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The Drapers Interview: Jeremy Seigal, White Stuff CEO

Jeremy Seigal, White Stuff

Sociable retailing lies at the heart of plans to create an international and multichannel White Stuff “community”.

Leaping out of his chair and darting across the Christmas cracker-themed showroom in south London to highlight clothing in the festive range, White Stuff chief executive Jeremy Seigal cannot be contained once on the subject of the brand’s plans for new products, community-led stores and international expansion.

With aspirations for a continental European and North American push, “more TLC” for the slightly overlooked menswear range and a focus on multichannel and “sociable retailing”, the Stanford and Oxford University-educated leader has much to enthuse about.

Under his guardianship since February 2013, White Stuff has been a strong performer. In the year to May 2 2015, sales rose 13.6% to £131.4m. Wholesale lead the charge up 48.9%, online up 36.5% and retail up 5.3%. EBITDA also rose 16.8% to £21m.

Founded in 1985 in the French ski resort of Val d’Isère as Boys from the White Stuff by two friends, George Treves and Sean Thomas, White Stuff has over the last decade – initiated by Seigal’s predecessor Sally Bailey – moved away from its printed slogan T-shirts and sweatshirts. It has evolved into a British casual lifestyle brand, taking on rivals such as Fat Face, Boden and Joules to target the predominantly over-forties market in the UK.

Now, under Seigal, but with regular guidance from Treves, the confident and characterful brand, which already trades from 102 company-owned UK stores, has international expansion in its sights.

This makes sense as a business strategy, with international sales – via wholesale and online – having grown a staggering 71.6% last year. To support this plan, Peter Ridler, managing director of Ireland-based retail company Musgrave Group, was appointed as international director.

But the energetic 55-year-old does not intend to stop there: “I think our natural extension will be in adjacent countries – so Austria and Switzerland as well as Belgium and Luxembourg. I think those would be the most proximate. Scandinavia is interesting.”

He avoids the next question of which could be first and how quickly it could happen, simply saying: “I wouldn’t want to commit to a specific time for this.”

Atlantic shift

But continental Europe is not the only area of focus. White Stuff has just signed a distribution agreement in Canada but refuses to reveal its partner’s name. Tenth and Proper in Vancouver will be the first boutique to stock the spring 16 collection.

But Seigal does not see this deal as a means to easily leapfrog into the US market, where competitor Fat Face this month opened its debut international store. It was instead “opportunistic”.

“Many of our competitor set have done very well in America, but America is a massive country and you have to approach it very wisely with great skill,” he says. “Many British brands haven’t done very well in the US. There is tons of stuff that we can do internationally along that journey.”

Back in the UK, store expansion is more muted and conservative. The married father-of-two explains that while White Stuff will open new stores, he is acutely aware of the rapidly changing nature of the retail market here. While he believes there’s still scope to open eight to 10 stores a year, as has been done for the last couple of years, he is hesitant about putting a total number on the portfolio size.

“In the past couple of years, the mix of our business that’s online has gone from about 14% to more than 25%. A multichannel experience is the way of the future and we see that growing,” he says. “The role of our shops will evolve, whether that’s a pick-up point for click-and-collect or a place for exchanges and returns. I’m sure we can have more than 120 shops, but I wouldn’t want to commit to a larger number at this stage as it’s a matter of that role evolving.”

Still in the pipeline to open before Christmas are stores in Canterbury, Windsor, Tavistock in Devon and Buxton in Derbyshire. Transport hubs are also high on Seigal’s wishlist, as is a store in Glasgow, but he’s not eyeing a central London flagship just yet.

If you continue to invest in it, love it and make sure it’s fresh and relevant to customers’ needs, then physical assets are just as strong as digital assets

Simultaneously, White Stuff is realigning its existing portfolio by upsizing and relocating stores to more prominent pitches. The Bath store is one example; in September it moved to the next-door unit at 7 New Bond Street, more than doubling its space to 3,500 sq ft.

This store is the epitome of Seigal’s masterplan for White Stuff as a “sociable retailer”. The extra space has afforded the opportunity to create a tea trial area, where shoppers can sit in a cafe and test different teas – on sale in store – for free. A kitchen table area at the back of the store can be booked by those in the local community for meetings or events, which again is free of charge. Every White Stuff shop has a local charity, chosen by shoppers and staff, and those using these facilities are encouraged to make a small donation.

