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Reinventing Urban Outfitters for the Gen Z shopper

emma wisden 0090 index

Urban Outfitters’ European head, Emma Wisden, is on a quest to build on its brand identity to create an unparalleled shopping experience in stores and online

Pictures from a recent photoshoot for dog outfits cover Emma Wisden’s desk when Drapers meets the managing director of Urban Outfitters Europe at her Oxford Street office. It is a reflection of the multifaceted business she leads: known for its offbeat, youthful aesthetic, the retailer’s proposition spans womenswear, menswear, homewares and gifting. In the buzzy flagship several floors below Wisden’s feet, millennial customers can browse a treasure trove of products including clothing, vinyl records, cacti and vintage cameras.

Urban Outfitters’ eclectic approach is paying off. UK sales at URBN, the parent company that also includes lifestyle retailer Anthropologie, were up 10% to £206m for the year to January 2018 – it does not split out its results. The group made a £5.9m profit, reversing a £2.7m loss in the previous year.

At the start of 2018, it operated 245 stores, including 180 in the US and 45 in Europe. Since then, and against a backdrop of high street store closures, Urban Outfitters has been busy expanding its European and UK retail footprint. Over the past year, it opened in Vienna, Milan, Paris and Düsseldorf and, in the UK, a 9,000 sq ft store at the Westgate Oxford shopping centre and an 8,000 sq ft unit in Cheltenham’s Brewery Quarter in late 2018. Further openings are planned in Warsaw, Leipzig and Munich over the next 12 months.

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Urban Outfitters autumn 19

Wisden has been at the helm since 2015, when she joined Urban Outfitters after 15 years as Topshop’s buying director. She was drawn to the role, she explains, because of the retailer’s distinctive brand handwriting, as well as a natural affinity between Urban Outfitters’ laid-back aesthetic and her own somewhat androgynous style.

“I had admired Urban Outfitters because it felt like it had a great relationship with the customer,” she says. “Even if you didn’t make a transaction, the brand felt interesting because of its connection to music [it promotes gigs with local bands through its UO Live programme], interesting collaborations and cool [in-store] events. The founder [Richard Hayne started Urban Outfitters in the US in 1970] is never going to abdicate the brand values [of inclusion and community involvement]. Meeting him was refreshing and it chimed with what I felt: that it is not just about making money, but building something to be really proud of.”

After spending more than a decade at Arcadia when it was still a high street powerhouse, Wisden felt well placed to help steer Urban Outfitters on its next stage of growth: “A brand can be good, but the product still has to be amazing, and when I started, I didn’t feel that it was amazing. I thought there was an opportunity to make it better. The management at the time was also going from running a business with four or five stores to a much bigger operation.

“It was evident to me, coming from a retailersuch as Topshop that has hundreds of stores, that there were so many opportunities. I don’t just mean things like leveraging efficiency and costs – although that was a huge one – but really grounding the product in terms of the quality and price perception. It was a case of coming in and thinking, ‘You know what? With a bit of design development this business, which is already loved but is perhaps having a wobble because it is growing so quickly, could be amazing.’”

Womenswear makes up 60% of Urban Outfitters’ overall business, menswear 25% and homeware and gifting the remainder. Own-label accounts for around 80% of its offer, which it complements with in-demand brands such as Calvin Klein, Fila, Champion and Levi’s. Its own brands include denim line BDG, streetwear-focused Iets Frans and the newest launch, trend-driven womenswear brand Narrated, which hit stores earlier this year. Urban Outfitters positions itself towards the premium end of the youth market – own-label prices range from £6 for socks to £119 for maxi-dresses and £550 for a premium suede coat.

We’re expanding, but we’re not going to grow the retail footprint ridiculously

Emma Wisden, Urban Outfitters

“Urban Outfitters has a unique, vintage-inspired look that helps it stand out in a crowded market,” says Pippa Stephens, associate retail analyst at GlobalData. “It also has a homeware offer, which many mid-market clothing retailers don’t necessarily have. Potential challenges include increased competition online from players such as Asos, which sells some of the same brands, and the fact that it is a targeting a young demographic with a higher price point.”

To appeal to a price-conscious millennial and generation Z shopper, Urban Outfitters is focusing on building an emotional connection with consumers and creating a product proposition they cannot find anywhere else.

Urban Outfitters currently has 56 stores across Europe, including 30 in the UK. But Wisden is aware of the importance of a considered approach to bricks and mortar – she wants to expand, but does not have a set number of stores in mind. 

