British handbag brand Radley has ambitious growth plans up its sleeve as it approaches its 10th birthday
It is just over a year since former John David Group executive chairman Roger Best swapped trainers and footballs for handbags and accessories, to become chief executive of Radley. The UK label, with its quirky take on handbag design and its instantly recognisable Scottie dog logo, has been steadily building a strong stockist base in department stores and independents since its inception in 1998.
In February last year, private equity company Phoenix bought a majority stake in UK business Radley + Co, which includes sister brands Tula and men’s accessories label Hidesign, and a share of the company’s £41 million turnover. The rest of the company is owned by Best, Radley founder and creative director Lowell Harder, and the mostly new management team.
Best and the team have been carving out a strategy to take the brand to the next level, with a plan that includes shop-in-shops, new product categories, international stores and the label’s first big marketing push. The company has moved to a new 18,000 sq ft head office, design studio and showroom in Camden in London, relocating from a converted dairy in Willesden. A second shop will open on Floral Street in London’s Covent Garden next month, to join its standalone store on King’s Road, which opened in 2005. Best will not give current trading details, but says sales and profits for the current financial year are up by double digits.
Best and Harder make an engaging team, continuously playing off each other, with Harder’s succinct answers contrasting with Best’s more considered corporate responses.
Harder, an Australian based in the UK for many years, has an intimate understanding of the Radley brand and its customer, and is keen to keep a tight hold on the label’s development.Best hails from a sportswear background, having previously been senior vice-president of Reebok Europe, executive chairman of the John David Group and now a non-executive director of JJB Sports.
However, he says the bags and accessories market is not such an unlikely place for him to be. “I didn’t know anything about the sector, but I could still see that there was something special and different about the product,” he says. “The handbag market is still relatively undeveloped and is growing at about 10% a year, which is how the sports market was 15 years ago before all the consolidation.”
Best says he was attracted to Radley by its entrepreneurial spirit and speedy decision-making. Harder says the private equity deal has taken away the frustration of the small-scale thinking that was predominant in the business before. She is also annoyed by the bad press that private equity has received over accusations of short-termism. “I got upset when I read all those negative things,” she explains. “I didn’t want a group that would take away creative control, and I didn’t get that. It has enabled me to get on with the creative side and not have to be the managing director as well.”
Harder founded Radley in 1998, after leading a management buyout of the Tula handbag business. The brand carved a niche for itself selling to women who did not want to buy into, or could not afford, the designer labels, but wanted something a little more individual. The colourful designs, including the distinctive dog logo tags, are matched with practical touches such as interior compartments and mini-bags inside for purses. As Lowell puts it: “It’s for a totally independent woman who doesn’t need the crutch of a trend-driven product.”
Radley soon became the focal point for the group, outstripping Tula and Hidesign. When Phoenix became involved, Best and the team decided to drop a couple of the company’s smaller brands, including T2 and Mebo, to focus on the three remaining labels, but with Radley as the main focus. The brand grew to about 800 UK and Republic of Ireland stockists, including John Lewis and House of Fraser, with a turnover accounting for more than half the company’s £41m annual sales in the year to April 2006.
Best cites Mintel research which he claims shows the Radley brand now has a 14% share of the handbag market, making it the biggest UK handbag brand, with Tula taking 5%. So with an impressive turnover and a distribution network that has more or less reached its potential, where is there left to go?
Best admits that the growth of Radley was perhaps a little too quick. The brand has spent the past year trimming its stockists back from about 800 to just over 600, being more choosy about where it is sold. Harder says: “We lost a bit of control and we know that we have to give the brand more protection now.”
Best adds that one of the company’s strengths is its multi-brand strategy. He says: “The Tula brand has a loyal customer of its own. For a while it looked like it had stood still, so we have made it more stylish and given it a stronger identity in its new ad campaign.”
New Radley product categories have also been introduced. Two years ago it branched out into luggage and umbrellas, and now also sells scarves. But handbags still comprise about two thirds of sales, a level that Best aims to retain. “We want to grow the market share as a brand,” says Best. “It’s not just a handbag brand, it’s a brand for women. But we’re not looking outside the natural brand extensions.”
Prices are also changing. Harder says the brand is slowly raising its price points, bringing in more higher-priced product to widen its appeal to “a more sophisticated customer who hasn’t been exposed to Radley before”. Average prices have now risen from between £75 and £120 to between £100 and £175 - still well below the designer price level.
Radley is also introducing a premium line, the London Collection, for autumn, offering higher-quality hand-stitched leathers, hand embroidered linings and leather inside pockets. It will retail at between £250 and £375, and Best and Harder hope to add a few accounts in more upmarket department stores and independents.
But when the subject of licensing comes up, the pair smile as if the topic has been one of hot debate. Harder says: “Licensing won’t be a major part of the brand because you lose control.”
One exception could be footwear. Best says the business is looking into that area, with the possibility of launching some product before the end of the year.
The group has also expanded its team, adding finance and operations director Jonathan Blanchard, marketing director Nick Vance, international director Peter Lawson, retail director Paul Donoghue and head of IT Jack Paddison. Along with Harder and UK sales director Ivan Lister, Best says the company has the full team needed to take it to the next level.
Despite the second store opening next month, there are no plans for a retail roll-out, although international airport stores are a possibility. However, as part of plans to protect the quality of the visual merchandising, a new shop-in-shop concept is being launched in independent department store Browns of York next month. Talks are under way to open up to 30 in total.
Best says that a concession model is also being talked about, and the company has opened six outlet stores to sell end-of-line product in a more controlled way.
International expansion is likely to be the main source of growth over the next five years, although Best acknowledges that building a brand presence from scratch outside the UK and RoI will be tough. But a distribution deal in Holland and Belgium has been signed and three stores will open in Dubai in May. Best says he is looking for partners in Japan and is researching potential in the US. There are no plans to develop an online or mail order business yet.
Raising Radley’s profile is key to building its existing customer base, according to marketing director Nick Vance. He is spearheading a £500,000 advertising campaign, with the company launching its first ads in glossy magazines next month with the slogan Truly, Radley, Deeply. The campaign will also be supported by a dedicated website.
Vance says: “I expected a particular customer demographic, but the brand appeals to everyone, from 15- to 60-year-olds. There is still a lack of awareness of the brand - we need to bring a deeper understanding of the brand to loyal customers and get more people to look at the product.”
He is also keen to make sure the label is not damaged by moving too far outside its core speciality. “All the product extensions have been successful because they are made by the same design team, which keeps the brand values intact on new products,” he says.
Despite its plans for international growth, product extensions and new shop in shops, Lowell says core product development will be the key. “The UK handbag market is not made up of home-grown brands, but big international designer labels, so that already makes us different,” she says. “When I started Radley handbags had no colour and department store buyers didn’t like our coloured linings. Now that is one of our selling points. But to keep it going you must produce something different every season.
“Every season, stockists say they are terrified that we will let them down and how great it is when they get something that has moved on and looks different. I can now give my full attention to the creative side of the business, while the rest of the team can provide the management expertise. Radley has now become what I always wanted it to be.”
RADLEY: THE INSIDE STORY
Group turnover: £41 million
Stockists in UK and RoI: 600
Stores: London’s King’s Road and Floral Street (opening next month)
Market share: Radley brand has a 14% share of branded handbag market (Source: Mintel)
Retail prices: £75 to £175. Premium line The London Collection: £250 to £375.