From the source: Gabrielle Roux, Academy Brand
Gabrielle Roux is now head of retail at menswear business Academy Brand, but she first entered the industry at 13 when she lied on her application and got a job on the shopfloor. Here, she chats about the brand’s growth, the menswear market and her passion for leadership.
Inside Retail Weekly: How would you describe the past financial year for Academy Brand?
Gabrielle Roux: As a whole, the retail industry has had a very difficult financial year, most people would tell you that. For us, the exciting thing is we’ve actually had 4 per cent growth – we’re going in the opposite direction. We’ve increased stores and our turnover, which is amazing.
IRW: What do you think has led to that lift?
GR: One of the key things that resonates all throughout our brand is we just stay in our lane. We’re not swayed by what everyone is doing and saying. It’s easy to get caught on the bandwagon, but we’re sticking to what we know and continuing to forge ahead with our growth plans.
It starts with our brand and who our customer is. I think a lot of brands say that, but then they get swayed by stuff. From a product perspective, we haven’t gone off too far in another direction since we launched more than 10 years ago. We’ve stayed true to our customer. We’ve evolved our product so if he was shopping with us 10 years when he was 20, the product will still be relevant now that he’s 30 and his stage of life has changed.
IRW: And how would you describe Academy Brand’s ‘lane’?
GR: Staying in our lane is really about making sure what we do from a customer perspective is relevant to him and we speak his language. That forgotten man is the base of everything we do and how we resonate with him. The menswear market is not massive here in Australia – there aren’t a tonne of options. So it’s quite easy to be interested in what others are doing because we can learn and we do need to keep our finger on the pulse. But it’s also about going, ‘That’s what they’re doing, that’s OK. But we’re not going to deviate from our plan and we’re going to keep following it.’
IRW: Who is the forgotten man?
GR: He’s what the brand was built on. Back in the day, when Anthony [Pitt] built the brand, there wasn’t much out there for men if they didn’t want to buy a $100 pair of jeans or surfwear. Where did they go?
That’s where Academy Brand really started. He’s the every-guy – we’ve got something for everyone and it’s timeless. That’s what our business is – those core, foundational pieces. It’s not too high-fashion or fast-fashion; it’s not plain and boring. It’s in-between, something you can have as a staple in your wardrobe that you keep going back to – they’re your basics. That’s what men want. If it’s too hard, they just don’t know what to do with it.
When women go out to shop, they know in their minds what they’re looking for and go searching for it. I’ve worked in womensear and the way they shop is so different. Men go: ‘I need this’ – and the needs-based shopping is so different.
IRW: Academy Brand is adding stores when other retailers are cutting back. What’s led to that kind of growth?
GR: Again, product is king for us and it needs to be relevant to our customer. In terms of growth though, when it’s growth from just expansion, that’s one thing. But we’ve had like-for-like growth, plus growth in terms of expansion.
We’ve been really careful about where we’ve done the growth. We haven’t put stores in every centre across Australia. We don’t want to do that – it’s not our strategy. Having a presence in every centre works for some businesses. We do a lot of thinking around where our locations will work based on where our customer is, who he is and where will resonate with our brand. We’re not oversaturated in the market and there’s something to be said about that
The way humans are shopping is changing. People are becoming more conscious about not buying as much or as frequently. There’s still money to be spent. People say there’s no money – but there’s money. They’re just being more savvy about how much they spend and how often they spend. If you can offer them something that’s relevant, unique, helpful and easy, then they’ll come to you. But we won’t be in every pocket of Australia.
IRW: What are some of the differences between how men and women shop?
GR: They’re polar opposites. Women also shop like a sport. They do it for leisure, fun, they do it for a social activity, it’s want-based a lot of the time. That’s shifting for men as well now though, but historically, it’s definitely been more want-based: ‘I feel like shopping – it feels good to me.’ Retail therapy has always been a thing targeted mostly at women.
Men don’t shop that way. Men are needs-based. They’ll wear a pair of pants to death, then they go, ‘There’s a hole, I have to replace them’ or their partner is saying, ‘You need to replace those pants’ or their mum, sister or someone is saying they need new clothes. So men shop because they have to, mostly. It’s stereotyping every man, but generally speaking, that’s the key difference.
