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Drapers Next Generation: The Drapers Interview - Sally Heath

From QVC to House of Fraser to All Saints to USC to New Look, Sally Heath reveals how she developed her career.

It’s funny to think that Sally Heath’s role as head of ecommerce for New Look didn’t exist at the start of her career - testament to how much the industry has changed over the past 15 years.

Heath oversees the day-to-day trading, the online design, content, photography and social channels, as well as digital marketing.

“At the start of my career a head of content role didn’t exist and that’s amazing,” she recalls. “The beauty of the business that we’re in is that it doesn’t stay still.”

Heath was immersed in the fashion industry from a young age, working in Topshop’s Gravesend branch as a Saturday girl aged 16.

“It was while I was working at Topshop that I used to unpack,” says Heath, as she reminisces about her decision to go into buying.

“I remember one particular dress, picking it out and thinking, that is going to go straight to markdown, and I think that’s where the seed of the idea came from.”

Home shopping channel QVC gave Heath her first step on the ladder when she joined as a trainee buyer in the beauty department in 1998. “It’s funny how I’ve ended up where I am now, because at the time there was no ecommerce. QVC was very much an alternative method of shopping,” she says.

“What I enjoyed the most, and technology has brought me full circle to this now, was the tangibility of the sale of the product. On the computer you could see - during the hours of the product being sold - the units dropping down, and it was amazing to see the instantaneous customer response. I used to really enjoy that as you could quantify each hour of the day.”

Now technology has extensively progressed, Heath has an app on her phone to chart the sales on New Look’s website hour by hour.

Working in ecommerce is something she sought when she joined New Look as head of buying for online brands in 2011, and is an area she believes has provided the industry with new talent.

“It’s great that technology brings such diversity into our industry. We’re getting talent from outside retail, whereas before you’d always have people who were working their way up the ranks. But now you’re getting experts from different industries putting a different perspective on it. We have a richer management team because we’ve got a broad brush of skill sets and experience, which I think is fantastic.”

However, she adds at entry level this isn’t always the case: “It’s quite sad now that we’re in a place where people feel like they have to do a related degree to get a foothold in the business. I didn’t have a fashion-related degree and I’d like to see the industry open up more to different skills.”

The fact that Heath didn’t have a fashion-related qualification has certainly not been a hindrance during her 15 years in the industry, and she has fine-tuned a range of skills that have got her to where she is today.

Heath left QVC in 1999 to join House of Fraser as a buyer’s assistant for women’s designer brands. She worked at the department store for eight years and credits House of Fraser as the place she “grew up and learnt what it is to be a buyer”.

During her time there she progressed through the ranks to buyer, gaining varied experience across a number of departments. “I went to my first buying appointment and that was it, the switch went. It was with Alberta Ferretti Philosophy on [London’s] King’s Road. It was amazing.”

And that was it, love blossomed. “I loved all the interactions with the clients, the sales people, the building of a collection and once you’ve built that collection then seeing it sell in store,” Heath adds.

Heath worked under buying manager Caroline Withey at House of Fraser, now buying director for BrandAlley, who she says acted as a mentor. “She was a great inspiration to me. She has the most amazing work ethic, which has stayed with me,” she remembers. “She got you to constantly question your decision making, and was always revisiting and going back and saying ‘was this the right thing to do?’ It is important to do that and question yourself and the decisions you’re making because things change all the time, particularly when you are buying so far ahead.”

Working for a blue-chip company such as House of Fraser armed Heath with a range of skills from planning budgets to range building. “It’s good to be in a big company and learn the basics - then wherever you go afterwards it’s fine, because you’ve got that solid skill set and foundation that stays with you for the rest of your life.”

Heath left House of Fraser in 2007 to join All Saints as senior buyer. “I went from being a little bit maverick in a corporate environment to being very corporate in a maverick environment.”

In the two years she spent at the retailer Heath was part of the movement that led All Saints to become one of the most talked about retailers of its time. “The business was led by entrepreneurs and that entrepreneurial spirit taught me a lot,” she says, referring to the former chairman Kevin Stanford and chief executive Stephen Craig.

“When you’re in a big corporate environment some things take a lot of time and there is a lot of red tape. But once you get into a business where decisions are made very quickly and you have pace, you actually take the view to lead the customer and show the customer what it is they should be buying.”

While at All Saints Heath added another string to her bow, learning to buy own brand in addition to the experience she gained buying branded fashion at House of Fraser. Although the two differ greatly, as own label needs knowledge of manufacturing and fabrics, Heath believes it is good for buyers to have a handle on both varieties. She says this experience aided her work when returning to branded buying in 2009 at young fashion chain USC.

Working as a women’s buying manager for the retailer was not Heath’s most favoured role, with her simply saying that you have to be the “right fit” for a business. She adds: “You have to be grown up at times and recognise when you might not have made the right move or a company isn’t the right cultural fit for you. That does happen and that’s not being negative on either side - sometimes these things just aren’t the right fit.”

However, having met her husband on a buying trip while working for USC she is a firm believer that people should take every opportunity as a positive experience.

After 18 months at the retailer a role at New Look beckoned. Heath joined initially on a three-month contract as head of buying for online brands to help set up the branded business online, which has since grown to more than 40 brands including AX Paris, Mela and Tokyo Doll.

“I really wanted to explore ecommerce and New Look gave me a fantastic opportunity to learn another skill set away from buying,” says Heath. “What I then saw was how the key for success is a global multichannel approach and that means more exciting change yet again.”

And one of Heath’s key philosophies is to embrace new openings. “You should look at change and opportunities in a really positive
way because you never know where you might end up.”

On a final note, she says: “My word of advice for anyone is it’s a small industry and you need to remember that you never know where someone may end up. So you should always be professional and courteous, or it might come back and bite you later on.”


2013 Head of ecommerce, New Look

2011 Head of buying online brands, New Look

2009 Women’s buying manager, USC

2008 Head of buying, All Saints

2007 Senior buyer, All Saints

2004 Buyer for women’s contemporary brands, House of Fraser

1999 Buyer’s assistant, women’s designer brands, House of Fraser

1998 Trainee buyer on beauty brands, QVC

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