Asos’s merchandising director is using her razor-sharp maths skills to help the etailer move beyond its ‘spotty teenager’ phase and fulfil its international ambitions
When Gwynn Milligan joined fashion etailer Asos in October, her colleagues were in awe of her maths skills, notably her ability to calculate prices at breakneck speed in her head.
Milligan puts this down to Ann Iverson, former chief executive of Mothercare, with whom she worked in 1979, and who later took charge at Laura Ashley in 1995. “She taught me a big lesson,” Milligan recalls. “She went into meetings with mark-downs in her head. We went in with a calculator. Now I do it all in my head.”
Her speed and 31 years’ experience in fashion mean Milligan has the skillset to cope with the increasingly fast-moving world of etail. “The speed of online is so much faster than bricks and mortar; everything is so instant. My whole career was all about walls and density. Asos takes the flagship concept to a whole new level,” she says.
Milligan started with Mothercare in 1979 as an allocator, a job she “fell into”. She then worked her way up over eight years to senior director of merchandising and when colleague and merchandising director Elizabeth Ralley moved to the then Burton Group [now Arcadia] in the same role, she urged Milligan to follow.
“Everyone always said to me that you need Burton Group on your CV and I agree,” says Milligan. “I learnt so much from so many different people there.”
Over the following 16 years, Milligan worked across most of Burton Group’s brands, starting with Dorothy Perkins and moving on to Burton, Topman - where she worked as merchandising director for five years - and then the now-defunct menswear chain SU214.
The last five years were spent as merchandising director at womenswear chain Wallis. “I learnt so much there - I’d never speak ill of them. [Owner, Sir] Philip [Green] knows his stuff. There is no trader like him,” she says. “He can really sniff out a fraud.”
When the opportunity came to join Asos, Milligan felt she had done all she could at Arcadia. “At Arcadia we all had some responsibility for online but nothing like this,” she says. “Now it is anytime, anyhow, anywhere. We are a 24/7 business, global and instant.”
But it’s not all plain sailing, and what Asos may gain in youth and energy, it lacks in experience. “This is such a young business. It really knows its market and customer but needs help with basic processes,” says Milligan. “The business is in its stroppy teenage phase. I have two teenage boys and I see Asos like them - spots and tantrums.”
One of the learning curves relates to stock management. Asos carries more than 36,000 styles and is still working out what levels of stock are needed to make it more profitable without buying too much, which would then have to be marked down. “If you lean on too tight a stock position it is a problem,” says Milligan, pointing out that not buying enough - as Asos has been guilty of in the past - is also a problem. At Asos’s last trading update in April, which saw total sales for the 12 months to March 31 rise 35% to £223m, chief executive Nick Robertson said the business
had suffered from “overly tight stock planning” but said sales growth had accelerated as stocks were rebuilt in the new year.
“We buy wide and volumes have increased massively on own-buy and branded lines. We have learnt we can sell more depth and more choice,” Milligan adds.
“I feel I have encouraged the team to take their foot off the brake and put it onto the accelerator. We still have international expansion to think of and it is such a huge opportunity and new customers are coming to us all the time. So we have to make sure we have enough availability.”
International markets are the current big growth areas for Asos and the etailer believes it can make £1bn in sales across five international markets, including a big push into the US in the next five years. It will launch a standalone US site in September.
Merchandising for such a global business brings challenges and opportunities, but flexibility is one of the plus points, says Milligan. “In Australia, it is winter now, so we are starting to sell more coats and knitwear there. You have longer to sell stock online than in bricks and mortar as we can allocate it into a different market. That life of a line can move on. We are starting to learn that.”
The business is also growing in confidence to fully back trends. Asos predicted that maxi dresses and clogs would be huge for spring 10 and by backing them with fervour it generated strong sales for the site. More than 4,000 maxi dresses a week are being sold.
Asos’s heritage lies in its offering of dresses, but with autumn 10 expected to be a season dominated by separates - and Asos’s ranges growing all the time - Milligan believes it will be a great chance for the business to get “known” for other product.
Next year, Asos will implement a new merchandising system that will help it to achieve further growth. Milligan says it will be “pioneering” and will allow the retailer to react even more quickly. But she refuses to disclose further details.
Milligan believes merchandising has transformed since she started out, but stresses it is a key role requiring extensive market knowledge. She advises those starting in the merchandising discipline to be “as aware as the buyers” of current trends.
“I love the word flair. A lot of people think merchandising is a dry subject but merchandisers have to have flair and gut instinct,” she says.
2009 Merchandising director, Asos
2009 Merchandising director, Wallis
2004 Merchandising director, Topman
1995 Head of merchandising, Burton
1993 Senior merchandiser, Dorothy Perkins
1979 Allocator, Mothercare
Which is your favourite shop?
I love [designer indie] 10 Corso Como in Milan. I went there five years ago and fell in love with it. I could move in there.
Where do you like to shop in the UK?
I shop a lot on our site as it has such broad appeal. Whistles looks pretty amazing at the moment - the range is really good. I also shop in Cos and Massimo Dutti. John Lewis fashion has got a lot better but I don’t find the website inspirational enough.
Who inspires you?
I have two sons, aged 13 and 14. I learn so much from them.
What is your biggest passion outside of fashion? I’m a huge sports fan and a big Manchester City supporter. I know a heck of a lot about football which people don’t expect.
Who has really helped you in your career?
My husband. He is very supportive.
Who has been influential in your career?
Ann Iverson [chief executive of Mothercare] and I also met Derek Lovelock [chairman of Aurora Fashions] at Mothercare. It’s amazing the influence some people have on your career.
What advice would you give to those starting out in merchandising?
A lot of people come into it not knowing what we merchandisers actually do, so I would advise them to really research the role. People still see us as number crunchers but the role is a lot more dynamic than that. You need to really understand your customer; shoppers are more promiscuous, so you really need to understand their needs.