Figleaves has been through a lot in its 18-year history. It’s witnessed the launch of mobile phones, the explosion of ecommerce, a company takeover and the rise of social media. During that time, it has kept up to date with market trends by investing in new technology, and in July Figleaves will replatform with Demandware. Despite these changes, however, Figleaves hasn’t lost touch with what’s really important – offering functional and stylish lingerie and swimwear to women of all shapes and sizes.

Before the smartphone, before YouTube, before social networks, online lingerie shop Figleaves was born.

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The business was among a group of pioneers that included the likes of Amazon and eBay, which blazed the ecommerce trail when the internet was opened to commercial use in 1991.

It all started by a man named Daniel Nabarro, who began selling grey goods online from his garage. That was in 1998, and in 2000 he had a light bulb moment.

He realised the potential for selling lingerie – a global product that all women needed – on the internet. It didn’t need to be translated into different languages or adapted for different cultures or climates – everybody wore knickers and bras.

That same year, Nabarro bought Figleaves, which was an American brand that had gone bankrupt.

He also met Michael Ross, now the co-founder and chief scientist at OrderDynamics, a big data prescriptive analytics software company, and between the two of them they understood how to use technology to create a business model.

“It was all in the noughties when there was loads of money flying around for online investment and they built an enormous infrastructure, big enough to do huge business,” explains Figleaves managing director Fiona Holmes.

“They had an office and distribution in New York, lots of private equity and everybody was really excited. It was a really pioneering brand that had the best of everything digitally,” she adds.

“Our infrastructure at Figleaves has still got SAP software in it and lots of iconic brands because they could go and do the best of everything and they created an amazing business.”

But money and technological innovation couldn’t keep the business alive and Figleaves was failing to make a profit.

“Investors had refinanced it a couple of times and I think they just got fed up with thinking it was ever going to be a success, so they decided to sell it,” says Holmes.

N Brown takeover

Figleaves needed the backing of a retail heavyweight complete with female entrepreneurs, product developers and fashion buyers.

So in 2008 Julia Reynolds, one of the founders of Tesco’s fashion line Florence & Fred, became the CEO of Figleaves, and two years later the business was sold to the N Brown Group as a complement to its 38 brands,
which include Simply Be, Jocamo and JD Williams.

Figleaves gave the group an opportunity to target an all-new customer demographic.

“If you add all of its brands together, N Brown is number three in the lingerie market, so it’s M&S, then Next, then the JD Williams group. So N Brown was a big player in lingerie, but they didn’t do brands and they didn’t target the A-B customer,” says Holmes.

In 2013, Angela Spindler, founder of discount department store The Original Factory Shop, became CEO of the N Brown Group and asked Holmes to take the reins of Figleaves.

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Private label

Since the takeover, Figleaves has focused on growing its private label offering, which was launched in 2007 with lingerie line Just Peachy, followed by a swimwear collection in 2008.

“Because we have such a direct relationship with our customers, we really know what they want and so we could identify what the market wasn’t delivering for them. So we developed lingerie and swimwear that was cup sized,” says Holmes.

“In swimwear, just because you are a 10 or 12 on the bottom doesn’t mean you are a 36B. So we developed our own brand to fill a gap in the market.”

The Figleaves brand has evolved with the help of Sue Herrick, who joined the company as head of buying in 2011, and Jenni Burt, who assumed the role when Herrick left the business in March 2014.

Between them, they have grown Just Peachy and Figleaves swimwear, and launched Lulu Tout, a romantic lingerie and nightwear collection created for A-H cups, and Figleaves Boudoir.

Herrick headed up product development and formed a management team in June 2011, alongside commercial director Mel Cottrell and operations director Steph Chase. Under their management, Figleaves.com posted its first ever profit (£200,000) in its 15 year history in April 2012.

“Sue’s ex M&S, so she knew the right suppliers and she’s well trained in product development and fit,” says Holmes.

“Then Jenni, who’s my current head of buying, comes from a private label background and that’s why they employed her. She’s had to learn about lingerie, but she really understands how to grow and develop own brands, which is what we really need to do because that’s the thing that differentiates us from House of Fraser, or Selfridges, or Harrods.”

Shopping experience

Today, Figleaves is reaping the benefits of ecommerce, which is growing year-on-year. UK online sales rose 15% in Q1 2016, compared to 8% in the same period last year, according to the IMRG Capgemini eRetail Sales Index published in April.

