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Updating Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters’ European managing director Emma Wisden on turning the retailer around, getting off the discounting drug and standing out on the high street. 

Big emma wisden, managing director, urban outfitters eu

Big emma wisden, managing director, urban outfitters eu

Emma Wisden, European managing director at Urban Outfitters UK

“When I first came into the business, it felt like I had a thousand things to do,” Urban Outfitters’ European managing director Emma Wisden tells Drapers. “I had to give myself a timeline and think: okay, what can we do in three months, and then in six months and then in the first year?”

The former Topshop buying director joined Urban Outfitters 18 months ago, bringing with her a swathe of changes. Former Topshop design manager Lizzie Dawson joined Wisden at Urban Outfitters as head of design on the same day, and together the duo have started to shake up the US retailer in Europe. Their approach seems to be working – although Wisden doesn’t give exact figures, Urban Outfitters had its most profitable spring season to date this year.

“Lizzie and I just went in and restarted the business,” Wisden explains. “It was, like many others, being driven very much by margins. In terms of discounting it was stuck in a rut. The product was overpriced and bad quality. The essence of the brand was good, the shopping experience was great, but the quality of the product just wasn’t living up to that.”

Combining quality basics with fashion-forward pieces was central to revitalising Urban Outfitters’ product offer, she adds. “We hadn’t got the basics that underpin a business and pay the bills, like a great trouser. I had to say we’re going to make good jeans, basic T-shirts and sweatshirts, and we’re going to make them in beautiful fabrics, the make is going to be amazing and the designs will be exclusive.”

This focus on quality is clear to see in Urban Outfitters’ spring 17 collection. It is an offer that stands from the rest of the high street, ranging from pretty gingham dresses to sporty tops, from bright puffa jackets to slip dresses with neon detailing.

Urban outfitters spring summer 2017

Urban outfitters spring summer 2017

Urban Outfitters spring 17

“It’s important for us to be different,” Wisden says. “There have been times when we’ve had ideas, seen something similar elsewhere and said let’s scrap that and do something else. There are lots of things to do, so let’s do something that stands out.”

Another key component of Wisden’s plan was, as she puts it, weaning the retailer “off the promotional drug”: “That’s been the hardest thing to do. I’d like to get to the place where we have two main Sales of the year and some mid-season. We will get to that, but we can’t do it overnight because we’re a business and we have to chew the top and bottom line. We have to do it slowly.”

Urban Outfitters also stands out for the strong shopping experience it offers customers, combining men’s and women’s wear, and accessories, in well-designed stores that appeal to its target market of 18-to-28-year-olds. The retailer performed well in Drapers recent mystery shopping visit to Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre, winning praise for its industrial feel.

Wisden has also worked to bring the retailer’s well-thought out home offer to the forefront: “A massive percentage of the business is womenswear, menswear is growing and home is about 15%. Up until recently, we had home but no-one knew about it, because we had no home flagships. We’ve now got home in half a dozen stores and we’re looking to have it all of them.”

With a fresh product offer and strong instore shopping experience, it seems Wisden’s work is paying off.




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