Inside Retail Weekly: Forever New underwent a major e-commerce transformation last year. Tell me about that.
Carolyn Mackenzie: We started with a global web replatform project in 2018, which was centred on how to create a seamless customer experience and for us, it was about replacing some of our legacy systems to give us greater agility for the future. Systems were previously bolted on as we went along, and it didn’t give us the flexibility we needed to accelerate some of the new omnichannel experiences we could put in. Some of these included our Australia-first innovations, such as True Fit, Reserve In-Store and Visually Similar.
The pandemic also highlighted the importance of having an agile platform to give greater convenience to customers. We’ve had almost as big a demand for Reserve In-Store requests as we did during Christmas week. I think that with customers being in a store for a purpose and spending as less time as possible in it, Reserve In-Store will become even more important.
With Reserve In-Store, customers can reserve items online. Once you’ve reserved the item, you’ll receive an email that your reservation request has been sent, followed by a text that your item has been placed on hold for you. Once you’ve arrived in-store, you can try on the reserved item or purchase and go.
True Fit is basically a system about sizing. It carries all the past sizing of the customer so you can get a more bespoke fit for your garment, and it will give you a recommended sizing. All the measurements and body profiles are sitting within True Fit. We’ve seen better conversion rates off the back of it. It’s really good.
Visually Similar is if you go online and search the site, it will say what particular items you searched for last time, then it will pull up product recommendations for you.
IRW: Just before the pandemic, Forever New also launched its Be True Be You campaign.
CM: It’s a pity, we’d just gotten it started, then stores closed! We wanted to establish a campaign platform that inspires our community with strong, talented women. We want to celebrate powerful women who turn their challenges into opportunities.
Isabella Dashwood is an Australian ballerina. In the past, she was told she was too tall to be a ballerina, but that made her even more unique and she persevered with it. Her story is about how she overcame that to become a successful ballerina. Then there are other people like high jumper Amy Pejkovic; she’s had some issues around mental wellbeing [and overcome them]. We’ve done our first podcast episode with different women talking about their life experiences and it has resonated well with customers.
Forever New has always been about models with a certain type of look, so we’re trying to change that and show real people wearing our clothes and showing that it’s important to us.
IRW: During the pandemic, Forever New launched its new return service with Couriers Please, Boomerang, so a courier can pick up customer returns from the safety of people’s own homes. That’s such a cool initiative.
CM: We’d already had that on our roadmap and we were working on it, but because of COVID-19, we accelerated the development with Couriers Please and prioritised it. We recognised that we needed to make the online shopping journey as easy as possible during this time. We’re fortunate, we have a strong online business but it was also about how we improved the returns process, which was key. In saying that, the line between bricks-and-mortar and online is continuing to blur even more. Boomerang certainly brings the two together and it’s a continuous offer for our customer. We won’t stop it after the pandemic. If anything, it will get bigger and bigger as we go.
IRW: It’s been a really busy 12 months for the brand. Last year, you launched the Forever New Curve stores.
CM: The range was 12 months in the making. It was about qualitative and quantitative research carried by our team to understand what our existing customers were saying, as well as people who are not part of our brand. We were talking to them about what they look for in a product, accessibility in-store versus online, marketing and how they like to shop. We got so many mixed responses around how they’d prefer to experience Curve. Some wanted the privacy of a standalone store with enough space in changerooms. Some like online, some don’t.
We decided to do an open trial with standalone Curve stores, plus adding some stock in our existing stores. We also did online and we’ve done Myer concessions, which have a strong Curve customer anyway. We tried all of that and we’re trying to get customer feedback. The results so far have been encouraging. It’s only 12 months in, but we’ve got three standalone stores in Victoria that we opened up and we currently have 15 Forever New concessions stores in Myer. In addition, we’ve now got 11 of our Australian stores that have the range in it, plus three in New Zealand. We’ve got quite a cross-section of stores where our customers can shop.
Of late, online is performing much better than it was pre-COVID-19 and then our standalone stores are the next best and Myer comes after that. They’re all different customers, so it was important to give them the option to find the brand in different ways.
When we did the research, customers told us that there’s a shortage of fashionable premium options, so we wanted to cater to them there. We invested a lot in the fit of the clothes, which is probably the most important thing. We’ve got dedicated resources to ensure we go through a rigorous fit [process] on garments, we have a different fit model that we fit on and we’ve had positive feedback since we launched. They’re so pleased about the inclusion; it’s been a really fantastic initiative for the business to expand our range and move into this category.
IRW: Since you’ve entered the plus-size category, what have been some of the things you’ve observed? And what size range does Curve cater for?
CM: We’re definitely on a journey and there have been a lot of learnings in the past year. We cater to sizes 16-22.