Men don’t necessarily enjoy the shopping experience as much as women, because they do it leisurely. Men do it because they feel they have to and you really have to consider that when you’re opening a pure menswear store, because you have men who are potentially shopping on their own, but they’re not the decision maker – they often need someone to help them decide.
So whether they need a second opinion or they need to take a photo or if they need to come back, it’s something you have to consider and really engage the power of the partner, whoever that person might be.
Women shop and dress for women. Men generally dress for women or their partner, wife, mother, sister, auntie, whoever. If he comes in and thinks he knows what he wants, then generally speaking, someone has advised him about what he wants. He may only visit your store once every six months, whereas she might visit every week or fortnight.
The loyalty piece is key, because you need loyal, passionate customers, but the frequency between men and women is so different. Men might be a loyal customer but only visit you every three to six months because of the way he shops, but when he sees you, he might buy five, six or seven items. She might buy one thing from you and come in every three weeks and just shop, shop, shop. He won’t do that, because it’s not enjoyable for him.
IRW: What’s on the cards for Academy Brand this coming financial year?
GR: We have 10 more concession stores opening with DJs. Our partnership with them is so valuable for us and one we really cherish and work so well with. It’s amazing to partner with a brand that has such a great history and is so well regarded in the market. We’re doing it all in the next eight weeks. We move fast!
The stores are across Australia. There will be five across New South Wales, five in Victoria, one in South Australia, two in Queensland and one in Perth.
We rolled 12 concessions last year and they were extremely successful for us.
IRW: Does online play a big role in the business as well?
GR: It’s a huge growth area for us. It’s continuing to grow and it’s very successful.
There’s a lot of talk in retail about online – is it cannibalising and taking sales away? It’s almost exhausting hearing it, because there’s a market for all of it. It’s all one channel – it’s the consumer channel. The consumer will engage with your brand however they want. People are sitting at home, watching TV on their iPads and phones, scrolling, researching. Men will get to know a product when they shop. If they know they need a medium in a tee and it’s the same tee that they’ve bought three times before, they’ll buy it online if they need. To them, it’s about what they know what works for them.
Our team is very much on board with the business being all about one channel, whether the consumer is online, in a concession, in a store, in an outlet – to us, it’s all the same. There’s any number ways your customer can engage with your product.
People are fearful that online is going to stop retail being bricks-and-mortar and it will all turn into online-only. I think we have to get back to the basic, human behavioural stuff, which is humans want connection. We have never been a more lonely society than we are now and the research shows that people are feeling more disconnected and lonely than ever. People want ease of shopping, so they go online and research, then they go in-store because they want to connect with a human and have a conversation, ask about the product, the fabric. They want someone to say ‘That looks good on you’ or ‘That doesn’t look good on you, take it off’.
Retailers need to embrace that. It’s not going to be the doom and gloom of every retail store closing. We have to be sensible with where we open as retailers, but we have to accept the customer journey is not linear and the customer is still a human.
One of the great things about Academy is we’re fluid and we’re open to progressing, moving and making changes. We’re lucky that we’re privately owned and Anthony’s right there in the office, so we meet together to make a decision and move forward. If we have to change something, we change it. You have to be nimble and I think a lot of businesses are stuck in, ‘We’ve always done it this way’ or they’ve gone the other direction and tried to make things too fancy, too technical. You can spray glitter on it, but if there’s no substance behind it, it doesn’t matter.
The customer’s not dumb – you can’t treat them like that. Sometimes people have really overcomplicated the process and you need to stop doing that. Yes, customers like personalisation and they want to feel special, but what they really want is an easy, effortless shopping experience that was meaningful. That hasn’t changed.
IRW: What are your thoughts on the state of customer service in Australia?
GR: I think Australia has a long way to go. I’ll be blunt, because Australia doesn’t treat retail like a proper job, it doesn’t treat retail like a proper career. I’ve been in this industry since I was 13 – that’s 21 years and even today, unless you’re at senior level at head office, being a store manager for some reason is not seen as a career path.