What’s more, the value of the global online lingerie market could exceed £40 billion by 2020, a new report by market research company, Technavio, suggests. The sector is expected to grow 17% per year over the next four years, largely driven by smartphone penetration.

But physical stores – particularly those that specialise in lingerie – are still essential in offering a personal shopping experience where customers can touch, feel and try on the product.

Also, the high street is now a place of leisure and entertainment more than it is a place for shopping, and lingerie retailers are embracing this trend by offering fitting events, private appointments, workshops and even beauty treatments.

With this in mind, does Figleaves need bricks? Holmes thinks not, for the time being, anyway.

“What differentiates Figleaves from the market is the breadth of our offer, so we have, I think, the biggest selection of online lingerie and swimwear in the world – by size, by shape, by brand, by end-use and by lifestyle,” she says.

“The difficulty is, how do you translate our offering into a shop? It would look very messy and bitty,” Holmes stresses.

“So, ultimately, would I like Figleaves stores that carry just Figleaves’ own brand? Maybe. But is that part of our three-year strategy? No.”

Instead of building boutiques on the high street, Figleaves has worked hard to replicate the in-store shopping experience online, with fitting guides and specialist ‘e-boutiques’.

The company launched its ‘Erotique’ boutique, which offers provocative lingerie and accessories from brands such as Maison Close and Bluebella, in September 2013. This was followed by the launch of its activewear boutique, specialising in supportive bras and breathable basics, in December 2015.

“When you don’t have bricks, you’ve got to make the shopping experience interesting and relevant and exciting, and we’ve also got to keep up with what’s going on in the market,” says Holmes.

“So with the boudoir trend, whether it was triggered by Shades of Grey, or just sex becoming mainstream, we’re always trying to keep up to date with what the customer wants. So the Erotique boutique was created out of that desire,” she explains.

“And then activewear is such a massive lifestyle trend and our customers expect us to be able to help them buy the right underwear for when they are doing exercise, whether that’s yoga or shopping at Sainsbury’s,” Holmes continues.

“So activewear is a huge part of our business. It also links quite well with the sports swimwear.”

Figleaves also has a customer contact centre, which offers fitting and style advice over the phone or via email.

“Lots of customers call us, especially if they are pregnant, breastfeeding, have a mastectomy, have a dress but can’t find a bra to go under it, or have found that the bra they have worn for 10 years has been discontinued and need advice on what to buy next,” says Holmes.

“We spend a lot of time training the staff to be lingerie and swimwear experts so that really helps.”

From a content point of view, Figleaves is constantly updating its customer touch points, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, blogs or emails.

But social media isn’t as important to customers as we might think.

“Interestingly, when you do customer research, the majority of customers say ‘I just want to get to what I want quickly and easily, I’m not really bothered about all that other stuff’,” Holmes explains.

Figleaves revamp

Keeping in mind its customers’ needs for convenience and a simple, yet personal shopping experience, Figleaves is working with software technology company Demandware to replatform the site.

“I think it’s fair to say that our site isn’t leading edge at the minute and it’s also not terribly robust because a lot of the technology is slightly out of date,” says Holmes.

“So by replatforming on Damandware we can give the customer a world-class online experience in terms of fastest search, page load speed and ability to personalise content to the customer. That’s what the customer tells us she wants,” Holmes infuses.

“She knows that we know her and she wants us to talk about the things that are relevant to her. So if she is a core customer, she doesn’t want to get an email about Freya or Fantasie and equally if she’s a DD customer she doesn’t want to get an email about Calvin Klein or Heidi Klum Intimates,” she says.

N Brown signed the contract with Demandware last Christmas and the new site will go live at the end of July.

“We’re also very excited because at the same time we will relaunch the brand with a stylish, contemporary new look and feel,” explains Holmes, excitedly.

“Everything from the logo and graphics to the tone of voice and photography will all see an exciting revamp and this will coincide with a new customer experience mid-summer.”

Core values
Despite the important changes that Figleaves has made over the years, from taking on new owners to investing in new digital technologies, the company’s core values remain the same.

“In terms of the history of the brand, it’s always been about the same thing – being the ultimate underwear destination online,” says Holmes.

“Every woman, whatever her size or shape, can find lingerie and swimwear from us that she’ll feel utterly brilliant in. That’s what it’s all about.”