Ann Summers’ trio of female leaders discuss the position of women in retail, rebuilding the brand and future expansion plans.
“When I started [in retail] it was a real ‘boys’ club’ culture, and that doesn’t go away overnight.
“We need more women like ourselves to raise their head above the parapet, be proud of our achievements and boldly celebrate our success. By doing that, it inspires other women that they can be successful.”
Jacqueline Gold, CEO of lingerie and sex toy retailer Ann Summers, is renowned for her no-nonsense views on the lack of female leadership in retail. Living up to this, the 59-year-old pulls no punches when she sits down with Drapers ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, alongside her joint managing directors – her sister, Vanessa Gold, and Maria Hollins – at Ned’s Club, a private members’ bar at The Ned in the City of London.
The women we have in our business are impressive – they have earned their place. We don’t have quotas
Jacqueline is passionate and practices what she preaches. The board of Ann Summers is 50% female – that rises to 65% at senior-leadership level, a rarity in the industry. Exclusive research carried out by Drapers shows that only 28.1% of board positions at the top 21 UK fashion retailers listed on the FTSE and Aim markets are held by women, and of the women on boards, 81% are in non-executive roles (Drapers Investigates: Getting women on board)
“For me having a strong, empowered, dynamic board with a good female presence has always been really important,” she says. “But we have never compromised in terms of bringing in the best people for the job. The women we have in our business are impressive – they have earned their place. We don’t have quotas.”
Jacqueline joined the business owned by her father, David Gold, in 1979 as a work experience wages clerk, and has been CEO since 1993. She remains the public face of Ann Summers, and is responsible for the long-term vision and strategy of Ann Summers. The day-to-day management of the brand, though, is largely in the hands of Vanessa, who joined in 1997 as a marketing executive and was named managing director in 2011, and Hollins, who joined as a commercial consultant in 2018, before becoming joint managing director in March 2019.
Hollins, a former product and trading director at Asos and House of Fraser, was brought in to strengthen the commercial functions of the business, including buying and merchandising, sales and marketing. Vanessa is responsible for operations, encompassing property, logistics, IT, finance and HR. There are 260 staff at the head office in Whyteleafe, Surrey, and 768 store staff.
The comradery between the three is obvious.
“We have a great working relationship,” explains Jacqueline. “We can challenge each other in a positive way. It’s amazing to see the pace at which these two women are working in what we all know is a Very difficult trading environment.”
We’re starting to get back to our sexy, glam handwriting
In Ann Summers’ most recent financial results, for the year to 30 June 2018, revenue edged up to £110m, from £109m in 2017, but it made a loss of £3.1m, compared with a £2.5m profit the year before. Amid one of the toughest trading climates in recent memory, over the last year, the team completed the first year of a three-year strategy to rebuild the brand, focusing on cutting costs – particularly rents – and improving the product offer. It is now looking ahead to international expansion, investing in its UK store portfolio and attracting a younger consumer.
The sales split is 65% from its 98 UK stores, and 35% from a combination of online, the Ann Summers party plan and wholesale. Stockists include Asos, Simply Be and Very.
“We are happy with how we are trading currently,” says Hollins. “It is fragile and there has to be a reason to buy but we had a great Valentine’s trading period, which is really important for us.”
Hollins has reined in discounting to boost margins and protect the brand equity.
“In 2018 we were on that discount drug, as a lot of retailers were and still are,” explains Vanessa. “Maria has been great at taking us away from that. We still do promotions but we’re being much more disciplined about our offers and we are seeing the benefit in the margin.”
“It feels like we are returning to being a brand again,” adds Jacqueline.
The fastest growth is coming from online and the trio believe it will be the main driver of future growth, particularly internationally, through the Ann Summers website and third-party partners.
The business will not disclose what percentage of total sales international makes up but stockists include Nordstrom in the US and Zalando in Europe.
“We have a small international business,” says Hollins. “We see it as a big opportunity. Growth will come from digital marketing and improving our proposition in terms of delivery. Ireland and the US are priority markets.”
Back in the UK the business has been investing in its social media over the last six months, creating more content and videos with influencers including star of reality TV show Love Island Maura Higgins, which has resulted in more engagement from a younger shopper, aged 18 to 24.
“Maura is our biggest influencer and she is talking to that young shopper. It’s easy to pick [an influencer] because they are attractive, but for us it is really important that they have their stake in the ground and share our values. Our sales on Asos, and launching on PrettyLittleThing [in December 2019], are testament to fact that we are appealing to a younger shopper. They are a big part of our future.”
To appeal to this younger shopper Ann Summers is going back to its sexy product roots and increasing awareness of its size diversity. Retail prices range from £6 for a thong to £60 for a basque.
“We probably moved away from our heartland to a degree and went too everyday,” says Hollins. “We’re starting to get back to our sexy, glam handwriting. For me the biggest opportunity is making the most of that and getting that spot on.
“We also have an opportunity in our sizing and fit. We have a diverse range from size 32A to 44H, and don’t make enough of that. [We need to raise awareness of the] DD-plus area and celebrate the fact that we have something for all women.”
