“The GBE is ahead of the curve,” says Melissa Wheeler, mentor to the Fashion Association of Britain. Read what Melissa had to say about what lies ahead for indie retailers in 2016…

Here at The Great British Exchange we always love the opportunity to pick the brains of industry experts, learn what’s new for indie retailers and the trends to look for within the realms of British made products and beyond. This week we have had the pleasure of chatting with Melissa Wheeler, mentor to Fashion Association of Britain members, freelance fashion writer and Fashion PR guru..
Melissa Wheeler
Melissa Wheeler
Looking to 2016 we wanted to get Melissa’s opinion on what lies ahead for independent fashion retailers, what trends she’s looking forward to hitting the high street and of course asking her opinion on British made products.

Last November you visited Dublin with the British Independent Retailers Association (bira) and visited a variety of independent stores. In your report from your visit you talk about the retailers you visited providing an ‘experience’ for their customers.

Brown Thomas - Dublin
Brown Thomas – Dublin


What are the key elements to creating a great customer experience and how vital is it for independent retailers to provide this?

The bira Dublin study tour was an inspiration for us all. From Avoca through to Brown Thomas and the Dundrum Shopping centre, what stood out for the group was the holistic approach to retailing that these retailers have adopted. Although hard to distil, a summary of the key elements in providing an ‘experience’ would have to note theatre, character, knowing your customer intimately and delivering a personalised in store experience which is at once relevant to them and inclusive to all. Those successful retailers we visited have created a destination and a holistic experience that meets the demands of the customer’s lifestyle as well as they desire for some instant gratification.

Avoca - Dublin
Avoca – Dublin

In regards to marketing their businesses, what channels would you recommend independent retailers use and are there any resources out there that you think are great but are undervalued/untapped? 

I think there are many independent retailers who are leading the charge on the high street and providing a distinct point of difference to the multiples through creative approaches. To be honest, I don’t think there is much which is untapped as I have seen such ingenious campaigns from many indies. I’m not alone in recommending an active social media marketing campaign such a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, tailored to ‘where’ your customer base dwells online. Marketing will always depend on your needs and your target market, but I would probably say that immersing yourself and your business in your region and community will prove worthwhile. Being open to opportunity and being adventurous is important too. FAB member Rachel Riley, now an international children wear brand, managed to have a romper suit photographed on Prince George, possibly the ultimate marketing coup! To make your business a community pillar as well as a shopping destination adds value and broadens your appeal in the hearts and minds of a demographic. I would also say that partnerships with fellow brands, businesses and services is a collaborative and holistic approach which adds richness to a retailer’s profile. Being independent need not mean working in isolation.

Pop-up shops are a growing phenomenon, what are your thoughts in regards to what they add to the high street and what benefit are they to the brands that use them?

Pop-Up Shop - Boxpark
Pop-Up Shop – Boxpark

I think pop-up shops are fantastic for events, exploring the relevance of a different location and raising awareness of a brand to a new demographic. I think their success speaks volumes about the variety that customers seek today. Pop-ups add richness and variety on the high street through constructive disruption; they stop shoppers in their tracks. I think they are also great for creating footfall in those streets where many properties are empty for whatever reason.

Your niche is Fashion and here at The GBE we love to see what’s hitting the runways each season. What’s your advice for retailers looking to stay on trend, how should they look to incorporate looks from the catwalk into their stores and of course are there any trends you’re excited about for 2016? 

I would never ‘advise’ as such since I don’t think prescriptive trends are what many people want, but I feel that the most successful retailers are those who tailor the catwalk trends to their customer base. Those FAB members I speak to who follow the trends closely do so with their customer at the forefront of their mind. They usually choose a select few ‘moods’ to follow for their buying. As ever, if you try to please everyone you will probably leave some disappointed, so better to know your customer and serve them well.

How prevalent are British brands and products for the independent retailers you work with? How do they value products made here in the UK?

I’ve noticed an increase in British brands in many independents recently and a strengthening of those which have existed for many years. Importantly, the demand for home-grown brands has certainly increased and that demand has increased the scale on which these brands are producing.  The retailers I speak to are actively sourcing more UK brands and even showcasing and launching new, emerging British designers.

The term #slowfashion has started doing the rounds on various social media sites. How have you encountered the term and what impact is it having on the Fashion industry in the UK? 

Buyers examining textiles - http://www.norwegian.com/
Buyers examining textiles – http://www.norwegian.com/

I’ve encountered the term yes. I think the #slowfashion movement reflects a wider awareness of the product cycle and ethic of a brand. From a mercantile point of view, many retailers are realising that at the same time as investing in more sustainable fashion, they are distinguishing themselves form those retailers who compete purely on price; a losing battle which is effectively a race to the bottom.

In your role have you worked with many British clothing or textiles manufacturers and if so how do you see the year ahead shaping up for this side of the Fashion industry? 

I have had the privilege of working with quite a few British brands and this continues to grow, which is exciting. I have worked closely with English womenswear brand Out of Xile and also FAB member London Ethnic, who design and produce in London. I think it’s fair to say that as demand continues and brands manage to secure a manufacturing base in the UK, the related costs will reduce which will fuel more growth. The success of the Let’s make it Here campaign and organisation bodes well for the future of this part of the industry.

Here at The GBE we’re always on the look out for sources of research and of course creative eye-candy. What are your favourite regular reads – blogs, magazines, journals? 

WWB - http://www.wwb-online.co.uk/News.aspx
WWB – http://www.wwb-online.co.uk/News.aspx

I try to take a broad, holistic view of fashion and retail so my reading includes the obvious WWB, Boutique magazine and Drapers alongside Vogue, weekly newspapers and regional grassroots magazines.

We’re about to embark on a project looking at shop designs/layouts/creative styles that give stores ‘wow’ factor – which stores do you love to visit and why? 

In the UK, I love to visit charismatic vintage shops on Brick Lane, London; flawless, glistening department stores such as Browns Thomas, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols; intelligent and well-curated independents including many FAB members; and stores such as Anthropologie and Whistles for their confident identity.

Having now come across The GBE would you recommend independent retailers check us out and what advice, if any, would you give to makers of British fashion items who want to increase their retail sales?

I truly believe that The GBE is ahead of the curve in giving a platform to a select group of British brands and would definitely give indies a tip-off on that one! I guess the key to British brands increasing their sales is being discovered in the first place and The GBE is a fantastic tool in this respect. Many of the UK’s most successful, household name brands such as Mulberry, Burberry and Joules had to start somewhere and being discovered is the start of this journey.

You can catch up with more from Melissa and the team at bira and the Fashion Association of Britain via Twitter @Fab_news @melissavwheeler @Biraofficial and of course keep in touch with us on @thegbexchange 

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