EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Rigby & Peller’s Ella Hitchins

In her first interview as the new managing director of Rigby & Peller, Ella Hitchins tells Lingerie Insight’s Sarah Blackman how she hopes to build on the brand’s 75-year heritage while expanding the business, increasing revenue and bringing in new customers.

One week into her new role as managing director of Rigby & Peller, Ella Hitchins barely had time to breathe, let alone talk to Lingerie Insight when we sat down in her West London office last month. But talk she did – passionately, in fact – about the direction she sees the multiple lingerie retailer heading under her leadership.

Hitchins joins the company from Ralph Lauren, where she doubled the business as retail development director, and brings over 20 years’ of fashion retail experience, having previously worked for Oasis and Arcadia.

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She also worked for three years as head of retail at Gant UK, and by the time she left in 2010, the company expanded on the back of a new customer service policy, new in-store fittings and a new brand concept.

In her new role, Hitchins hopes to drive Rigby & Peller down a similar path, with plans to expand the business and increase its turnover. But, what’s more important to her is how the retailer evolves without losing sight of its 75-year heritage.

Here, she explains how she plans to perform this balancing act.

What attracted you to the idea of heading up Rigby & Peller?
I can summarise it in three ‘Ps’. Firstly, the product is fantastic and it’s product that I believe in because of the quality and the fit. I think that’s very important – you can’t work for a company if you don’t believe in their product in the first place. Secondly, the people – the people who I have met in store and elsewhere, including Dirk De Vos [Rigby & Peller chairman], who interviewed me. I found him to be inspirational and passionate about the business. Thirdly, the potential of the business. This year is the 75th anniversary of Rigby & Peller and it’s nice to see where the company originated from and the potential to drive growth and bring more customers into the business.

Do you have any experience in lingerie retail?
I don’t have experience in pure lingerie, but that’s also what’s exciting. When you progress with business you’re always looking for a new dimension and you need to learn. So to go from Ralph Lauren, where I was looking after 15 to 20 brands, to come into Rigby & Peller, where it’s just one brand and mainly one to two categories, it’s just so exciting because it means you can get into the detail of it and get close to the consumers and the staff. But I have worked with lingerie as part of Oasis and Arcadia, rather than as one business. All the elements of retail are very similar; you just need to make sure you understand the consumer.

What have you been up to in your first week in the company?
I’ve visited our two big stores in Knightsbridge and Conduit Street and I’ve spent a lot of time with the staff and the managers. I’ve had the lingerie styling experience as well.
I’ve also spent time the finance team, the merchandising team and the marketing team. So it’s all about fact finding, researching and analysing and making sure that the strategy we put together is going to enhance us without losing any of our existing customers.

I think companies can be too hasty and lose their heritage when they are putting together new plans. I’ve seen that happen with companies who have managed to rejuvenate themselves quite well, but, somewhere along the line, they have lost their heritage customers who have been loyal to them for years. So it’s about understanding our true heritage, our true customer and making sure we protect that customer, while bringing in new customers.

How do you hope to build on the heritage of the brand?
Initially, it needed to be about bra fitting, and for us now it needs to be about styling. It’s not just about measuring people and making sure they are wearing the right bra, but it’s about making sure they have the right bra for every occasion. So it’s building on that side of it – making sure that people do know that we offer maternity bras; bras for ladies who have had mastectomies; bras for people who are very heavily into sports; bras for people like myself, who like to do Tango and need certain bras so they can wear open-back dresses; bras for people who are buying their first bra; and bras for people who are quite well endowed and need good support. So it’s about making sure that we offer all the services, including made to measure, but also that we cater for the masses, who are generally looking for a functional bra or just browsing. We want to make sure they are comfortable doing that.

The fitting service is amazing. I was observing the service in the Knightsbridge store for two hours. So the interaction between the staff and the consumer was fantastic, but maybe what we can do is invest in the way the fitting rooms look and what’s inside the fitting room. There’s a lot we can do to enhance us without losing what’s really good about the business.

Are there other ways you want Rigby & Peller to develop?
As managing director, people want you to increase profitability and expand the business. So, without giving too much away, the key things that I’m looking at are really learning the business and listening to what the staff are doing and the services that they are providing. I want to keep the heritage side of the business and really build on that, but I also want to bring in new customers, so I want to make sure that we work on the experience that we provide in store, from what you see, what you feel, what you smell – all the senses. It could be offering a cappuccino or a glass of champagne, to offering chocolates on the way out of the store to make the customer feel amazing.

People go out shopping not necessarily because they want to buy something they need – they are going out for entertainment and for the experience. I have a 22 year-old daughter and quite often our experience together is shopping. A lot of mums still shop in the same stores as their daughters because they want to look and feel young for longer and that’s the vision that I have for Rigby & Peller. I really believe in the product and there’s nobody out there that’s doing what we’re doing or offering the styling that we are offering. We have been running the business for 75 years but I don’t want us to be known as an old-fashioned business, I want us to be seen as a new, exciting experience.

How will you build on the brand’s omni-channel approach, driving sales to the website and back to the stores?
We have a website and it’s successful, but obviously, the more we inject into the retail experience, [the more] we will have to focus on the website to make sure both of those work together in harmony. Customers who shop online quite often go back to stores for refunds and exchanges and the experience they get in the store tends to make them want to return to the store.

How soon do you hope to expand the brand?
I can’t put a time line on it but as soon as I’m at a point where I think we’ve got the business model right it will be time to expand and some of that expansion will be done through franchising. There’s so many places that we can go but there’s research that I’d like to do before we expand. Also, although the product range is good, we need to look at whether that product range is right for each individual store.

 

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