offering some form of lingerie. They are doing it in a very small way, but they edit it well.

How do your brands feel about you offering own-brand?

Our John Lewis collections and own-brands have always been there. We sit our fashion brands, such as AND/OR, alongside other contemporary lingerie brands as they complement one another. Then of course we have a much broader assortment of lingerie from basics to shapewear. What is important to us is that we don’t duplicate our offer so that we can give our customer more choice.

A lacy body from the new AND/OR lingerie collection.

A lacy body from the new AND/OR lingerie collection.

How would you describe the John Lewis customer?

As a department store our customers are from all walks of life. We try to be there for our customers throughout their lives, whether it the first school uniform, being fitted for their first bra, buying their first home, having their first child etc. Within lingerie, we have customers across all age ranges. It is important for us to cater across body types by offering over 900 options in sizes ranging from 28A to 44G.

Our customers are at the heart of everything we do. Any brand we work with has to be commercially viable, with a good size range and price point so that it offers good value to our customer.”

How has the department performed in terms of sales growth this financial year?

The lingerie department is up HYTD 2% on the last financial year, so its great to see that we are growing year on year.

How are in-store sales performing compared to online?

Online makes up around 20-25% of our sales, but in-store service is very important for lingerie so that you can get that expert fit and advice.

How do you decide which brands to stock?

Our customers are at the heart of everything we do. It’s important that any brands we stock will resonate with our customers. I am always looking for exclusive brands that will want to work with us at John Lewis. Any brand we work with has to be commercially viable, with a good size range and price point, so that it offers good value to our customer.

Fantasie is one of John Lewis' best-selling brands.

Fantasie by Wacoal Europe is one of John Lewis’ best-selling brands.

Would you like to stock more niche, young brands?

As a buyer, of course I would. We always think of the customer first and what is important is ensuring that we offer our customers a range of brands and inspire them with our unique proposition. But, you’ve got to think of it quite commercially. A new luxury brand that comes in at the mid £50 mark is too expensive for me to do anything with. It’s quite challenging because lingerie is MOQ [minimum order quantity] driven, so a lot of these niche brands are either made in the UK or in Eastern Europe and their prices are quite high. It’s difficult for niche brands because after a product passes the £45 mark it’s really hard to get the distribution. You could be London centric, doing really well in a couple of stores, but you can’t really scale.

Calvin Klein has grown significantly over the last three years, with the rise of the modern cotton crop top. We’ve worked really hard with our top-selling brands, including Fantasie, Triumph and Calvin Klein, to really grow their business.”

How do you know if a new brand is going to sell?

Fit, fabrication and comfort are very important. If a product doesn’t fit it, isn’t going to sell. I often ask for fit samples and, with a lot of brands, I ask to see what the F cup looks like because if the fit isn’t credible after a D then the brand won’t work for our customers.

Are there any brands that you have your eye on for SS18?

I’m yet to finalise my strategy for SS18, but what I would say is that we are missing an entry price point fashion brand. It’s really hard to find that though because high street shops, like Zara or & Other Stories, are all offering some form of lingerie. They are doing it in a very small way, but they edit it well.

Triumph is another top-performing brand at the department store chain.

Triumph is another top-performing brand at the department store chain.

Tell us more about the new AND/OR brand. When did this launch?

The collection launched as part of a new womenswear lifestyle brand. It has the essence of AND/OR throughout and we introduced lace crop tops and bodies, which have seen great results. The size range is 32-36 B-F on most styles. The response has been phenomenal and it has been really well received.

How do you see the John Lewis lingerie department evolving over the next few years?

We’re looking at how we can gain market share through our product and brand assortment and the service we provide in store. That’s the main thing that I’m keen on focusing on.

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