Western Assembly co-founder Kiran Sumra explains why the emerging menswear business chose to go from etail to opening its first store amid the challenges of today’s tough high street.
Kiran and aneeta sumra
It has been two short years since my co-founder (and sister) Aneeta Sumra and I launched menswear etailer Western Assembly. Despite Brexit, the resulting currency fluctuations, and business rate increases squeezing our margins, we opened the doors to our first bricks-and-mortar store on Redchurch Street, east London’s menswear mecca, in October last year. Since then, our neighbour Kit & Ace has closed, as has fellow London menswear independent The Content Store (both in April). Amid the digital revolution, why did we choose to make the leap into physical retail?
“People, not platforms” has been at the core of our business since its inception. Our customers don’t exist online or offline – they exist, as we all do, in varying moments across different places and platforms. All businesses – young or established – have to understand how to nurture relationships across these touchpoints.
As an online start-up, we have enjoyed the instant gratification that comes with a physical store: the regular revenue stream and face-to-face customer engagement. But business rates, the cost of rent and a limited audience mean bricks-and-mortar can’t offer us the growth or scalability that online can. What it can do is create a tangible, experiential environment and help drive people online.
We made a conscious effort to open our first store in a destination that attracts both Londoners and international tourists. We want consumers to experience an immersive manifestation of the website, which they can then continue online. Our store is one of the most efficient marketing tools an emerging business like ours can have, and stores are a tool that online pureplays such as Amazon are starting to adopt.
Digital is our bread and butter, and it offers opportunities for huge revenue contributions. The number of people purchasing online is continuing to rise, and online clothing sales have weathered economic uncertainty – they hit £133bn in 2016.
Although digital gives us the chance to connect brands with people, offering personalised experiences online is another challenge all retailers face. Our bricks-and-mortar service relies on our ability to instantly analyse a customer’s style and behaviour, and talk about what they want.
Online, we can’t see a consumer’s body shape or their style, which strips us of context unless we gather data instantly. But that can be exhausting for the consumer and costly for the brand. The question for us is how we can use personalisation without falling into the trap of too-broad segmentation.
Western assembly 1
As the opportunities online expand, so too do the number of online retailers. How can we stand apart? We aim to connect men with premium, undiscovered brands that they may otherwise have never found or been able to access. We revel in the ability to use online to connect independent brands with customers from around the world.
Storytelling through content across different touchpoints is key and, as ecommerce continues to evolve, there is no doubt that using artificial intelligence will be an important area of exploration for us.
We need to lean in to the digital future. We need to invest in our technology and remain nimble without forgetting that we are engaging with people, not just platforms.