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The Drapers Interview: Building the Roman empire

Womenswear brand Roman sells 3.5 million garments a year and – following #thedress social media sensation – plans to revive British names, and expand online and into new categories 

Roman

Roman

Rick and Peter Christodoulou from Roman

“It’s fair to say we’ve had an interesting journey. A lot of people ask where we’ve come from because they still haven’t heard of us, as we don’t actively advertise on billboards or in magazines,” Roman’s joint managing director, Rick Christo, tells Drapers at the firm’s Birmingham-based head office.

The womenswear chain now boasts 150 UK stores and 140 concessions in the likes of House of Fraser, Debenhams and Menarys in Northern Ireland. By the end of 2016, he estimates the relatively low-profile business will sell around 3.5 million garments a year.

“Our head of HR went to a Lionel Richie concert the other week and said she could have lined up a whole shop full of people [from the audience] wearing our product. She’d know because I think she buys at least three pieces a week,” he laughs.

We really do focus a lot on ensuring the end user gets what she believes to be great value for money

Peter Christodoulou

Rick – full name Erich Christodoulou – and his brother, Peter, have transformed their parents’ manufacturing business, which used to supply the likes of Eastex, Wallis and Berkertex, into the thriving retail empire it is today.

Many will recognise the name from when the business was thrust into the spotlight last year after a picture of one of Roman’s dresses that some people saw as white and gold, but was actually blue and black, went viral with the hashtag #thedress.

“It is still the same business since our parents were around, so it’s been going a long time, about 50 years in total, but we only really got on the map in 2015,” says Rick describing the social media storm as “winning the lottery ticket of marketing”.

Roman autumn 16

Roman autumn 16

Roman autumn 16

The brothers, who began working with their parents’ business as teenagers, started the Roman Originals brand to supply independent retailers in 1992. They opened their first standalone store in 1995.

“We started opening our own stores and some concessions, and at that point we realised we didn’t need to manufacture for the big boys any more – we had enough capacity to produce everything for ourselves,” he explains. By 2010 there were 34 Roman Originals stores.

Offshore exploration

As the business grew, they had to start sourcing additional manufacturing overseas in China, Bulgaria and Romania. They stopped manufacturing altogether in the late 1990s, although they remain committed to sourcing 50% of goods from the UK.

The womenswear chain originally targeted women in their fifties, but the age group of customers steadily crept up as they sought to capitalise on winning lines. At the end of 2010, the pair started a comprehensive review of the business to adapt to the “new world” of UK retail, which was still reeling from the financial crisis.

“Through the recession our product was aimed at the 60-plus shopper because we had grown with our customer, who had then tightened her purse. So we wanted to become more flexible to appeal to a wider customer base and make the product line broader than it had been,” explains Peter, pointing to a target customer aged between 35 and 55 who also shops at Marks & Spencer, Wallis, Dorothy Perkins, Phase Eight, Monsoon, River Island and Coast.

“At that point, we decided to rebrand [dropping ‘Originals’] and improve our proposition, redefine exactly what we were about and realign to our customers,” says Rick. “There was no stone unturned to make sure we survived. We found we hit on a niche by rebranding and that our sales were improving as a result.” 

Retail is not an industry for the weak of heart or mind, so you never stop innovating

Peter Christodoulou

The firm then embarked on a bold UK store expansion plan, opening seven stores in the latter half of 2011, 15 in 2012, 25 in 2013 and 45 in 2014.

“It was hard work. When we got to the end of 2014 I think we were all worn out because it was a big year,” admits Rick. “At the same time we were obviously concentrating on not losing focus on the rest of the business because ecommerce is a big part of that as well, outperforming store retail in terms of fastest gross growth.”

Geographical spread

Last year, the firm opened “around 25” stores and there have been further seven so far this year, albeit with a few closures along the way to ensure the portfolio is performing efficiently.

“We think the size of our estate is large enough for the moment. We need to concentrate most of our efforts in grooming and developing what we’ve got, and putting substantial effort behind our ecommerce, which is continuing to climb,” says Rick.

“There are one or two pockets we’ve missed geographically and there’s a gentle plan for next year of say around seven stores,” adds Peter. “There are certain towns and cities we’re not in but rather than just diving in, we’re waiting for the right location and it is now about being more specific. We’re at that stage where it’s not a race but it’s about getting it right for the brand and the business.”

Mark Robinson, property director at regional shopping centre owner Ellandi, says Roman has stores in four of its centres and would like to see it in a few more.

