With Anthropologie’s much-anticipated launch into Europe just around the corner, its managing director for Europe explains why he is convinced it will live up to expectations.
James Bidwell is so confident of the success of US retailer Anthropologie’s launch in the UK that he is not planning any big marketing push. The quirky US sister to Urban Outfitters opens its doors on London’s Regent Street next week and despite being new to the European market with prices above most other UK high street stores, Bidwell, managing director of Anthropologie for Europe, is certain customers will be wooed by it.
“I really feel confident about our plans. The interest around the launch has been incredible,” he says. “I think we are looking at a tougher economic period for the next 12 to 18 months, but the flipside is that it is a good time to give newness to customers; give them something else.”
Part of that newness will come from Anthropologie’s “retail theatre”, as Bidwell calls it. The store will feature an array of art pieces sourced globally, including what is believed to be a retail first in the UK - a 50 ft high hydroponic wall that grows plants vertically.
From a product point of view, Anthropologie will offer UK customers completely new brands to choose from in the form of its own-label collection, and a small selection of branded goods and collaborations with local designers.
One of its own brands - Leifsdottir, which debuted in the US last year - is aimed at the contemporary designer market with a focus on fine fabrics, tailoring and iconic prints. Anthropologie describes its main offer as everyday looks with some key “special occasion” pieces. It does very little formalwear and offers feminine ranges aimed at 28 to 45-year-old women.
Retail research firm Planet Retail’s global research director Bryan Roberts believes there is little on the high street with the same product mix and personality as Anthropologie. “It’s a very good retail concept and the stores are incredibly well designed and merchandised with a good mix of product,” he says. “Despite talk of the rise of discounters, this proposition merits the higher
price point and it is very tuned in to the 30-something shopper.” Roberts says it will not have direct competition and its more grown-up offer is a better place to be because the youth market is so competitive.
But with such a broad price architecture - dresses range from £60 to £200 in the Leifsdottir collection - and its target of the 30-plus customer, Anthropologie could go head to head with the likes of Reiss and Whistles, up to more premium diffusion lines such as See by Chloé and Marc by Marc Jacobs. Even more worrying for Bidwell is the proliferation of new brands and retailers targeting the 30-plus market, notably George Davies’ GIVe, and Mint Velvet, the new retail venture from the ex-Principles management team.
Still, with the 30-plus UK womenswear market worth about £6bn, according to market research company TNS Worldpanel Fashion, Bidwell could certainly take a slice of the pie if his offer is compelling enough. And he has the experience to back up his ambitions. He was marketing director of Selfridges for five years and before joining Anthropologie in January he was chief executive of the organisation that promotes London to tourists, Visit London.
Bidwell sees Anthropologie more as a lifestyle brand than a pure fashion retailer - 70% of the offer is fashion, with the rest made up of homeware and gifts. “I see competition in terms of what my customers are going to do on a Sunday afternoon - go to the theatre, go for a walk or come to us,” he says. “We create an emotional connection with our customer. Brands that create a genuine connection thrive in these times.”
This is not to say the fashion element is not important. Bidwell has brought in Liberty head of fashion Olivia Richardson, who he worked with at Selfridges, to head up buying for Europe. Although much of the product will come directly from the US buy, it will be edited for the European customer by Richardson, with about 20% of product sourced from Europe to appeal to the local customer and she will also layer on a few extra products as well as UK collaborations.
One of the retailer’s first partnerships is with London Fashion Week label Eley Kishimoto, with a collection called EK Jam Factory. The range will start with just four pieces - a print silk dress, printed trench coat and two knit pieces. The first store’s Regent Street site will mean Bidwell can assess the reaction of consumers who are not just from London. “About 50% of customers won’t be from London,” he says.
Next year, a store on the King’s Road in Chelsea, west London, will open, which Bidwell describes as more of a “community” store. He is looking around Europe for other places to launch but is in no rush to roll out stores until the response has been assessed in the UK - a strategy in line with that of Urban Outfitters. Its measured expansion path is likely to be taken by Anthropologie across Europe.
In the US there are 127 Anthropologie stores. It continues to perform credibly even in the tough US market - like-for-like sales are down but less so than at Urban Outfitters. In the three months to July 31, sales grew to $173m (£108.8m) from $166m (£104.4m) for the same period last year.
Bidwell knows there is pressure with such high expectations, but is confident that Anthropologie will deliver. “Will the hype mean we have to manage this incredibly well? Yes. But this company has never been afraid of launching brands in tough times,” he says. “The opportunity to build this brand across Europe for me is really incredible.”
Who is your fashion mentor?
My inspiration comes from many directions: the artistic, creative and cultural communities as well as the places I’ve travelled to and the people I’ve met and worked with. I’ve also been really fortunate to work with some extremely talented teams, in particular at Anthropologie over the past year.
Which is your favourite store besides your own?
For food, the Riverford Farm Shop in Devon. I get all my vegetables delivered by Riverford, whose founder, Guy Watson, is a visionary for sustainable farming. Their shops
in and around Totnes are lovely and lunch at the Field Kitchen is a great culinary experience. For clothes, Richard James on Savile Row - beautifully tailored, comfortable, interesting clothes in a great space.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
London - while at Visit London. We grew London tourism to record levels.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Personally, my wife and three daughters; professionally, being part of the turnaround team at Selfridges and my time at Visit London.
What would be your dream job?
I think I already have it. One day I will do something in the well-being and environmental arena - I am constantly fascinated by the paradoxes and opportunities in the way that we live our lives as our society becomes more global and more threatened by the impact of humans on nature.
- 2009 Managing director, Anthropologie Europe
- 2005 Chief executive, Visit London
- 2001 Marketing director, Selfridges
- 1999 Marketing director, Europe eToys