Other stores in the portfolio have sweet shops where the proceeds go to charity, or children’s play areas. All stores are also being themed to their local area, with the Bath changing rooms designed to look like shower rooms due to the city’s Roman bath history.

bath tea bar

White Stuff’s Bath store tea bar

Bath store tea trial

And this isn’t just the case in the UK. The Oldenburg store also has a tea trial area, community space and affiliated local charity. A local tradition in Germany is to offer new neighbours bread and salt; ingratiating themselves in true White Stuff style, the store’s staff flipped this round and visited neighbouring retailers to offer them the gifts.

Continuing the sociable thread, the retailer also held a White Stuff Get Together in August at a glamping site in Sussex, with the families of loyal customers invited to help celebrate its 30th birthday with music, arts and crafts and entertainers aplenty.

“We also sell clothes,” quips Seigal with an animated laugh.

Meanwhile, on the wholesale front, White Stuff currently has 530 accounts globally, of which 270 are in the UK and include independents Caramel in Exmouth and Jarrold in Norwich. It also has concessions with John Lewis, House of Fraser and Fenwick.

The role of our shops will evolve, whether that’s a pick-up point for click-and-collect or a place for exchanges and returns

But again, Seigal isn’t desperately pushing to increase this number. “One has to be realistic. If you are expanding the footprint of your own operations, growing wholesale as well, it’s got to be very well focused because it’s important to respect your wholesale partners. Wholesale is quite often at the vanguard of brand distribution.”

For this reason, he sees most growth for this channel coming from international markets, helping the business to enter new markets or providing the main brand presence in countries like France, where standalone stores are deemed more tricky.

Sarah Simcock, owner of Caramel, says White Stuff is one of her best performing brands, with some autumn looks selling out after featuring in the store’s window: “The appeal of White Stuff is it works for all ages, from twenties up to seventies, as it depends on how you style it.

”They have recently gone for cleaner styles and are now a truly lifestyle brand. The proportion of the smarter ranges has increased and we get a lot of doctors that like to wear it for work; they do smart-casual really well.”

Jarrold womenswear buyer Denise Green says: ”The performance of the brand has much improved. For a while, it lacked new fashion-forward ideas, but going forward the 2016 collection appears much more appealing with some younger styling, better knitwear and the important colour our customers seek. My hope is that they get even more ambitious in styling to set them apart from similar brands.”

White Stuff is one of the few retailers to steadfastly stick with its paper catalogues – or ”magalogues” as it calls them. The format has evolved over the years to include feature articles alongside product, such as recipes and, for the Christmas edition, a look at the history of crackers – White Stuff’s theme for the season. Seigal is very loyal to the format.

“Long may it continue,” he heralds. “We get a great reaction from customers when we put good-quality magalogues in their hands. For as long as we continue to do so, we will continue to give it to them. If the catalogue was no more than a paper version of what they could get online without the richness and browsability then I think it would go the way of other catalogues. Online and magalogues are complementary and reinforce one another, rather than being in isolation.

“It’s like anything: if you continue to invest in it, love it and make sure it’s fresh and relevant to customers’ needs then physical assets are just as strong as digital assets. If you give up on them, of course they will fail.”

White Stuff sends out nine mailings a year in a variety of sizes, with the total number for this year expected to be 2.5 million copies.

White Stuff men's autumn 15

White Stuff men’s autumn 15

White Stuff men’s autumn 15

Springing on to the brand’s product ranges, Seigal excitedly points to a new home and body beauty range that has launched for autumn, made by Yorkshire-based Fikkerts. He also reveals that the retailer could consider a kidswear range in the future as this is one of the few categories not yet in its repertoire.

However, the main focus of his excitement is menswear. Dressed himself in a blue and white checked White Stuff shirt, he says: “We have focused on womenswear, maybe to the exclusion of menswear, and I’m excited that we have given menswear a bit more energy and love recently. This started about 18 months ago, but it takes time to come to fruition. It’s gathered momentum from autumn 14.”

This season’s collection is called The Greater Knowledge and has been designed to comprise hidden details, such as coloured buttons, an owl lapel pin and coloured inside collar trims. “On closer inspection it rewards more,” he says.

Among the predicted bestsellers for womenswear are the “So Glad and Very” capsule collection and the Fontine tree motif dress. For menswear, it is the grey Kingly blazer and the Unie paisley print shirt. Wholesale prices across the collections start from £9.50 for leggings to £39.50 for the women’s Mossy Thatch velvet coat.

Seigal’s enthusiasm and passion as he talks about White Stuff is undeniable, and this undoubtedly feeds through to his plans for the brand. With big ambitions to crack new markets, improve and diversify its product ranges and become a true multichannel and community retailer, he’s a man on a mission – and with unrelenting energy to boot.

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