After a three-year break from accessories chain Claire’s, Melanie Berry couldn’t resist returning to head up the newly created UK-based European buying team
Words Ana Santi Photography Belinda Lawley.
Melanie Berry just couldn’t keep away from accessories chain Claire’s. After a three-year stint at WHSmith, the Claire’s buying boss finally came home last year.
“Claire’s is in my blood,” says Berry. “I love it and when the opportunity came up to return, I couldn’t pass it up.”
Berry first joined the US-owned business in 1999 as head of buying. But in 2004 she left, two years after the exit of the then UK chief executive Mark Smith, who had brought in Berry in the first place.
Fast-forward three years and they are both back. But if the protagonists are the same, the business certainly isn’t. Pre-tax profits for the year to February 3 2007 at the 454-strong chain were up from £125,000 to an impressive £4.9 million in the UK division.
Berry is now general merchandising manager, executive vice president of Claire’s Europe, which she admits is a bit of a mouthful. “It’s very American and it effectively means that I’m buying director for Europe,” she laughs, dismissing the weight of its responsibility. Berry makes the job sound easy, which it most definitely isn’t.
After rejoining the company himself in 2007, Smith sought Berry out to head up the buying team.
“I’m not sure I would have returned if Mel had turned down the role,” says Smith. “She’s a great merchant and it was important to get her to come back. We have an awful lot to achieve in terms of getting the business back on track and the major initiative to unite Europe in the UK.”
Berry’s decision to return to Claire’s was influenced by its acquisition by private equity firm Apollo Management in 2007, and a new focus on the European market.
“When Mark contacted me last March and told me that Claire’s was going to be sold, it was too good an opportunity to miss,” Berry explains. “Also, knowing that the new chief executive – Gene Kahn – was a merchant was important to me. It was the first time that Claire’s had someone with a buying background at the helm. He is very inspirational, very product-focused and hugely intelligent.”
Previously, all the buying at Claire’s was done from North America, but the European buying team is now in the process of being relocated to Claire’s Birmingham office.
“Developing Europe was a big pull for me,” says Berry. “With the responsibility moving from North America to Europe, the buying role became much weightier and we needed a much bigger team.”
Confidence in the product
In March, Berry increased Claire’s buying and merchandising team by 70%, adding 30 new members – the biggest influx of any department. “Our internal global strapline is: ‘It’s all about the merchandise’,” Berry explains. And she is still hunting for at least 10 more staff.
“We’ve added a new function in the merchandising department – a team of analysts to understand the nuances of each zone in Europe. We’re still recruiting for the team,” says Berry.
Claire’s is now split into three European zones, which Berry oversees. Zone 1 represents the UK and Republic of Ireland; zone 2 looks after the French, Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese markets; while zone 3 caters for Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Each zone has a zonal manager, and Berry is still looking to fill the UK role.
“We’ve also expanded the trend and product development team,” she adds.
A focus on trend-led product is a key part of Claire’s growth strategy as Berry looks to increase sales from its oldest age bracket. Currently, the highest percentage of sales comes from the middle bracket. The business has three target customers – the young (13 to 17 years), the younger (seven to 12 years) and the youngest (three to six years) – but Berry believes there is room for better differentiation of the target customers in store. From August, she says the shops will be split by age group rather than just by product.
The dedicated trend development team, with the use of trend prediction companies such as WGSN, is responsible for the “fashion profile” section that makes up one of the three main focuses of Claire’s “assortment” or merchandise – a new strategy put in place
by Berry. The customer and the price points are the remaining areas of focus, which set out guidelines for Claire’s buyers. The idea is that this will better enable Claire’s to streamline its SKU count and improve the clarity of its offer.
“We’re more confident about our product now,” says Berry. “In the past we used to buy quite flat, but we’ll be lessening the number of SKUs and buying in more volume for the lines we really believe in.”
Part of the fashion profile focus is to offer more choice across Claire’s three categories of basic, fashion core and trend. Historically, Claire’s focus lay in basics – and hair accessories still fall into that category – but jewellery now lends itself more to the fashion core and trend categories.
As well as rethinking its product categories, Claire’s is also refocusing on the price architecture. Like most retailers, Claire’s offers a good, better, best strategy. Most products fall into the better bracket, but Berry wants to be “better at better”.
She adds that more emphasis on trend development will help the business win back customers in the older teenage market.
“Over the past four years Claire’s has been losing the 13- to 17-year-old customer,” Berry says. “So we need to put more emphasis on trend development. At the moment we’re sitting on the top of the trend wheel, if you like, meaning that when a product is really on trend, we’re on top of it. But we need to be on that trend curve earlier, in the same way that Topshop gets onto a trend.”
Ahead of the game
But Berry insists Claire’s isn’t moving into the Topshop and New Look territory, despite citing the high street chains as competitors.
