It took some tough love to rebuild the British chain, but Bonmarché is now getting back in shape and expanding.
World-record holder Paula Radcliffe is not the usual source of inspiration for the chief executive of a listed fashion retailer, but a picture of the marathon runner is precisely what is keeping Beth Butterwick, the boss of Bonmarché, focused and on track with her turnaround plans.
The image, which hangs on her office wall, was given to Butterwick by chairman Tim Mason following Bonmarché’s initial public offering on AIM last November. It was to remind her that the revival of the value-driven, over-50s womenswear chain would be a marathon, not a sprint, and was about “maintaining stamina”.
Butterwick is clearly living by this analogy. Having taken the reins of the struggling retailer at the end of 2011, just eight weeks before it collapsed into administration in January 2012, she spearheaded a transformation that has seen shoppers fill its stores again and sales skyrocket. And since the IPO this has continued unabated.
In a trading update last week, Bonmarché reported a 15.8% increase in like-for-like sales for the 13 weeks to June 28, with store sales up 13.5% and online revenue up 53.5%. In its full-year results for the 12 months to March 29, published in June, profit before tax increased by £3.2m to £8m.
These results are all the more impressive since Butterwick had never heard of the business before she interviewed for the top job. This she puts down to Bonmarché’s location in secondary retail destinations and because she is not the target customer.
Prior to joining, Butterwick had been living in Holland for three years, heading up another value-oriented mature women’s fashion retailer, MS Mode, which trades from 450 stores across Europe. Previous to this she was vice-president of womenswear, accessories and childrenswear at Gap Europe between 2005 and 2008, and she worked for Marks & Spencer for 14 years from 1991, starting as a trainee and progressing to become head of
“The moment I went into Bonmarché’s head office I felt there was something I could do for the business and a huge opportunity,” says Butterwick. “Firstly, if you look at the target market, we are an ageing population so I could see there was scope for a big customer following that was going to get bigger.
Secondly, I could feel there was an incredible culture within the business, they just hadn’t necessarily had the focus and clarity of where they were going and what they were doing under the previous management.”
But just two months into the job Butterwick was unexpectedly “catapulted into this role as the leader that was going to save the business”, when administrators were called in and the company was bought by Sun European Partners, with the store portfolio decreasing from 395 to 265 stores.
Despite the very unsettling situation she immediately set about rescuing the retailer, with a business plan to refocus the product on the core 50-plus customer, repositioning it back to a value price point and revamping both stores and online.
First and foremost designing product suitable for the 50-plus woman of today was key to entice this core demographic back. Butterwick explains mature women increasingly feel younger and fitter, and want to dress to match this attitude but often lose confidence in their bodies. So buying director Caroline Cotton and David Emanuel - the designer of Princess Diana’s wedding dress, who has worked with Bonmarché since 2006 - have been tasked with creating collections that enable shoppers to seamlessly move from more classic to contemporary looks, but still flatter a more mature figure.
Butterwick says many women over 50 “feel like the high street has let them down, there’s nowhere to go”, yet she warns “they are becoming a very powerful voice”.
“We want to focus on making women feel very stylish and flattered in the fit of our clothing. We are taking our customers on a very gentle style journey - everyone wants to look younger than they are. We’ve been able to see our customers really taking up the more contemporary style product at a faster pace.”
She declines to give specific figures, but says this focus means the proportion of the overall collection given over to the contemporary range has doubled in the past couple of years.
It also led to the relaunch of plus-size label Ann Harvey last month, which it has rolled out in 23 stores, a concession in Beales in Poole and online.
Under its previous Jacques Vert ownership, the premium and formal plus-size label had turned increasingly casual to compete with Evans and the supermarkets, but Butterwick says Bonmarché will return Ann Harvey, which it bought last April, “to its beautiful heritage look”.
She adds it is a really good fit with Bonmarché because both understand the plus-size and over-50s markets, but while the socio-economic categories Bonmarché targets are C, D and E, for Ann Harvey the core customers are from the A, B and C tiers.
“Taking Ann Harvey on we have real ownership of all the socio-economic groupings for this mature customer, and it enables us to do things with different fabrics and a price point up,” she says.
But the revived Ann Harvey range will be cheaper than before, with Butterwick explaining the most expensive dress is £80, which a year ago would have sold for around £160.
Confidently, she adds: “If this works, this time next year Ann Harvey could be double the size [both in terms of sales and store space]. We’re just at the beginning of the journey here. We haven’t committed to anything yet, but it’s got off to a very good start.”
She refuses to rule out the possibility of standalone Ann Harvey stores, simply saying: “They aren’t in the plan at this stage. Anything’s possible.”
To support this revamped product line Bonmarché stores are undergoing significant change since many “lack emotional excitement and elegant feeling”. The refit programme is focused on creating a sense of “elegant, homely glamour” including the introduction of chandeliers, wooden floors and even a picture in the changing rooms of the Queen dancing. So far 25 stores have undergone the refit and 14 more will be done this financial year.
Bonmarché also has plans to open five mainline stores this financial year, with many expected to be in towns the chain vacated following the administration. In May it re-opened its former store in Nottingham and last week it returned to Cardiff, but in a different store at the St David’s Centre.
A further 15 ‘other’ stores will be sought across its garden centre concept, of which it now has six, and concessions in Beales and out-of-town mills, of which it has two each. Butterwick declined to provide a breakdown of how many of each would be opened.
Working with The Garden Centre Group, Butterwick describes the plan to open within these unusual clothing destinations as “a really exciting opportunity” to tap into both the lifestyles and hobbies of Bonmarché’s core shoppers and the high footfalls and repeat visits to these centres.
In a similar vein, Bonmarché previously mooted opening stores on cruiseliners, but Butterwick insists there are no firm plans for this yet.
Retail analyst Nick Bubb believes the pursuit of these new channels is “quite promising and makes sense because their consumers might not be fully focused on shopping centres”.
He adds “weaker competition” from other retailers catering for the older market such as M&S has created “a big opportunity for Bonmarché”, especially following Marks’ online struggles.
Bonmarché has been booming online as mature female shoppers quickly convert to ecommerce, which Butterwick links to the rise of tablet computers. In June last year Sean Emmett, who previously helped launch Next online, was recruited as marketing and multichannel director, and recent upgrades include rolling out online model photography, using the Pirius platform to build shopper profiles so accurate recommendations can be made, alongside plans to launch a fully optimised website for tablets and mobiles by the end of the financial year. Around 400 exclusive online styles have also been developed across the 2014 seasons.
To create the turnaround Butterwick has relied on “tough love” to motivate the workforce of 2,800.
“I believe if you’ve made a promise you deliver on your promise, and if you’ve got to give tough feedback you do, because people learn from it,” she says. “And I apply those principles to myself as well.”
Beales chief executive Michael Hitchcock, who works with Butterwick on the department store concessions, supports her leadership style. “Businesses that go through an administration process are left battered, bruised and deflated,” he says. “It is a real testament to Beth’s leadership that the business has picked itself up, brushed itself off and instilled a strength of belief in the brands it trades.”
And when Drapers asks what enables her to stay on track, Butterwick concludes: “A lot of energy and stamina - that’s what’s required. Because we are growing and we have a lot of plans, it’s like setting off for a marathon, you need to pace yourself so you don’t crash and burn.”