Talking shop: Laurinda Sutcliffe, Loobie’s Story
Welcome to Talking shop, a weekly series where we interview the head of a New Zealand retail business about their growth plans and challenges, and get their thoughts on the latest business trends.
This week, we’re featuring our interview with Laurinda Sutcliffe, co-founder of women’s fashion brand Loobie’s Story, which is stocked in Ballantynes, Hartleys and dozens of other retailers across New Zealand and Australia.
We speak with Sutcliffe about how retail has changed throughout the many years she has worked in New Zealand’s rag trade, and what challenges and opportunities she’s facing today.
Inside Retail New Zealand: You started the brand Loobie’s Story 10 years ago. What are some of the highlights of your past decade in business?
Laurinda Sutcliffe: Launching successfully into the Australian market was a definite highlight, as well as being able to retain and grow our position there when many New Zealand brands have not been able to. Launching our second brand Madly Sweetly three years ago was also a key milestone, as was purchasing beautiful business premises last year.
IRNZ: How has the last financial year been for your business?
LS: It’s been stable, with small growth. This last winter season has been a tough one for some retailers but by and large, we have enjoyed good sell-through, which engenders confidence in our retailers to support our business. In this market where there isn’t a lot of growth it’s all about taking market share from competitors.
IRNZ: What are some of the biggest projects/priorities you’re working on now?
LS: We’ve just completed a major overhaul of both our brands’ websites as well as publishing considerable information and documentation around our sustainability and ethical sourcing for customers to access online, anytime. One of our overriding priorities at the moment is to focus on ensuring our marketing collateral and retailer support is the best in the business.
IRNZ: What are some of the challenges or questions you’re facing at the moment?
LS: Rising raw material and labour prices, combined with a strong USD and a weak AUD are current challenges and given the tight market, it is difficult to pass cost increases onto the consumer.
IRNZ: It sounds like sustainability is an important topic at Loobie’s Story. What drives your desire to be a sustainable business and to encourage customers to shop responsibly?
LS: Sustainability has always been at the core of our business with our mission to design high quality, unique garments with great longevity and we have always encouraged our customers to buy less and buy quality. Our challenge now is to take that further by sourcing sustainable and recycled fabrications and yarns, to start using compostable garment bags and to encourage our retailers to be proactive in encouraging their other suppliers to do the same.
IRNZ: This topic is getting more traction in retail, especially fashion. Do you think good progress is being made in this space, or do you think it’s still a niche conversation?
LS: I think there is progress being made but unfortunately, with smaller boutique brands it can be hard to access the sustainable fabrics as the MOQ’s are often very high and our production runs are too small to make this work. We are also finding that the sustainable or environmentally friendly fabric alternatives are considerably higher in price than the ‘non-sustainable’ equivalent and there is a definite concern that the market will not be prepared to pay for this.
IRNZ: The retail industry has changed a lot, particularly when it comes to wholesale because brands can more easily sell D2C now and reach significant audiences through marketplaces and social media. What are your thoughts on this, both in terms of how you sell Loobie’s Story, and in terms of being industry veterans who have probably been on the other side of the table?
LS: We have long believed in the importance of not competing directly with our retailers and as a result, we have seen our business grow, particularly with those retailers who have strong online businesses themselves. We work extremely hard and invest strongly in all our digital platforms to help drive traffic to our retailers’ websites and online stores.
IRNZ: It seems that operational costs like rent and wages are rising for retailers faster than sales. Are you experiencing the knock-on effects of this as a wholesale brand?
LS: They are, and as a wholesale brand, we experience the same things which is one of the reasons we have recently purchased our own business premises, as this is one of the very few large fixed overheads that we can cap.
I wouldn’t say that we are experiencing the knock-on effects of this from our retailers, but we are seeing an increasing number of retailers developing their online stores so that they can increase their sales without exponentially increasing their overheads. We are seeing a lot of small owner-operators working more hours in their stores to cut costs, this also has the benefit of them being more connected to their consumers and maximising sales opportunities.
IRNZ: What’s your take on what retailers need to do to thrive in the current environment?
LS: They need to be totally connected to their consumer, whether this is in-store or through their social media and digital channels. The more connected they are the better informed their buying decisions will also be. At the very least, they need good websites as more and more women do their research online (even if they don’t purchase online), and if it makes sense to do so, they need to consider e-commerce.
It’s also essential to go above and beyond with customer service and ensure that stores are inviting and exciting places to shop. This can be as simple as being well merchandised with good lighting, layout and an exciting product mix that may not just be limited to apparel.
IRNZ: Since you don’t sell D2C, what kind of relationship do you have with customers?
LS: We interact with them through our social media channels but we also collaborate with our retailers to do in-store events where we can meet customers face-to-face, help them with styling and get their feedback directly as to how they feel about our product.
IRNZ: You’re currently stocked in NZ and Australia…any plans to expand beyond these markets? If so, where?
LS: We do have some plans to expand into other markets but they are in the research and feasibility stages at the moment, so we’ll have more to say on that in due course.
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