INTERVIEW: Figleaves’ Mel Cottrell

Figleaves commercial director Mel Cottrell talks to Kat Slowe about how it took the business 14 years to turn a profit and reveals why the future looks golden for the intimate apparel retailer.

“I hate, hated sitting over those negative numbers,” exclaims Figleaves commercial director Mel Cottrell. “It was horrible… When we got it back in June, last year, the budget was still to make a loss. And, we very much said, ‘enough is enough, we are not doing this anymore. It is not right.’

Change was set in motion on June 17, 2011. This was the day when it was announced that Figleaves’ holding company, the N Brown Group, would not be replacing Julia Reynolds, following her departure as CEO. Instead, Cottrell, along with operations director Stephanie Chase and product & brand director Sue Herrick would be taking over management of the company. It was a huge risk to take for the company, which at that point had not made a profit for 13 years.

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“We thought we need to get a handle on this,” says Cottrell. “We called it ‘stop the rot’ and we said we had a leaky bucket. Actually, it was operation fill the bucket. We laughed our way through it, through the tough times.”

Cottrell’s first job involved determining exactly why the business, which was taken over by N Brown in 2007, continued to operate the loss. The answer turned out to be astoundingly simple. The costs were just too high. A previous employee of Tesco, Cottrell was accustomed to dealing with massive volumes, in terms of sales, and she quickly realised that the online retailer’s attitude to spending was not in keeping with its actual size.

“I think sometimes, historically, we forgot the size we were as a business and so had some quite grand ideas,” Cottrell admits, “and they had some quite grand costs against them.

“The culture now is still about driving sales but, also, there is a much higher awareness of costs and just being, I guess, a little bit more real about the size we really are and what we need to do to grow. And, actually the speed at which it can happen. Because, the market is so tough at the moment that I think we just need to be realistic about what is a sensible, challenging number.”

In its final year results, announced last month, Figleaves reported a profit of £0.2 million versus a loss of £-1.7million the previous year, a total movement of £1.9 million. But, this impressive achievement is only the beginning, as far as Cottrell is concerned. The commercial director knows that, in the current market, companies need to continue to move forward to survive. And, she already has a series of plans in mind to ensure that Figleaves does just that.

Within the next month, Figleaves will be launching a new site design. The new website will showcase ‘more aspirational’ imagery, in order to encourage visitors to the site, and will see the introduction of improved SEO and navigational features.

Figleaves also recently launched a series of new own brand products, including DD+ t-shirts and nightwear. Response to these initial products, according to Cottrell, has been ‘very, very good.’ The company’s own brand range, which was formed two to three years ago, currently makes up around 26 percent of the e-tailer’s total product offering, but the plan is to increase this to around 30 percent over the next three years.

Lingerie will continue to make up the largest part of this percentage, but other product categories are also set to play an increasingly vital role. Swimwear already takes over lingerie sales in its peak weeks and Cottrell considers that men’s underwear and nightwear – though representing a smaller proportion of the business – are two areas with massive potential for growth.

“There is a massive opportunity in nightwear,” she says, because, without being rude to the brands, there are only a couple who do a good job of it, so there is a good opportunity for own brand within that.”

Cottrell will also be looking at expanding the online retailer’s product offering to adjacent categories such as beachwear, footwear and summer dresses.

“We call it natural adjacency to the current product area,” Cottrell says. “Then, the point at which we get success, we sort of spread out into the next adjacency. We talk to the teams about it being a department store in a way – what would you expect to see next to it?

“It is really quite key for us to continue pushing that, because it does increase our market size. So, the more we can get people to shop in terms of putting more in their basket when they do shop with us and/or shopping more frequently is critical, because unfortunately people don’t buy lingerie often enough. We, within the lingerie trade, now know that it is not acceptable to have the same bra for two years but that is not uncommon, not uncommon at all.”

Though Cottrell is determined to grow the breadth of Figleaves’ product offering and the percentage of own brand, she is also sensitive to the needs of the business’ brand partners. The company reportedly experienced some issues when it first launched its own brand range and has since been forced to adapt its approach to these collections.

For this reason, Cottrell claims that, once own brand accounts for 30 percent of the total product offering, it will not be expanded further. She also says that Figleaves will continue collaborating with brands on its advertising campaigns.

“If you go back two or three years,” she says, “Figleaves was always pushing own brand at the front. We recognise and fully embrace the fact that people know us as a branded retailer, so we take very much the view now that our branded partnerships are really quite critical.

“I think at first when we had just started, there were a couple of difficult moments, And, it is really critical. We deliberately now sign tie ups with brands rather than pushing them away. And, actually, the last tube campaign was a tie up with Chantelle, in terms of it was their product that was on the image, working a lot more in line with them and driving their sales, as well.”

Cottrell claims that it is Figleaves’ policy to be very open with the brands that it stocks. She emphasises that no copying takes place and that all of Figleaves’ own products are usually signed off before buyers gain a glimpse of the branded offerings. However, despite this, similarities in product can sometimes occur, according to Cottrell, because designers will often source trends and colours from the same sources.

“If we have actually come up with a print that looks remarkably similar,” she says, “we are quite open and say look, ‘this is what we have got and it is signed off, so we are not buying it.’”

Cottrell is now confident in the company’s relationship with its brands. And, secure in its product base, Figleaves in now gearing up to focus on its international market. The US is area of particular interest to the commercial director. The company has been established in the country now for some time, but has yet to concentrate on growing awareness in the region.

“We think there is a quite a good story for Figleaves in the U.S, as a British brand,” says Cottrell. “In terms of people covering the DD+ market, I don’t think many people do it very well out there, if at all. It does definitely feel like there is an opportunity there.”

In five year’s time, Cottrell hopes that Figleaves will not only have grown more profitable, but will also feature a wide multi-product offering. And, the US could be the beginning of a series of global launches.

“We will be taking over the world one bra at a time,” she concludes, laughing.

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