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Urban Outfitters autumn 19

“We’re expanding, but we’re not going to grow the retail footprint ridiculously. There has to be a balance between omnichannel and stores. What new openings allow us to do is to keep the momentum going – because we’re opening new stores, we’re always thinking about what event or in-store pop-up or gig we could do. It’s really healthy for the brand to have both [digital and bricks and mortar] going on.

The right experience

An experiential approach is key to the success of Urban Outfitters’ store estate, Wisden argues. As well as a diverse product offer, its stores feature a distinctive, industrial-inspired design. Upcoming in-store events include a summer pop-up at its flagship London store with streetwear retailer Wavey Garms, as well as a series of DIY events, including tie-dyeing with T-shirt brand Stain Shade.

“It is about experience now,” explains Wisden. “Younger customers don’t say, ‘I’m going shopping now’ – shopping is 24/7. You might be playing Candy Crush and see an advert for a pink jumper and buy it.

“However, the experience side and the entertainment side can’t just be two dimensional. I feel that what we’ve got is a distinct handwriting. Without the stores capturing what that is, I don’t feel we would have such a strong brand. There’s also a lot of things we could test with bricks and mortar, like a purely experiential store with no transactions or a themed store, even if it’s with a pop-up mentality.”

Wisden is also invested in the possibility of driving a similar sense of excitement and adventure across Urban Outfitters’ digital offer. Although giants of the industry such as Asos and Amazon have convenience sewn up, Wisden says fashion retailers have an opportunity to shine when it comes to creating compelling moments online.

“The entertainment side of online really interests me – it is something we talk about for our stores and there’s an exciting opportunity to capture that online,” she explains. “Our customer wants to feel like they are connected and like they are part of something, whether that’s in store or online. I was impressed by Fred Perry’s collaboration with [Belgian designer] Raf Simons, where customers could find and shop products using a virtual map, for example, or Nike’s collaboration with [British menswear designer] Martine Rose, which could be purchased on [classified adverts website] Craigslist.”

Wisden also sees an opportunity to evolve Urban Outfitters’ product offer, while staying true to its handwriting: “We’re a very casual, ‘rebel youth’ kind of brand – very effortless. We’ve experienced such success over the past few years that I think there’s an opportunity to dive into more sensibilities. There are customers who might want to buy into smarter products that still have that 1990s influence, like taking the utility pants that are popular at the moment and making them slightly more bodycon. Having style influence is pivotal to our business and, because of that, there is an opportunity to do more.”

Going green

Like the wider fashion industry, sustainability is an increasing focus for Urban Outfitters – and with good reason. Drapers research found that more than three-quarters of Generation Z and millennial shoppers say sustainability is important to them. The retailer already has a vintage offer, which includes clothes made from unused leftover fabrics, salvaged dead stock and one-of-a-kind second hand pieces.

Coming at us like a juggernaut is the need to be a conscious retailer

Emma Wisden

“Previously, there was a big percentage of customers that liked the idea of vintage shopping but couldn’t see themselves actually making a purchase. Now, I look at my daughter and she’ll see someone selling something on Instagram that they look great in and think: ‘Yes, I’ll have that.’ That peer-to-peer element has really changed perceptions, and this generation is much more accepting of resold clothing.”

She adds: “Coming at us like a juggernaut is the need to be a conscious retailer. Plastic is at the forefront of our customer’s mind at the moment, but sooner than later they will be looking at apparel. We’re spending a huge amount of time focusing on reducing, re-using and recycling. Our spring 19 collection with Liam Hodges was created from recycled clothing, and 35% of our denim will incorporate 20% or more recycled cotton across our Mom, Dillon, Pax and Jackson styles from this autumn.”

Evolving the offer in this way is natural for Wisden, who describes herself as “a product person”. She says her best moments at the business come when she can put her own stamp on a creative marketing idea or be part of the team behind that season’s bestseller.

A creative mindset was instilled in her from a young age: “I come from a family of dressmakers – my auntie was a dressmaker and my gran was always making things. Perhaps because of that, it was always in my mind that whatever you wanted you could have, because you could just make it.”

Famously fickle and demanding, millennial and Generation Z shoppers can be hard to please. Urban Outfitters is appealing to this demographic through a unique design handwriting, compelling in store experience and a focus on experiential retail.

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