Helen Masters, director of lingerie consultancy Pudding Lingerie, agrees: “We are seeing a shift towards body positivity and fuller figures in lingerie, and Ann Summers could really own that space. The brand is known for its sexy lingerie, and if it could do that for any size and shape at a reasonable budget, it could be a powerful position for it. But it needs to focus and invest in its bra-fitting service, as that will be core for [bigger sizes in particular].”
Increasing its sustainability credentials is another focus. In May, Ann Summers will launch a sustainable line under its Knickerbox brand, which it bought in 2000. Knickerbox Planet will consist of six lingerie ranges, and swimwear and nightwear will follow later this year.
All products will be made using sustainable fabrics in ethical factories in Bangladesh and will be available across all Ann Summers channels. The business is also in talks with one wholesale partner. Prices are not yet available.
Hollins describes this range as “dipping its toe in the water”, but stresses the business is looking at increasing its overall sustainable product volume: “We want to move our biggest range – our sexy lace range – to sustainable lace next year, but finding the right fabrics has been the most challenging part. It still has to be sexy [to work for us].”
Another new venture is sexual well-being brand MyViv, which launched in October. The 16-product range has been designed to support all women – including those going through cancer treatments, the menopause or who are post-natal – and comprises bath salts, candles, lubricants, pelvic floor trainers and vibrators, containing natural ingredients and sustainable packaging. The branding is a marked departure from the pink rabbits and hen parties for which Ann Summers is known. The collection is stocked in Boots and Feel Unique.
The brand was inspired by Jacqueline’s own experience of breast cancer in 2019 and a portion of profits are donated to Breast Cancer Now. The business also fundraises for the charity, and has donated £70,000 altogether so far.
“When I was going to health appointments one thing that struck me was no one would speak to me about my sex life and there is an impact,” she explains. “If a man has prostate cancer, it is spoken about openly. We did a lot of research and work with Breast Cancer Now, and developed a range that goes from therapy to pleasure. It isn’t the typical range you would associate with us. There is lots of opportunity to expand the collection and move into different outlets to support more women.”
The majority of Ann Summers’ production is in China, with the rest produced in Bangladesh and Europe.
Like most other retailers, the business has been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak in China, says Vanessa: “We are speaking to our suppliers in China every day but it is still unclear to them. We are working with them closely to make sure they are prioritising the most important lines. Development has also been impacted, as our teams can’t travel out there so we’ve been on Face Time a lot.”
Another challenge has been “outdated and inflated” rents across its UK store portfolio.
“We are 12 months into that negotiating journey and it has been tough, but we are nearing the end of it now,” Vanessa says, but declines to detail how deep the negotiated rent cuts are. “Landlords realised that they couldn’t carry on blocking everyone and were becoming more open to those negotiations.
“We also had a number of our 15- and 20-year leases coming up for renewal, which helped. It gives us a chance in a difficult climate to invest in our store estate and development, whereas before we couldn’t because of these massive costs.”
Vanessa adds that while the retailer’s 98 store count will probably “shrink slightly” in the coming years, it is looking at locations where it has gaps in its portfolio and is using short-term leases of one or two years to test new areas.
“For the first time in a long time we are looking at where we could open new stores. Landlords are more open to [pop-up stores] as they are looking to fill space, and they are more willing to do it at a price we can afford in locations we couldn’t afford before.”
Pippa Stephens, analyst at GlobalData, agrees the current climate could work in its favour: “There is an opportunity for it to recoup some lost physical store sales by stealing market share from struggling department stores House of Fraser and Debenhams – since some towns and shopping centres will be left with few, if any, lingerie destinations. With its competitor Boux Avenue also potentially shuttering stores over the next few months, Ann Summers will be able to attract shoppers impacted by these closures.”
Despite the progress Ann Summers has made with rents, business rates remain a burden.
“It is absolutely vital that the government takes action, it has been going on for far too long,” warns Jacqueline.
“They need to come up with a solution for all retailers [not just Independents]. We all rely on each other; we need all stores to succeed. If the anchor stores go, there is no high street. A lot of legislation has been passed – the apprenticeship levy, the living wage – which is important, but it’s difficult for businesses to handle all at the same time. There hasn’t been enough consultation with retailers to see if what’s been proposed is actually workable.”
With more than 90 years of retail experience between them, the female triumvirate behind Ann Summers have plenty of advice for anyone starting out in the industry.
“Networking,” enthuses Vanessa. “Engage with a mentor and don’t stop learning.”
“Have confidence in your ability,” advises Hollins. “For me coming up the ranks, I had imposter syndrome, particularly when I was the only woman on a board. Confidence would be number one for me.”
“A lot of women suffer from imposter syndrome,” adds Jacqueline. “Boys are brought up to be brave – girls are brought up to be perfect. One thing I recommend is women write an email to themselves listing all their achievements inside and outside of work and when they are going into that important meeting and they feel a bit of a wobble or a bit nervous, read back those achievements as that can be very powerful.”
And what would she like Ann Summers to have achieved in 10 years’ time?
“World domination let’s face it,” Jacqueline laughs. “I would like to have grabbed that international opportunity and embarked on partnerships you may not have seen in the past with Ann Summers. There are still some barriers, but taboos are breaking down – I was very proud to get Lorraine Kelly to say ‘vagina’ twice on her show last year – that’s a big step forward,” she smiles.