Business Irish

Monday 26 September 2016

For every product we sell online, we sell four in store within five days of customers seeing it

Stephen Sealey, GM of the Brown Thomas Group talks to Bairbre Power about luxury, e-commerce and a €2m investment in replatforming its website

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Stephen Sealy of BTs by Jon Berkeley
Stephen Sealy of BTs by Jon Berkeley

It's 8am Tuesday, and the majority of the retail world is only on its way to work, but in Brown Thomas on Grafton Street, it's showtime.

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Stephen Sealey, Brown Thomas's group general manager arrives into a room packed with style commentators, media influencers and fashion editors who know their Gucci from their Givenchy from half a mile away.

Designer handbags with four figure price tags that normally occupy this corner of the ground floor have been temporarily put away to make space for a high octane catwalk show with 90 looks.

Lavish gowns from new Australian label, Maticevski, crystal embellished denim dresses from Christian Dior, pearl studded Gucci heels and Vetement jeans made from recycled Levis cost €1,000 a pair - and there's a waiting list. Sipping a coffee with Sealey after the show, I introduce the subject of Brexit.

"Our view is just carry on. It's difficult to predict what the consequences will be. It might give a knock to the economy but for us, it's very simple, we need to buy 'die for' pieces, pieces that people cannot live without."

And what are the pieces that we cannot live without, I enquire?

"Well, I think you saw 90 of them in the show," says Sealey, with a smile.

"I see Brexit as just another part of the changes which are going on in the business," he adds. It's to do with the demise of disposable clothing and there is a trend for "a greater interest in experiencing luxury.

"Everyone is going OMG, but what you have to remember is that during 2012 and 2013, we traded at these exchange rates.

"The euro has weakened, it is great for the US and we are seeing a lift in tourists from the Middle East so it is swings and roundabouts."

Sealey acknowledges: "You've got all sorts of uncertainties. I mean, we saw the uncertainly in this country around the formation of Government. Brexit is another level of that and what we have to do is focus on making Brown Thomas a destination that people want to come to and that means a great environment, great service and products that you look at and say 'wow, I've got to have that', and that's the biggest thing that we need to do."

Outside BTs, the scaffolding wrapping around the store's exterior is about to come down after a €2m facelift. The work on the facade is part of a €35m investment over three years and the store is weeks away from the 'reveal' of its €11.5m project that has yielded an additional 9,000sq feet of space on its second floor.

However, new visual merchandising and luxury fitting rooms aside, what the Irish business world is really curious about is what the retail group is doing with its website.

Brown Thomas is replatforming at a cost of €2m.

It was brought forward, Sealey confirms, because of the growth of online sales and the launch date is September.

Sealey promises a much better user experience in terms of navigation, better filtering, movement, the introduction of customer reviews of beauty products - which will be moderated but not edited - as well as lots more videos.

"Currently when you search, it brings you to the product but the new website will take you to a page with three options - the product, editorial about the about the product and related video content," Sealey explains.

Customers chasing down clothes, for example jeans, will be able to pre book an appointment, load their selected options and sizes online and when they go into store, the items will be waiting for them in a changing room to try on.

Sealey views this engagement as the future of personal shopping and it is slated to be available through the website in the autumn.

"I am confident that when our new website launches, it will be a world class website. It will not be a poor second to Net-a-Porter," he says.

Some products sell a lot better online than others, it's the nature of the beast. "The best performing categories are actually kitchen electricals," says Sealey.

"Beauty has got a high percentage of online sales, particularly brands like MAC and Charlotte Tilbury which trade considerably larger than other beauty brands online - and they are key exclusives at BTs along with Jo Malone, Tom Ford and Nars.

"Accessories perform well online and ready-to-wear performs less well because I think people do really want to touch it, feel it but the website serves a real purpose in allowing people to look at the breadth of the range we've got and the price points.

"We do know that for every one product we sell online, we will sell four in store within five days of the customer viewing that product online.

"And we will sell 20pc of them the same day as the customer views it online.

"You see ultimately, I don't care particularly where the customer buys. The person who is important to me is the customer and therefore, they can buy online, they can buy in this store, they can buy it in BT2 in Dundrum. It's our job to provide the stuff that the customer wants in the easiest way."

An Isle of Wight native who came to Ireland 19 years ago after Breege O'Donoghue of Penneys recruited him from the London retail scene, Sealey moved here to take up the position of buying controller at Penneys.