“They have nice stores, they’re good to deal with and they seem to have product which sits well in our community shopping centre model,” he says. Roman dresses retail at £40 to £50.

Similarly, Resh Dorka, joint manager at plus-size womenswear retailer Yours Clothing, has stores in many of the same locations as Roman and views it as a strong business: “I often see the stores when I’m scoping out some of ours. They are good at choosing the right locations for their market, which I think is a bit older than ours. The products are well merchandised and they’re good-looking stores.

“I don’t think their online presence is perhaps as big as ours so that might be a focus going forward.”

Resisting discounting

Roman’s sales grew by 13.6% to £55.5m for the 12 months to 31 December 2015 year on year, while profits fell from £3.4m to £1.2m as a result of continued investment. Rick is confident that the retailer is on track for a significant increase in sales and profits this year. The three-year plan is to increase online performance from 12% of total sales currently to half of the total business.

Peter, who looks after the product and merchandising, while Rick focuses on retail and “anything else” in a “yin/yang-type” relationship, says the brand is at “about 80%” of where he wants it so be.

We’ve put footfall counters in stores to understand the traffic, how to staff stores and feed a whole lot of data back

He holds retailers such as Next in high regard for the commitment to maintaining full price through the season, explaining that Roman will go on Sale on December 24 at 3pm, as it has for the last few years. He tries to keep mid-season discounting to a minimum and avoids blanket promotional activity such as Black Friday. 

“Now we want to improve on what we’ve got, offering a lovely quality product for the correct value and price,” he says. “We really do focus a lot on ensuring the end user gets what she believes to be great value for money.”

Roman places importance on the way its garments fit, feel and look on its customers, and two fit models (one younger and one 50-plus) come to the head office twice a week. Peter believes the brothers’ manufacturing heritage and knowledge of how clothes are put together sets them apart from their peers.

Thirty new lines are delivered into stores each week. The in-house design team focuses heavily on transitional ranges to mitigate against unseasonal weather and respond to customer demand.

Roman 2016 06 01 jc lookbook3203

Roman 2016 06 01 jc lookbook3203

Nevertheless, Peter is keen to not blame external factors such as the weather or Brexit for difficult trading: “They are going to be there whatever you do and whether you like it or not, so you just have to get on with it and make the product the best it can be,” he shrugs.

Brand extensions

The 1,000-strong team is poised to launch a new responsive website and click-and-collect this month, followed by a new epos system next year. In 2017 jewellery and accessories will be introduced, as well as an expanded collection of daywear to further broaden the offer.

More immediately, the business is gearing up for the relaunch of Dusk for autumn 16 in selected Roman stores and online. The occasionwear brand was one of the 12 labels it acquired from CDU, which went into administration in 2011.

The new Dusk collection will sit alongside Roman’s original brand but will be more occasion-focused. Retail prices for a dress will be higher at between £70 and £80.

“It will be have more of a focus on eveningwear compared with Roman – well and truly affordable but a different type of handwriting,” says Rick.

As for the long term, the brothers say they have plenty of enthusiasm for the opportunities ahead.

“We are still very energetic – we’ve got a boatload of ideas that we want to do,” says Rick. “We bought all of the Frank Usher brands, so we’re still very excited about trying to redevelop those if we can. Although, of course, Roman is the main part of our business and takes up our full working day.

“They’re just resting, sleeping gently,” he adds.

“We’ve set up a little department for Dusk and put some resource behind it. If it’s received well, we’ll roll out from there,” Peter says.

“Retail is not an industry for the weak of heart or mind, so you never stop innovating.”

The Roman bosses on …

Widespread discounting

It is a road to nowhere. To survive you have to make money and profit and it’s not about making profit to become millionaires or billionaires but to reinvest to survive and pay all obligations. It’s re-education that’s needed and a lot more nerve needs to be shown.

Brexit

We predict that this year will be definitely be better than last and we’re not paying any attention to Brexit. It is what it is. I’m not saying we didn’t see a dip in trade for one week but it has bounced back.

Using data

We’ve put footfall counters in stores to understand the traffic, how to staff stores and feed a whole lot of data back, so we can understand things like what kind of posters work well in the windows and what attracts people to come in.

#thatdress

It was a fun day, a bit of a distraction but a good one. It gave everyone within the company, and everyone we work with, a great buzz and clearly we did exceptionally well from it [in terms of sales and awareness]. It gave us a lot of brand awareness so it was very positive … if only you could plan it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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