And it’s a joke, because you can be 20 and running a million-dollar-business. Show me any other industry where that would actually happen. Our store managers need to be treated with respect, because they’re business managers and they need to be treated as such. It needs to be a respected career choice. I think a lot of kids today shy away from choosing that as a career because it’s seen as an interim job while you’re at uni and it’s really not. Even running one store is a big job, if you really run it to maximum capacity, that’s a full-on business. But I think Australia has a way to catch up on that. And that’s society acknowledging what our store managers do and the consumers understanding that these kids aren’t just shop humans. These people have hard jobs, they’re running businesses, managing humans, their emotions and reactions. Retail is the best training ground to learn stuff and become a more well-rounded human being and that needs to be valued. So that’s why I think the service is crap, generally speaking, because people aren’t taking it seriously, which is really frustrating.
IRW: It sounds like a lot more needs to be done around retail leadership in Australia.
GR: I’m really passionate about this topic. As a leader in this industry, we all have a really big opportunity and duty of care for our people. We need to have honest and transparent conversations with them and talk about what retail looks like for them. I can train anyone to be a good sales human and teach them the skills, but what you can’t teach someone are some of those intricate, intrinsic things, like initiative, listening skills, empathy and leadership. Some people naturally get it and it can mean many things, but one of them is having a viewpoint that’s broader than yourself, looking at the bigger picture and getting people inspired to come with you, whether it’s a customer or a staff member – that’s really key.
Helping our teams become just more well-rounded humans is the first step to us all becoming more successful retailers. Once people feel like their value isn’t just monetary, all of a sudden, there’s more buy-in because someone cares about them as a person, not just another number. We should be helping people understand how the skill of working on the shopfloor and dealing with an angry customer is going to help them in the long term. There’s always going to be an angry customer – it’s retail, and some of it will be out of your control. But learning how to handle it, turn it around and manage it or be humble enough and take it – it’s about teaching someone how they can apply this to all other areas of their life.
It’s something that frustrated me in many of my roles. I never had those conversations and my role was never seen for the career path it could be. As I progressed in my career, I knew that I had to be the change I wanted to see. I couldn’t wait for someone else to do it, I needed to forget ahead and be a part of it.
There’s a group of retailer leaders talking about leadership now, developing a culture in the industry around it and helping our people be better people. If that means our staff go off and they’re in analytics or finance, it doesn’t matter – we’ve contributed to them being a meaningful part of society.
IRW: What training initiatives do you offer staff at Academy Brand?
GR: I do a weekly video leadership series, where the team submits questions and I answer them. It’s not about sales training – this is about how to help them become leaders. It can be a question on anything – it can be practical or philosophical. It might be relevant to only one person, but if one person takes away something from it, then I’ve done my job because I’ve made an impact and that’s my job as a leader – to impact the team and help them be better, more well-rounded people in whatever capacity.
I’m just another human. The thing I hated when I was on the shopfloor was, ‘They’re all up there in head office and we’re just down here on the shopfloor’. That is just so erroneous, because our store teams are the most important people in the business. I’m nobody really. For me, it’s about what we can do to better support our team who are with our customers. They’re the ones engaging with the reason we all have jobs, so whatever it requires to make sure those humans are getting the best that they can, that’s my job. Sometimes businesses forget that. I just want the team to see me as another human being. I’ve been yelled at by customers, I’ve worked the shopfloor. Me having the role I have does not make me any more important and sometimes that’s forgotten. People sometimes want to progress through businesses and become more senior because it makes them more important, but it really doesn’t. You just have a different part to play in the business. I love serving customers – it’s fun. There’s nothing like being on the shopfloor and talking to a customer about our product – it’s awesome.
IRW: How would you describe the menswear landscape in Australia?
GR: It’s certainly not crowded. I think men are really under-served, to be honest. There’s not much variety available. If we completely eliminated suiting from the discussion, what have you got? T-shirts, shirts, chinos, socks. It’s not like women, where you’ve got sundresses, cocktails, short skirts, long skirts – there are so many categories.
If there were too many menswear retailers, we’d be all creating the same thing. I think men like simple things, generally. I think Australian men have evolved in a good way in terms of how they dress – they’re far more adventurous than five years ago. The way men dress has evolved, they’ve changed how they dress for work which has changed the retail landscape. Suiting is much harder and lifestyle wear is far more prominent because men are wearing less suits and wearing more chinos and sports jackets. It’s more relaxed, which is fantastic, because we see so many more stylish men walking the streets of Australia and there’s more personality coming out. But, of course, it impacts the retail landscape.