Three years later, he moved to Brown Thomas as buying director, a position he held for nine years and during that time, BTs introduced Chanel, Hermes and built up the Prada and Gucci boutiques between 2002 and 2005.

After working at opposite ends of the Irish retail scene, Sealey points to a common theme - "it's about having the right product at the right time at the right price".

Sealey confirms there has been "this move away from obvious logos, and even Michael Kors, on some of their products, put the logo on the bottom inside, so there is a move away from that. I think there is a bit of a kickback to overt branding.

He holds dear the belief that you "buy to the heart of a range, with an edit that's right for your customer", and at present, 90pc of the population is within an hour of one of the group's six stores (Brown Thomas and BT2 in Dublin, Cork , Limerick, Galway, Dundrum and Blanchardstown) so there are no plans to open any more.

BT2 will close on Grafton Street without job losses. The shops were too close and brands such as top French label, Maje, contemporary crowd pleaser, COS, and Ted Baker are making the transition across Grafton Street to the mothership, the new-look second floor which Sealey assures "will look fabulous".

When it comes to the bottom line, the company won't be paying out rent for BT2 or face laying out finance doing up a property they don't own.

"If the landlord is making more money than you are out of a store, it's not a good place to be," he says matter-of-factly.

Married with one adult daughter, Sealey came to his management job at "probably the darkest hour possible, in September 2009, so it was tough".

His approach has always been to achieve a series of small slices "and if you add a slice of this and a slice of that, they all mount up".

Sealey says BTs has grown its sales every year from 2009. Profits have grown every year and the Chinese, with their love of designer handbags certainly helped during the tough years, with Mandarin-speaking staff being recruited for the Grafton Street store.

"The Chinese are still coming and year-to-date, their spending is a little bit down. I think there are a number of factors including a few clouds on the horizon with the Chinese economy.

"There is an increase in surveillance at Chinese airports. "You hear tales of luxury handbags being abandoned in the baggage reclaim areas in Chinese airports because customs are levying heavy fines. On the other hand, there is still the fact that the Chinese people know that if they buy from us, or in Europe, it is genuine product and it's not fake."

The British shoppers are still coming but they don't have their sterling strength.

However, on a positive note, the Americans appear to be making up for them and currency movement is in their favour.

Sealey confirms they are starting to see the emergence of Middle Eastern customers, "partly linked to our equine business in Ireland".

Any plans to have Arabic speaking staff, I ask?

"It's actually on our wish list so we continue to adapt and adopt according to our customer. That's what any retailer's got to do," he says.

Dublin has been awash with big boats but cruise ship business doesn't always translate into sales of luxury goods, the BT boss concedes.

"For us, the tourist business is the icing on the cake rather than the large part of the cake. It was very useful to grow it during the recession, because it enabled this business to keep on a growth path - but our primary thing is to engage with our local customer obviously."

So how is business at the moment?

"Business is OK and if I look at our growth over two years, I am very pleased. We are seeing strong growth in our Dundrum store, a lot of it driven by new beauty brands. We are seeing a good growth in Limerick, based on the investment we put into that store. The rest of the business is OK but it's nothing spectacular."

BTs will officially publish its 2015 figures next November. In the meantime, Sealey acknowledges that last year was a very good year, adding "when you come up against strong increases, it can be difficult to file strong increases on strong increases".

In addition to being managing director of the Brown Thomas Group, Sealey is also a director of Arnotts and the Henry Street store is also owned by the Weston family. Asked about plans going forward for the northside store, Sealey says: "Arnotts has a strong management team lead by Donald McDonald. They will continue to develop Arnotts as an iconic brand."

Galen Weston famously bought Brown Thomas as a gift for his Dublin-born wife, Hilary. The Westons are "very engaged in the Brown Thomas Group and their daughter, Alannah, is deputy chair of the Selfridges Group, and is very involved in the business, Sealey confirms.

Alannah has played a large part in the refurbishment plans for the Grafton Street store and is very passionate about sustainability so water only comes served in glass bottles and the store group is trying to reduce plastic in the business.

The store's plans for a new LED lighting imitative and re-wiring project will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by almost 3,000 tonnes a year which is reduction of 39pc.

"It's great being part of a family business with family values." says Sealey.

"That is a good thing. It means you can do the right thing, you can take the long term view. If we were owned by a venture capital company, we wouldn't be spending €2m on restoring the facade of the store, it might just have been given a lick of paint."

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