In fact, she’s confident Claire’s has not been hit by multiple retailers introducing own-label jewellery to their stores. Earlier this year, accessories company Mikey hoisted the For Sale sign over the business, which owner Alan Wood admitted was still in “recovery” mode. Similarly, Monsoon issued a profit warning last year, which it partly attributed to increased competition against its Accessorize chain.
“We haven’t seen our sales suffer as a result of the multiples, and Claire’s is more of a destination accessories store with a huge presence on the UK high street,” Berry explains. “We also have a point of difference, especially as we target a younger customer. Our customers are savvier than they used to be and more trend-aware at a much younger age, so we need to stay ahead of the game.”
Berry’s comments are certainly in line with research from TNS Worldpanel Fashion, whose latest report says the UK women’s accessories market is worth £837m, up 15% on last year. Although TNS confirms that clothing multiples including New Look and Topshop have been expanding their accessories ranges and, as a result, gained market share over the past year, it has not been to the detriment of specialists such as Claire’s, which continues to gain share itself. In fact, the gain of the multiples and specialists has been at the expense of clothing independents and “general” stores such as Marks & Spencer.
TNS adds that prices for handbags, belts and jewellery have risen as value retailers’ growth continues to slow and consumers head for more upmarket stores and – given the current consumer downturn – opt to pay more for fewer items.
But despite Claire’s low prices, Berry insists the chain has never been value-led. “I don’t believe Claire’s has ever just been about value. Its ethos has been about our customers, and about them getting ready for a night out together,” she says.
Berry believes Claire’s additional services, for example ear piercing, help to drive Claire’s growth, and she describes ear-piercing as one of the chain’s key services.
“We’ve pierced more than 80 million ears,” she laughs. “Actually, when I met [Duran Duran singer] Simon Le Bon he told me that all his kids had their ears pierced by Claire’s. We offer the service in all our UK stores, but we’re refocusing on the European market now and looking to grow the service there.”
Europe certainly seems to offer Claire’s the most potential for growth, with the business set to double in size on the continent over the next three to five years. Countries earmarked for new store openings include Germany, France and Spain – possibly Berry’s favourite country from her European remit.
“Put it this way, if Mark said to me that we were moving to Barcelona, I’d be very happy,” she smiles, before getting back to the business. “We’re quite mature in the UK so there are fewer opportunities here. Realistically, we could only open another 10 to 15 shops.”
Would a transactional website offer another route to market in the saturated UK territory? Berry hesitates. “Online is on our list of priorities but we’re not working on anything at the moment,” she says.
Whether she is opting to keep things under wraps or doesn’t believe online sales would boost the business’s overall turnover remains to be seen. According to Verdict Research, etail is becoming an integral part of UK retail with total online spend worth £14.7 billion in 2007, up 35% year on year, equating to a rate of growth almost 10 times higher than that experienced by the total UK retail market.
But there is another way Berry can profit from the UK market. When asked about her vision for the next five years, she confides that she would like to roll out the Icing by Claire’s concept across Europe, including the UK.
Icing by Claire’s is dubbed by the accessories company as the “older sister” of Claire’s and currently only operates in North America, where it has about 442 stores averaging 1,185sq ft. “It’s still quite a young concept in the US and we need to develop our understanding of the European market and how it would fit in,” she explains. “But it’s likely to open in the UK first.” So, does Berry have any regrets about coming back? She smiles and says: “No regrets. I love Claire’s.”
2007 General merchandising manager, executive vice president,
2004 Business unit director, WHSmith
2002 Buying and merchandising director, Claire’s
1999 Head of buying, Claire’s
1994 Buyer, New Look
1990 Assistant buyer, Topshop
1989 The Burton
Group corporate training scheme
Who is your fashion mentor?
Mark Smith, former chief executive of Claire’s in the UK, and Tom Singh, founder of New Look. The two of them are incredibly inspirational entrepreneurs. Even though they are both male, they are completely in touch with their customer and are very product-focused – they both really pushed me in my career.
Which is your favourite retailer?
Anthropologie in the US for its clothing, accessories, homewares and lingerie – it’s beautiful. Selfridges is a great one-stop shop for a busy mother and I love Fauchon in Paris for the food hall.
What has been the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
In 2000, we sold millions of hairsprings at Claire’s – our customers went mad for them.
What has been your proudest achievement?
The birth of my daughter and my current position at Claire’s – I’m incredibly proud to be heading up the buying here.
What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)? Either a Formula One racing driver, a pop star or running my own orangutan sanctuary.
What is it about accessories that you love so much?
I adore product, and with accessories you get to work with so much of it. I can be working with flip-flops one minute and knitted scarves the next. There’s so much diversity that no day is ever the same.
What are your future goals?
My strategy now is to help grow Claire’s Europe to such an extent that the European business is bigger than the North American business. The opening of our 1,200th European store will be a real cause for celebration.