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Superdry chairman: 'It was like a bizarre hostile takeover'

Superdry chairman Peter Williams admitted that the reappointment of co-founder Julian Dunkerton as interim CEO in May was “all a bit bizarre”, in a refreshingly honest conversation with Drapers editor Kirsty McGregor at Drapers Fashion Forum in London last week.

“The whole scenario was all a bit bizarre to be honest,” he said – referring to the public battle between Dunkerton and the Superdry board.

“It was like a hostile takeover. [Dunkerton] wanted to get back on the board, but they said no. Eventually we won – very marginally by 51% to 49% – but we did and so were elected to the board. As a result, everyone else resigned and that really wasn’t helpful if I’m honest with you.”

He claims the young fashion brand has a “really strong” board in place right now and that the company is in the middle of a transformation, as part of Dunkerton’s promise to turn the business to profitability by 2022.

Among Superdry’s biggest problems, Williams cited product, marketing – or rather lack of – a “too corporate” business approach and environmental issues, such as the changing market and increasing competition: “The marketplace has completely changed since Superdry started out (in 2003). Sports brands never used to produce casualwear like they do now: kids are wearing Nike and Adidas out and about, and not just to the gym. We have to compete against that.”

Right now Superdry’s focus is on introducing new product, reconnecting with its younger, “core” customers; and building its “very underdeveloped” digital footprint, including Instagram.

“We need to adopt a modern mentality and realise that even though we might not have a physical presence in a country, that’s not a reason to not sell there.

“The internet and technology have transformed the way people shop – not just at Superdry, everywhere. Twenty or thirty years ago, retailers were in control. We decided store opening times, and therefore when and how people could shop. Now you can buy anything, from anywhere in the world, at any time.

“It’s also sped everything up. Years ago, you’d see a dress on a celebrity and then have to wait for brands and retailers to create a version, and for it to hit the shop floor. The internet has given way to fast fashion and made everything a lot more immediate.

“From the consumer’s point of view this is amazing, but for retailers it’s a huge challenge,” Williams told McGregor.

Lessons from Selfridges

Williams is chairman at five other businesses, including footwear brand Sophia Webster and Berlin-based eyewear brand Mister Spex – both of which he says are “great” examples of businesses that have adapted to the modern market.

“If you go on [brand founder and designer] Sophia Webster’s Instagram, you will see that she is very much into footwear and dance. She is the brand: she lives and breathes it, and her customers can very much see that through her social channels.

“She’s also embraced online. Although Sophia Webster has two shops [both in London], it sells products worldwide via the website. Brands don’t need to rely on retailers or wholesale any more: the reach is so much better online. Webster understands that.”

Another of Williams’ success stories is luxury department store Selfridges, where he was on the board for 13 years, including two as CEO.

He spoke fondly of his time there and of the business it is today: “Selfridges is a totally unique store. It’s grand and exciting, and people go there for a day out because you can’t experience it anywhere else.

“What does your business model offer customers? How do you get customers through the door and make people want to shop with you?” he asked. “These are all things you need to know.”

Other tips he gave retailers include:

Make best use of your shop floor: “Not all retailers have the beautiful architectural space that Selfridges does, but you need to know how to utilise the space you do have. At Selfridges, we took away selling space so that we could install more escalators, for example. People want to be able to shop easily – they need accessibility and room to move.

Learn from your mistakes: “After one particular blunder [Selfridges didn’t buy Fendi’s “baguette” bag which turned out to be a huge sell-out], Selfridges changed its buying model so that buyers buy brands, not products. We realised that brands know their products better than us, so let them decide what will sell and what won’t.”

Get online: “The internet has transformed the way people shop. It has made the market a lot more competitive, and given customers greater access to products and brands than ever before. If retailers want to keep up, then they need to get their name out there and have an online presence.”

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