INTERVIEW: Rigby & Peller’s Sharon Teasdale

A year after taking on the role of MD at Rigby & Peller, Gemma Champ talks to Sharon Teasdale about fitting, styling and Machu Picchu.

She’s not one to sit back and let life pass by, Sharon Teasdale. You’d think being MD at Rigby & Peller at one of its most transformational moments would be hard work enough, but when we meet up in Conduit Street, Teasdale is preoccupied with her training (or lack of it) for a charity trek up to Machu Picchu for the children’s charity Compassion UK, for which she’s been an advocate for 10 years.

She’s got till October, and the target of £4,000 to fundraise is one thing: it’s the level of fitness she’s fretting about. Pointedly, she’s not fretting about Rigby & Peller, which is in a pretty good place, thank you very much, with 13 international shops opening in the last year, and the average customer age dropping by around a decade.

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“You have to throw your mind and body and soul into what you’re doing, but sometimes leaders lose themselves, they lose their life focus, because they’re so focused on that company,” she says.

“You’ve got to think about what’s going on in the world, which can impact your business. You’re no good to anyone if you’re stressed out. It’s about balance.”

That’s a balance that seems to have been perfectly struck during her first year as MD – a milestone that had barely occurred to her, she says.

“Should there have been some landmark thing?” she asks. “Well reflecting back and thinking what has this year meant, I’m particularly proud of the fact that we’ve opened two new stores, in Guilford, Surrey, and in the City.”

The Guilford opening said a lot about Rigby & Peller as a brand and about its clientele, the retailer suddenly finding hordes of lapsed customers residing in affluent Surrey, all delighted to see the store’s arrival in their recession-busting market town.

“The actual opening event was fantastic, “ says Teasdale, “and customers were coming in who knew Rigby & Peller, had visited before; these were lapsed from five years plus, yet they still remembered the brand, they still wanted to come again, they still believed in the service we’re offering.

“For me, it was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment, in the sense that sometimes, especially when you’re a destination store, you make an assumption that people are going to just come to you, but you think about the growth in Surrey in the last 20-30 years? You’ve got to be conscious of what’s going on in other markets, where those customers are going, and thinking about attracting them back.”

What attracts the customers is no secret: apart from the word-of-mouth cachet of the lingerie store that holds a Royal Warrant, it’s all about the service, and to get there Teasdale has made Rigby & Peller all about the staff. The recruitment process is rigorous, starting with a personality assessment, but the results in terms of staff turnover are telling: a 93% staff retention is a figure most retailers could only dream of.

“The recruitment process may feel very protracted, and we sometimes lose people who’ve applied to us but are not prepared to commit. They’re used to in retail having maybe one interview and they’ve got the job offer. For us it’s first a personality specification interview, because the personality is so important, and not everyone has got the right personality. Some people are the type of people who can be on the shop floor, can meet, greet, can sell a product, but actually are they prepared for the intimacy with that customer?”

Even when those staff have been carefully selected – and when there are only 90 in the whole company it is indeed a tight selection – the training is intensive, and in return the company’s people get the sort of recognition and treatment that is textbook motivational practice.

Even something as simple as changing the title of the women on the shopfloor from the simple “fitter” to “lingerie stylist” has been an important move for Teasdale, and, she says, is less to do with title inflation than with the need to accurately reflect the jobs that her people do – and increasing their drive at the same time.

“When we talk about fitting, that’s still what we offer, but actually a woman today is so much more conscious and knows that she’s got to wear the right lingerie for the right product,” she says. “You look at the way the fabrication and shaping of outerwear has developed… well you’ve got to have the right underwear for those pieces, so the whole styling thing, it comes from observing what goes on. The customers will bring clothes and put them on after they’ve been fitted to see and feel that difference, so for me it’s about actually there’s something here about styling.”

There’s a strong commercial imperative too: “If a lady’s coming in to be fitted, that’s one bra. If they’re coming in to be styled suddenly you’re talking about, ‘Well, for that outfit I need a full cup, for that I need a half-cup, I need a plunge, I need a sports bra…’ That is a good business model, because you’ve then got continuation of need.”

It’s not just the lingerie stylists that are affected: the store managers, too, are given responsibility beyond the management of a branch of a shop.

“Each of our store managers is treated like a business woman. So we have regular business meetings with the store managers. We want the store managers to think of those boutiques as their own stores. Clearly we’ve got some brand direction and expectations, but you’d expect that if you had your own business, but it’s actually supporting those store managers to think as business women and develop in that area. That retains good people, because managers aren’t thinking about their next career move. They’re thinking this is my business; I’ve got so much to learn. And we’ve been involving our store managers and staff in PR and marketing a bit more. That is very different from other retailers where you’re stereotyped, pigeonholed, and with 90 employees we can do that.”

It’s a difficult path for Teasdale, with so many people to please: the company’s owner, Van de Velde, which bought 87% of Rigby & Peller in 2011; the long-standing staff whose satisfaction is inevitably reflected in their service; the customer, who so often feels a personal relationship with the shop and its people; and, of course, the company’s revered matriarch June Kenton?

So far, though, in spite of the fairly seismic changes that Rigby & Peller has undergone in the last year, things are looking pretty good all round. The takeover by Van de Velde hasn’t made the company into some huge monolith that requires identical branding and training from store to store, and for Teasdale this variety is part of Rigby & Peller’s strength.

“There are always going to be local differences,” she syas. “We’re not a cookie cutter company, even across the UK. If you go to Conduit Street and to King’s Road, the feel will be very different because the customer is very different. I’m happy having an eclectic mix across the estate, responding to local need. We’ll have customers who’ll go to our King’s Road store and wouldn’t dream of going to Knightsbridge even though it’s just round the corner.”

For the staff, too, traditionally a source of resistance and disgruntlement when a company shake-up goes wrong, things are running along very nicely, creating a continuity that keeps customers very happy.

“My most mature lingerie stylist is over 70 years old and has been in the company for 40 years, and she is fit as a fiddle, no plans on retiring, and she still has people phoning in and wanting specifically to see her,” says Teasdale. “Where else in retail are you getting this tacit knowledge to pass on?

“That’s why it feels as if the brand is so much bigger than it is – it’s grown by word of mouth, and you can’t get a more productive marketing campaign than word of mouth.”

Another formidable septuagenarian is June Kenton, the shop’s founder, who is still thoroughly involved in supporting the business.

“June is involved for two reasons: from a PR perspective, but also as an amazing mentor to me. We’re constantly on the phone together.
She’s the best in the business, and it’s almost like having her as a personal coach. For her it was her baby for so many years, it was her wanting to ensure that the right person inherits that. She’s the busiest seventy-something I know, and at the drop of a hat she’s involved.”

It’s that mixture of passion and personality that has kept Rigby & Peller in the minds and hearts of customers for so long, and Teasdale is determined to make sure that this sense of occasion is maintained for every visitor to the shop.

“Every experience the customer has is an event,” she says. “It might be the first time they’ve been properly fitted for a bra, they’ve met a man, they’re having a baby, they’re getting married… You have your prom night, you go to Rigby & Peller; you get engaged, you go to Rigby & Peller; you get married, you go to Rigby & Peller…”

That’s quite a legacy to guard.

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