Interview: Honey Birdette talks 'experience' lingerie retail, plus UK and global growth
There are as many nuances in the lingerie market as there are in mainstream clothing. From the sporty, to the practical, luxurious, mildly titillating and downright sexy, they all face a market that’s intensely competitive but it has also been one of the clothing sector’s most dynamic segments where smaller, founder-led brands are showing they can compete against the might of big names.
Australian brand Honey Birdette, founded a decade ago by Eloise Monaghan, is expanding in the UK at a time when the market is becoming tougher. The impending arrival of Dutch giant Hunkemöller, the growth of local chains like Boux Avenue, and M&S’s renewed focus on its topselling categories all pile on the pressure. Add the rise of e-tail, a return to inflation, increased business property taxes and the higher minimum wage all mean now might not seem like a good time to open new stores. Agent Provocateur’s failure this year after over-ambitious store expansion underlined that growth isn’t guaranteed. But growth is just what Honey Birdette is after as it aims to replicate its Australian success in Europe.
The brand occupies a clearly defined niche in the lingerie market. It is high-end but not ultra luxury (a bra and brief retails at around £100, a bra, brief and suspender set at around £150). And it has an unashamedly sexy profile, with fetish-wear complementing its made-to-be-seen lingerie. It’s a niche that has helped it grow to 55 stores in Australia and three in the UK, with a target of another 40 or 50 in the not-too-distant future.
That future will also include the US, where the company, only recently launched a local website, and possibly Germany and the Netherlands, which management sees as the most likely European markets to embrace its concept.
PRODUCT AND EXPERIENCE
That concept is built around constant newness with fresh collections of around five pieces dropping in-store each weekly, and a focus on selling sets rather than individual items. For instance, while bras are the big sellers, the company is shifting almost as many suspenders, with the latter category achieving 90% of the bra category’s volume.
Key to that cross-selling success has been Honey Birdette’s focus on ‘experience shopping’ rather than just on product.
That can mean the in-store champagne trolley with a “press for champagne” button in the changing room, or the store staff who live the brand. Those who actually sell the products (the Honeys, as they’re known) really dress the part in-store with a sexy dress code that has created controversy in Australia Some former staff have claimed the look is sexist, although in the context of the brand’s image, a sexy dress code does make sense.
“Honeys are very unique to our culture. We’ve always thought about having that Virgin Atlantic mentality,” Monaghan tells Fashion Network as she explains the brand’s USP and how its staff are part of its aim to stand out in a crowded market. It’s an approach has helped Honey Birdette achieve near-cult status in Australia.
Monaghan founded the label when her desire to switch careers (from crisis communications) blended with the influence of her mother’s former job as a corsettiere at David Jones and the realisation that ultra-sexy lingerie being largely sold though male-oriented sex shops was a downmarket turn-off for women.
“I didn’t know about Agent Provocateur and Anne Summers,” she says. “I had a hen party to go to so I went shopping in an adult store. It was revolting. So I sat down with a friend and it grew from there. We didn’t want it to be just about lingerie or bras, we wanted it to be an experience.”
This focus on experience is perhaps the clue to why the brand is making a major impact at present as consumers globally have finally caught up with the equation whereby product + experience = higher sales.
Not that being ahead of the trend was necessarily a good thing a decade ago. The company struggled for its first few years as Monaghan learnt the business and navigated the all-important leaning curve about where and how to open stores. The first store was, she says, a business “disaster”.
“It was in west end Brisbane. We’d started what we thought was a luxury lingerie shop stuck between Cash Converters and an Indian restaurant. That’s not the place to be selling $200 sets. We were out of there within 12 months. We found it hard to survive. We weren’t vertical at all, we didn’t have our own label.”
That survival struggle continued for several years, despite growing sales and an increasing fan base. “The business was going well but we naively had taken on some very big leases. Westfield absolutely knocked us sideways,” she explains. “There’s not going to be a lot of independent operators in Australia because of the shopping centre focus. If you don’t have a property team behind you that knows how to negotiate with them, you're stuffed. And even then, every shopping centre looks the same, they’ve got all the same retailers.”