Body fit is very difficult, it’s not one-size-fits-all. There are different body shapes within Curve, which has been our biggest challenge. The feedback about our sizing was that it was a bit generous and too big, so we had to review that and take it down slightly. Our size 16 felt more like an 18.
The aesthetic is the same as the rest of the Forever New range – it’s the same girl, same customer with different body size and shape, so we wanted to keep everything that’s fashionable for that range for her too.
Skirt lengths are a big deal for Curve customers. She might be more about covering her arms and wearing wrap dresses, she doesn’t usually like anything if it is too structured and stiff. She likes things a bit looser and being able to tie back a dress to her own size.
On the other side, in our main range, we go down to a size 4 – and we sell a lot of size 4s, too.
IRW: What have been some of the most interesting insights that you’ve gathered since the pandemic?
CM: This has been one of the biggest things we learned – casual versus formal. Forever New is traditionally a dress business, it’s our heartland and the foundation of the brand. It’s very much been about going-out dresses and always having something that’s extra special [in your wardrobe].
We’ve had to quickly look at it and say, ‘If this continues and lifestyles are changing and events aren’t going to happen – like racing, where we’re a strong, go-to brand for customers – that’s something we have to redress in our mix of products.’ Knitwear and denim and ponchos have all performed really well this time of year. It’s all about comfort, easy-to-wear and nothing too fancy. We’ve had significant year-on-year growth, even our casual jackets versus formal coats. We’ve seen a shift into more casual products.
We’ve introduced more premium knitwear, which gives the diversity of a basic knitwear range, we’ve got 100 per cent merino wool, we’ve got more expensive alpaca blends and we’re trying recyclable cashmere, which has sold out online. It’s been amazing. There are ways for us to expand categories by doing blends and different choices in tops – jersey tops have been fantastic. We’re continuing to offer premium and affordable products but with a dual end use of comfort than just being in dresses. It’s been a big change.
Even our summer dresses are dresses she’ll still wear whether she’s out and about or in her garden at home – she’ll still want to feel lovely in a casual Forever New dress. We’ve shifted into more day dressing too, rather than having all the bells and whistles and trims on our dresses.
IRW: How do you think the pandemic will affect the future of fashion?
CM: We’ve been working on refining our buying model in the last couple of years and one of things we’ve done is offer fewer options. There was always so much product in our stores, it was an overload of options. We’ve done a 30 per cent option reduction across our portfolio, which means we’re offering customers styles we truly believe resonate with her as well as classic Forever New pieces that have to be in our ranges. For us, it’s been about reducing our impact on the Earth. It’s important that we have products that customers can wear beyond one season and last from a quality and style point of view. That’s what we put into our fabrics and details.
We have a Facebook following and you can see girls wearing stuff from eight or nine years ago, they’re still pulling out those dresses they wore to an event and they still wear them today. We’re looking for those timeless pieces. Less is more in the new world. It’s where most people are going. Having too much of anything and an abundance of choice is confusing and it’s not where our brand wants to be longer term. That’s been quite significant for us. With COVID-19 now, it’s even more of a priority that we’ll have to continue pushing.
IRW: Like a lot of retailers, social media has especially played a significant role in how you engaged with customers while your stores were closed recently. Tell me about your strategy there.
CM: We’re always on a constant journey with our social platforms. We want to make sure they’re engaging for our followers and we’re telling the brand story. Facebook is our main revenue driver social channel. Then we’ve got Instagram, which is more about visual storytelling and it’s a creative space where we can share our latest campaigns, use influencer campaigns and share user-generated content as well. Those are the key components for us. We are also looking into Facebook Shops and we’re experimenting with TikTok as well.
What we’ve been doing quite differently during COVID-19 is use IGTV, which we’ve been looking at as a lifestyle channel. We’ve had videos on healthy baking and cooking; we had a trainer doing a workout, breathing exercises and meditation. We’ve been trying to engage that way with our customers, not just sell. Obviously model photography and getting influencers stopped for us, so we had girls at home or in the office, talking about their day [on IGTV], their favourite outfits and how they’d layer up a coat while walking the dog.
IRW: Beyond the pandemic, what plans are on the horizon for Forever New?
CM: Launching our international website is one of our biggest [goals]. It’s about taking Forever New to customers around the world, including Turkey, Germany, Ireland and Portugal. The site will give us that ability to become truly omnichannel. That’s the strength of Forever New – with a good platform, you can bring things like True Fit and order-in-store to life and link [digital and physical] together. It becomes so much more powerful than having just one on their own.
This will be an international, multilingual site that moves across each market. It’s a big project, but it’s exciting. If it’s as strong as our site here, it’ll be really good for the business. All things going to plan, it should launch in August or September.