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Stepping out from the shadows

Womenswear retailer Oasis has come up with an innovative way to develop its talent and engage Generation Y.

As Drapers ascends the five flights of stairs that lead to the Oasis press office – the lift is broken today – a buzz of activity can be heard coming from one of the rooms. This isn’t just another monthly meeting for the Oasis shadow board. Today they are posing for the Drapers cover shoot and all eight display an impressive air of confidence that suggests they have posed for hundreds of magazine shoots.

The Oasis Shadow Board is a new initiative for the Aurora Fashions-owned womenswear business. The eight shadow board members Drapers meets are trailblazers for a scheme that, Oasis managing director Liz Evans hopes, will continue every year from now on.

Joining the shadow board after their photoshoot, Evans and Oasis deputy managing director Hash Ladha explain where the idea came from.

“As a business we are always talking about recruiting and retaining customers,” says Evans. “This means keeping the customers we’ve got and recruiting new ones – and we knew part of that was understanding the media generation – Generation Y.”

She adds: “We wanted to understand how they shop, how they want to communicate and share ideas so we can engage with them in an innovative way.”

“Without exception all of the executive team at Oasis are not Generation Y, but rather Generation X. So we thought that it would be a good idea to look at the talent we have in the organisation and give some of those people the opportunity to work alongside us as an executive team, giving us information and keeping us in touch with all the ways that Generation Y think today.

“These guys are far more representative of our customers than we are in terms of age and profile.” As Ladha explains, getting a place on the shadow board was far from an easy task. The application process was open to everyone, provided they were born in or after 1980 and had worked for Oasis for 12 months or more.

“I think we got maybe 70 or 80 applications,” says Ladha. “And we whittled that down to 50 before we then asked those 50 to let us know why they wanted to be a shadower in 140 characters or less – like a tweet.”

The executive board then reduced this to about 20 applicants. Then there was a selection day which, according to Ladha, was like The Apprentice, The X Factor and The Voice all rolled into one.

“That day involved a combination of individual exercises and group exercises and there were two things we were looking for when making our selection,” he explains.

“The first was individual talent and the other was a team dynamic. We wanted to make sure the individuals we picked would work well with each other and with the executive board.”

He adds: “It was also important to make sure that our final selection represented all aspects of the business, taking people from across the business in different job roles.”

And it appears Oasis has been successful in its mission to represent all areas of the business. The final eight have roles ranging from PR assistant to merchandiser and designer, through to multichannel content editor. All of them agree that one of the major benefits is being able to meet and spend time with employees from other parts of the business, who they otherwise would never come into contact with.

“I work here in this office,” says PR assistant Eleanor Watson, referring to the Regent Street press office where we are sitting. “So I am not based in head office with all the different teams and part of the reason I got involved was because I wanted to see the bigger picture.” 

This is something Katie Wood agrees with. Wood is based in Scotland and works as a dual-site branch manager across two of the retailer’s Edinburgh-based stores.

“I really wanted an insight into how our head office works and how the other departments work and also how decisions are made within Oasis,” she says.

“So far it has definitely helped me feel more connected to the business.”

As Wood explains, there are some challenges involved in being part of the shadow board when she is based so far away.

“At the moment I am working out how I do the shadowing as well as my day job, so I do have a few more hurdles to jump through first, though I am finding it a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

as Evans and Ladha are quick to point out, the diverse locations of some members of the shadow board makes the whole experience far more realistic.

“The geography isn’t unusual actually,” says Ladha. “Our retail director lives in Manchester and in London for part of the week. When she’s not in London we have to communicate through phone calls or text or email just like these guys will have to do sometimes.”

Currently the shadow board and executive board meet once a month, but they also meet each other and those they shadow at other times.

Sarah Brand, Oasis store manager at Westfield White City, says she often meets up with design director Clive Reeve, who she shadows. “It’s weird,” she says. “Because when I found out I was shadowing Clive I wondered what I could offer him, because he is a designer and I have no design experience, but it’s just good for him to get that young, fresh perspective on things.

“He values everything I say and sometimes I’ll have an idea about something, so I’ll text him and he’ll reply saying ‘I’m on it’!”

An example of such an idea relates to personal stylists in-store. “We were redefining that [personal stylist] programme and actually Generation Y came from the viewpoint of: why do you need a personal stylist in-store?” explains Ladha. “They thought the concept was old fashioned and what we realised as a business is that our customer base is both X and Y and we have now reoriented that process to be more relevant so that all our stylists have their own Pinterest and Twitter account. Then Generation Y started getting really excited about the personal stylist so it helped to create an experience that was relevant to both customer bases.”

Shadow board members also have a great relationship with each other. Multichannel content editor Katy Brown talks of a recent comp shopping trip that all eight of them went on, looking at what their competitors are doing.

Their enthusiasm is almost palpable and, according to Evans, the initiative has been such a success so far that Oasis plans to continue the scheme each year with new members.

“This is definitely not a gimmick,” she says. “It is about having ideas about how we can improve the business and then actually putting these ideas into practice and giving these guys the opportunity to see this come to life.”

“It’s also not just about something to show the Aurora board,” says Ladha. “We are really keen to transform the delivery of things, and engaging with these guys in this way is really helping us to do that.”

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