This is where major backing from now-majority-owner Brett Blundy came in. He walked in off the street one day having been impressed by the store concept. It took several years of negotiations and plenty of mentoring but hooking up with one of Australia’s richest (self-made) men and most successful retail entrepreneurs clearly taught Monaghan a lot. It helped her learn what she needed to know about the business side of things rather than just product.
“I’ve always said it’s not a fashion business, it’s the business of being in fashion. You need to know about open-to-buy plans, about merch planning, about margins and all that stuff,” she says.
Blundy’s involvement was a turning point for the business as it now had the finance to carry out its plans without worrying about not being able to pay the rent.
Was there a moment at which she felt she wanted to keep majority ownership for herself? It seems to have been a no-brainer: “I could have had a bigger piece of a much smaller pie or a smaller piece of a bigger pie. I live the brand, I’d do anything for it. I’ve had him as a mentor but he’s never interfered in the business, even though he’s the majority owner. It meant we could roll out 23 stores in six weeks as a result of that partnership.”
While that kind of pace isn’t likely to be seen in the UK, Monaghan does expect fast expansion in the future. There are currently 55 Australian stores, but only three in Britain (Victoria Gate in Leeds, Westfield White City and the Covent Garden flagship). That small UK footprint is expected to grow quickly with plans to open in Westfield Stratford, Newcastle and Liverpool during 2017. “If you asked me how many UK stores I want tomorrow I might say 200, but today I’d just say 40,” Monaghan tells us.
Is the UK operation a carbon copy of that in Australia? Not completely with changes being introduced now. “When we opened here we brought the Australian shopfit but it wasn’t ‘grown up’ enough and so we’ve gone to a UK agency called 20:20 for help. The difference is in little details, like a really rich chocolate carpet rather than black, and the finishes are a lot more glossy, more decadent. I like to think that we’re taking it from a ‘burlesque’ presentation to a ‘stunning showgirl presentation’, but still very accessible.
“We’re having a champagne cart and our changing room mirror will have an LED effect. There’ll be #honeybirdette across it that will show when customers take selfies - we get a lot of selfie traffic in the changing rooms. We wanted to put HB in there, not in a logo way, but in a cute way that’s fairly unique.”
The Covent Garden store will also get an extra boost with plans to convert the downstairs area into a space to boost engagement with higher-spending customers. “It will have a runway and mirrored ceiling, chairs and tables, so it will feel like a cosy bar. We’ll be doing private showings down there and offering limited edition pieces,” Monaghan explains.
“There’s nothing ‘naughty’ out there at the moment. We’ll be doing that. It will be a bit Eyes Wide Shut, but very exclusive with no expense spared.”
Monaghan believes that such ideas can happen as long as businesses don’t become too corporate. “At the moment nobody is taking a risk,” she says. “I think private equity has got far too involved. The boardrooms are taking over what should be a female space.”
ONLINE AND INTERNATIONAL
As well as upgrading its stores, the company is also looking at how to bring the shop experience to its online ops. There are no details on this yet but the brand clearly sees major opportunities online with the channel currently representing 15% of sales and rising.
Online can also be used as a cost-effective way to get into a new market. As we spoke, Honey Birdette may have only been available online in the US for less than two months, but Monaghan was shocked by how strong its sales had been there.
“We haven’t done anything with it really, but it’s just running itself,” she says. “I said to the team that if we get to a certain point we’ll warehouse from the US and open out first stores in LA and New York. In two-and-a-half weeks we were half-way there.”
While she admits she doesn’t know if she can follow through on that promise just yet, as we spoke was preparing to visit New York and would be speaking to leasing agents there. So we have to assume that US stores are extremely likely in the medium term. And what next? While she doesn’t think France, Spain or Italy are ready for the brand yet, global domination is clearly on her agenda. “To be honest I want to be the best sensual lifestyle lingerie brand in the world,” she says. Watch this space...
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