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The Drapers Interview: Liz Evans, Oasis & Warehouse

Liz Evans, tactician behind Warehouse and Oasis, is focused on social media and domestic growth to keep both brands in the premier league.

Chief executive of Oasis and Warehouse Liz Evans weaves her way through a bustling Warehouse head office. After giving a quick tour of the Shoreditch HQ, saying hello to the whole team en route, she settles down with a coffee.

Dressed in a Warehouse khaki studded knit, jeans and Converse, she relaxes into a chair to talk about the three great teams in her life: Oasis, Warehouse and Arsenal. “I’m a season ticket holder at Arsenal, so I love a bit of footie,” she confides. “When we [the Oasis and Warehouse teams] meet on a Monday for our ‘sales huddle’, if it’s been a slightly tough week I say, ‘Right, it’s like Arsenal. We’re one down but it’s only half-time.’ Or if Oasis is smashing its target every week I say, ‘We’re winning 5-0, but guys, it’s only half-time.’”

With an ambition that could match Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, Evans took joint control of Oasis and Warehouse in March 2013 following the companies’ demerger from Aurora Fashions, having previously served as Oasis managing director since October 2010.

After working in fashion retail for more than 20 years, Evans knows leadership is essential for an international operation. She joined Marks & Spencer’s management training scheme as an 18-year-old in 1989 and her first job was working in the men’s sock department at the M&S in Eltham, southeast London. Several years on the shop floor taught her the importance of great product and visual merchandising.

“It was great discipline and taught me a lot about leadership,” she says. “I pretty quickly progressed to become a leader of people who had been working at the business for 15 to 20 years.”

Fellow M&S alumna Beth Butterwick, now chief executive of value womenswear retailer Bonmarché, remembers Evans as a passionate people- and customer- focused manager: “Her passion pervaded product too. She has exceptionally high standards, can articulate a clear vision and will take her people on that journey, supporting them on the way.”

Aged 21, Evans was put in charge of running the lingerie floor at M&S’s Pantheon store on Oxford Street. By 24, she had travelled to Paris to work at the M&S store on Rue de Rivoli. Two years later, Evans returned to the UK, working as a regional manager and in the womenswear division, before taking charge of the Marble Arch flagship in 2004.

However, in 2005 the time came to move on. “As much as I loved M&S, I wanted to go to a business which I could put my hands around. I was lucky to meet Derek Lovelock [executive chairman of Aurora Fashions] and I joined [women’s occasionwear chain] Coast in 2006. I was appointed managing director in January 2008,” Evans recalls.

“I remember someone at M&S saying to me, ‘Why are you going to work for a brand that takes less money than the store you’re running?’ My answer was really simple: because I felt I needed an environment where I could broaden my learning and take full accountability.”

Lovelock was impressed by Evans’ leadership from the start: “Liz is a natural leader and retailer. She is also a natural with the product. The fact she is running two massive retailers is testament to the fact she has the skill to put the right people together.”

Butterwick agrees that if anyone can drive the growth of Oasis and Warehouse, it is Evans.”Liz is young at heart, which is why she is championing the digital piece for her businesses. She is the perfect leader to run vibrant, fast-paced high street fashion chains,” she says.

In terms of overall performance, Evans is aiming to grow market share in the UK and internationally. “We finished the first half in great shape with growth in both sales and margin and it’s now all to play for in the run-up to Christmas.”

She is focused on growing domestic business next year. As chief executive, Evans oversees 526 stores nationwide - 69 Oasis and 54 Warehouse standalone stores, as well as 195 Oasis and 208 Warehouse concessions in House of Fraser, Debenhams, John Lewis, Selfridges, out-of-town chain store Outfit and selected independents.

While an exact figure is not given, this year “significant” investment has been made in store refurbishments, including Oasis stores in Bristol, Glasgow and Sheffield Meadowhall.

During the fourth quarter of 2014, the House of Oasis concept (first devised in 2011) will be introduced to stores in Gateshead and Liverpool. The idea was most recently unveiled at the 1,900 sq ft Oasis in Bluewater on October 31, to coincide with the launch of the Christmas 2014 campaign. This is the seventh Oasis store to receive a refit in the past year. The interior design is split between a bright ‘day’ theme and a ‘night’ theme, conveying a sense of luxury and intimacy. Stores in Wimbledon and Brighton are scheduled for a facelift this year, but will not receive the new concept.

In March, Warehouse opened its £1m, 2,500 sq ft flagship at 264 Oxford Street. Inspired by the converted warehouses of New York’s SoHo, it is the fourth store to receive this new concept, after Trinity Leeds, Bristol and Belfast in 2013. The store in Bristol’s Cribbs Causeway shopping centre experienced a 25% sales rise following the refit.

