Austria-based lingerie and hosiery label, Wolford, has undergone a strategic refocusing in the last 14 months, concentrating on the segments of the business that work, and the ones that don’t. Here, Angela Blundell discusses the moves the brand’s UK subsidiary has made in order to grow the company.
On paper, it would seem that Wolford is struggling to keep afloat. In July, the Austrian legwear and lingerie brand reported that it had booked a decline in sales and earnings in its last fiscal year.
In the 12 months to the end of May, earnings dropped to -€2.81m from -€2.76m in the previous year, and taking account of negative currency effects of about €2m, sales declined by 0.4%.
This came after the company’s H1 results, published in December, dropped dramatically from €4 million to €1.64m in 2012.
But while revenues in Germany and France decreased year on year, mainly as a result of a decline of the firm’s wholesale business, sales increased in the US and European markets, including the UK.
In fact, Wolford’s UK subsidiary saw a 30% increase in forward orders for AW14 on AW13, and retail sales across its London-based stores are exceeding expectations for this season.
“Business is good,” says Angela Blundell, market director of Wolford UK. “On the wholesale side, we’re targeting a 20% growth in forward orders for SS15. It may not be the same case in other countries, but we know that we’re heading in the right direction. In terms of retail, we’ve just come out of our July sale so we are fully stocked with our Autumn/Winter products and looking forward to seeing how that works.”
So how has the UK business achieved such growth and what steps has it put in place to expand its presence in the market?
In July 2013, Wolford made the decision to embark on a strategic refocusing of the brand, which involved streamlining the business and concentrating on its strengths, as well as raising awareness about product categories that are gaining in popularity.
“[The board] decided to do that because we hadn’t really looked 360 degrees at how we could adapt and change the way that we work within the business,” says Blundell.
As part of the restructure, Wolford said it would discontinue its swimwear collection from SS15 so that legwear becomes the “DNA of the brand” and its shapewear and lingerie offering can be expanded.
“We closed our swimwear collection and the reason we did that was because it only represented 1% of our total revenue globally, but we were producing a whole collection, so the focus and the energy has now been placed on the areas of the business that we feel we can get the most growth from,” Blundell divulges.
“Legwear represents 53% of our global business, 31% is our ready to wear, 12% is lingerie and accessories represent the rest of the business. So you can see that although Wolford is renowned as a legwear and hosiery brand, we do have a strong piece of the ready-to-wear pie, and also lingerie, which incorporates shape and control.”
In the UK, Wolford had predominately been operating as a legwear business up until September 2013, when Blundell took the reins of the company. Since then, she’s been focused on introducing new collections to key accounts.
“I’d say that 90% of our turnover was legwear, in terms of wholesale, but we have fantastic ready-to-wear and lingerie collections, so we introduced these categories into major department stores in Spring/ Summer 14 and Autumn/Winter 14, so that’s really helped to grow the awareness,” she says.
Blundell and her team have also revised its department stores’ trading terms to help them grow these collections outside Wolford’s own-brand stores.
“In our [mono-brand] stores, our ready to wear is always at the front, and then we have our legwear and our lingerie, so our customer is quite confident in buying all three of these categories, so I suppose our task now is to grow those other categories within our wholesale business,” she says.
“Revising terms with our larger accounts has given them the confidence that we’re there to support them, and I think that’s very important. In some cases, we hadn’t revised our trading standards in about ten years.
“With our multi-brands, I have two field sales managers who are based in the territories – the north and the south – and they call their customers on a regular basis to understand what’s working and what’s not, how we can support them on styles and give them confidence.,” adds Blundell.
In another attempt to boost the confidence of its stockists, Wolford UK has increased its marketing budget this year to assist as many accounts as possible in running events and offering gifts with purchases.
This has also allowed the company to appoint renowned fashion photographer, Mario Testino, to shoot its AW14 campaign images.
His photographs of classic hosiery styles, as well as a string body created for the brand’s 65th anniversary, will appear in Wolford boutiques and stockists worldwide over the next two seasons.
The images will also be presented in future advertising campaigns, videos and social media channels.
“We had worked with some very prolific photographers in the past, including Rankin, and now we have appointed Mario Testino to work with us, which is fantastic,” enthuses Blundell. “He is a very well-known and renowned photographer globally so, for us, it’s a great collaboration.”
As part of its strategic refocusing, Wolford has also closed some mono-brand stores that weren’t delivering the return the brand needed, and opened new stand-alone boutiques in areas with a strong consumer demographic.
“When I joined up, I really looked at the profitability of each of the individual stores. So we closed four stores between March and June this year – two in the north of England, a small kiosk in Dublin Airport and our Bluewater store. But, on the flip side, we opened two new stores,” says Blundell.
“As part of our strategic refocusing, we are focusing our energy on stores in and around London, so we opened a store in Marylebone High Street and in Canary Wharf, and basically the turnover of those two stores has more than exceeded the total turnover of the four stores that we closed.
“So we haven’t closed the stores because the brand isn’t performing – it’s more of a case of needing to realign our distribution and really focus on the demographic of the consumer that we have.”
Sales at Wolford’s Marylebone High Street store were 26.6% up for the last fiscal year, against the brand’s targets, while the Canary Wharf store finished 6% up.
“We’ve opened stores that we are very confident with and already they are exceeding our targets, which is fantastic – and a relief for me because it was my decision to do this,” Blundell exclaims with a laugh.
Blundell admits that Wolford’s footfall – as with many other retailers – has fallen flat over the last year, dropping by 11%. Yet, due to a strong sales team and good customer service, the annual turnover across its mono-brand stores has risen by 3%.
“We are not a huge footfall store and we don’t expect to be, so we are in some of the major streets, like Regent Street and Kings Road, and there will be hundreds of people of walking past, but we don’t expect all of them to come in – we probably expect a 50% conversion rate – but as soon as they are in store, 86% of customers will walk out with a Wolford bag,” states Blundell.
So how does the brand achieve these results? “It’s really down to our staff,” the market director explains. “We have a focused and very dedicated retail manger who has been with us for seven years and she really eats, sleeps and breathes Wolford.
“And really the stores work with each other in understanding new ideas and new incentives to link the sales, which is important to us because in our hosiery, for example, our lowest price is £15 and our average price is £20, so if someone walks in and buys a pair of tights, we want to link the sale to some other tights, or maybe a ready-to-wear piece, or a lingerie piece.
Wolford UK also has one of the highest results across its global stores when it comes to being tested by mystery shoppers, something other Wolford subsidiaries should aspire to.
“We are asked questions and we tend to get between 90% and 97%, which is great. And if we get any lower, we are concerned because we have set high expectations for ourselves.”