This year Warehouse has also refitted stores in Birmingham, Liverpool, Stratford, the Trafford Centre and London’s Argyll Street, although these were refreshes rather than the new concept.

Both businesses have been keen to trial in-store technology since the introduction of iPads in 2011. In September, Oasis began piloting VM Beacon technology in its revamped Sheffield store, which allows shoppers to buy the outfit on the mannequin directly from their smartphones using an app. “We believe that to be a best-in-class omnichannel retailer our stores are key to bringing the brand to life and growing our business through a consistent experience for our customers,” Evans explains.

Omnichannel has been a continued priority since she took control. The online and mobile strategy is to provide a connected experience, by having the same look and feel across every platform. Investment will continue in the digital platforms and in building larger social media teams to drive digital sales, which are up more than 30% year-on-year for both fascias.

Oasis is ranked fifth on Facebook in terms of engagement, according to Facebook Insights statistics, which are calculated on a weekly basis and include the retailer’s main competitors. At the time of writing, it boasts 134,266 fans on Facebook and 36,735 Instagram and 51,700 Twitter followers.

In October, Oasis partnered with ecommerce platform Buyapowa on a social media campaign to drive winter coat sales. Linked to the main website, the Oasis Buyapowa platform promotes deals on the retailer’s coats, encouraging customers to buy and then share their purchases on Twitter or Facebook. The customer with the highest number of referrals from friends wins a new season coat of their choice.

Warehouse’s digital focus is on Tales Of The City, a weekly blog launched for autumn 14. Available on the website and to Warehouse’s combined 61,635 Twitter and Instagram followers, it links to articles on fashion and culture in different UK cities, as well as pages to ‘shop the look’.

Both retailers are connecting with consumers in the digital space, says Maureen Hinton, group research director for global retail at market research firm Conlumino. “Oasis has done well with its social media and marketing campaigns, but now needs to focus on product and building a strong identity in a marketplace crowded with competitors like H&M, Asos.com, Topshop, River Island and Miss Selfridge.

“By contrast, Warehouse seems to have maintained a stronger point of difference, having benefitted from recent trends for minimalistic, graphic womenswear.”

International customers account for 20% of Warehouse sales and 25% for Oasis. South America, the Middle East and Asia will be targets over the next year. Combined, Oasis and Warehouse are present in 35 countries, complemented by transactional local language websites in Russia, Australia, the US, Germany, Holland, Sweden, France and Spain.

Warehouse has been steadily building its global reach to 51 directly owned stores and 107 franchises. The retailer continues to enter new markets, with the launch of a Lebanon store in 2013 and a franchise in Egypt set to open later this year. Working with a Russian franchise partner since 2006, Warehouse opened its St Petersburg flagship in 2011, one of three stores in Russia.

Warehouse enjoys a strong Asian franchise business, having opened its first store in Singapore in 1999. It now has 36 franchise stores throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Oasis, by contrast, has 18 stores across Asia, including Taiwan and Singapore. Globally, the retailer’s geographical spread encompasses 37 wholly owned stores and 104 franchises. After entering the Russian market in 2006, Oasis now operates 18 stores, including a recently refitted Moscow flagship.

Both retailers have sold into South America since 2013 and have franchises in Colombia, Chile and Peru. The international portfolio is completed by a franchise business in Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan.

The first set of Oasis and Warehouse results will not be released until late next year. However, in January Drapers reported Aurora Fashions’ total annual sales rose 2% to £412.5m in the year to March 2, 2013, despite pre-tax operating losses increasing from £5.9m to £7.5m.

James McGregor, partner at retail consultancy Retail Remedy, believes both brands can carve out a niche. “Customer visibility could, however, be an issue,” he warns. “The fact that Oasis, for example, has invested in its social presence is recognition of a need to rebuild brand awareness. One aspect of its website that will pull customers in is the option for 90-minute delivery. The job is harder for Warehouse because it is in direct competition with brands like Topshop and River Island, in a market driven by price.”

Evans is certain the dynamic, agile teams she has built will deliver success. “Our teams take full ownership and accountability for our futures and I am proud to be part of two boutique fashion brands that put the customer at their heart,” she beams. “If you love fashion and love people, this is a dream job.”

  • Liz Evans will be speaking at Drapers Fashion Forum on November 27 at King’s Place, London. The only UK event on topics critical to the fashion retailing sector, the forum combines speakers and attendees from the most influential companies in today’s market. Book online at drapersonline.com/fashionforum

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