Oroton CEO Jennifer Child came on board the heritage luxury brand in 2021, after 15 years of working at global management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. Here, she discusses her strategies behind Oroton’s current era, the balance between physical and digital in an omnichannel offering and her thoughts on diversity and inclusion. Inside Retail: Oroton has been on quite a journey in recent years. Before you came on board, David Kesby was CEO and led the brand through Covid-19 and out of volunta
ntary administration, too. Let’s talk about where Oroton is right now. Is that period of time still relevant to you? Jennifer Child: It’s not really relevant. Personally, David’s contribution to me as the leader now, but also to the business, was to make [voluntary administration] part of the past and build up the fundamentals of the business such that it was strong at its core again. Thankfully, I got to come in after that work was done. That’s hard work. It’s a different type of work than the era that we’re in now. I’ve been thinking about how to talk to the team about this. I think about history and businesses and how they evolve in these eras. And so I call that era about regaining relevance. There was that stabilisation of the business, but it was also about getting people to notice the product again, and making it relevant to people’s lives. I think apparel was a big way to regain relevance because it’s a less considered and more frequent purchase for women than handbags, which are highly considered and less frequent. They’re actually at opposite ends of the spectrum in how they go into the wardrobe. Apparel gave us that freshness and that frequency of thought with the consumers. It was all about regaining relevance, which is hard. Now our era is more about reascension as a sustainably profitable growing business in the hearts, minds, and wardrobes of much more of the Australian consumer base than we were able to get in that first year, when there was so much that fundamentally needed to be fixed. To me, we’re in that growth era. We’ve got this great ERP system, we’ve got technology at our core, which allows us to be more efficient in how work gets done and focus on how we get more share of minds and wardrobes in Australia. We will still dabble in international markets, but the real focus is still Australia. Hardcore. It’s this home market, where we’re loved, we’re remembered and we’re still in people’s wardrobes from decades ago. That’s our focus. There’s lots of potential for us here. IR: Is there still a big focus on physical retail at Oroton? JC: There was a lot of fear early on, because I had this reputation of doing digital transformations and all this McKinsey work that I had done and that I was going to be all about e-commerce and I’d close all the stores. Maybe there was fear coming out of Covid, where people were wondering if we’d ever go back to that very bricks-and-mortar world we lived in. If you want to show up as a consumer business, that is omni. It’s this very fluid dynamic of ‘I browse for things when I’ve got a little free time and go online, then I’ll pop in to see it because I happen to be near the QVB store. And then I might go buy it online that night.’ There’s that whole availability for consumers that we want to have. It’s not just about transactions. It’s about engagement. Actually, it’s about entertainment, holding people’s minds and engaging them in a way that connects them to the brand and what we stand for, not just the stuff we sell. In the new Paddington store, you’ll see us doing more of that, trying to be innovative, trying to engage and not just be about transactions. We’re changing the primary axis of what we’re focused on: experience, not transaction. We’d love to sell our product in the process, of course, but if we don’t, and we still inspire someone, fantastic. And the same thing digitally. We’ve hired the head of digital product here, Barry Saunders from McKinsey, and he talks a lot about how when we say “digital”, we don’t just mean e-commerce. We mean everything in the digital world that we can use to connect and engage with a consumer. That’s what digital is. And that’s the ecosystem that we want to build out. IR: Can you describe to me what the Paddington store is like? JC: There’s a transformation in retail around making stores feel less like stores and more like homes, more like spaces that we’re comfortable in, that we’ve nested in for the last two years and hunkered down. So when you go into the changing rooms, it feels more like you’re in someone’s giant wardrobe at someone’s house. For us, that was really important because it created a bit more warmth. You won’t see things like that on the wall [points at a marketing campaign]. As soon as you see that, you know you’re in a store. We want art on the walls and in fact, one of our team members is an artist, as she’s using the walls as a gallery for herself, which we’re really proud and excited about. We’ll have her artwork for sale in the store. I don’t know if you’ve been in our stores recently, but we do have a lot of product in them and sometimes you can feel quite crowded by it. [In the future] there won’t be product everywhere. It will certainly be displayed throughout, but there’s more air to breathe, try things on, walk around, sit down for a second, have a drink of water. Apparel will start to be more prominent in how we show up. I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘I love what you’re doing, but when I walk into the stores, I still feel like it’s a handbag store. All I saw on the runway that really inspired me was all the apparel. How are you gonna balance that? How is that going to change?’ And it’s true we are shifting our mix so that we’re more apparel-led. We think that actually creates the opportunity to engage more customers if we make that more front and centre. So you’ll see that shift in Paddington. IR: Percentage wise, would you say that apparel will take up half of the Oroton offering in the future? JC: Yes, it will be an even mix. Also, accessories are not just bags for us. So the other 50 per cent [beyond apparel] will be bags, glasses, scarves. We’ve got a variety of jewellery. That’s a huge growth category for us that we’re really excited about, so you’ll see that it will have a more prominent role for us in all of our stores, but definitely Paddington. IR: In terms of the store network, what’s your strategy around that? JC: We definitely won’t shrink our network. I don’t think we’re in the business of saying we need fewer physical touch points. But we want the right physical touch points. We want to make sure they’re right for the brand and that we are where our customers are and where they shop. They also need the ability to be quite nimble and dynamic. I think the neighbourhood community stores we opened in Brighton and Armadale, in Victoria, have lots of flexibility to have a champagne event in the evening or a coffee cart in the day. There’s more innovation that we feel like we can drive to tell the brand story and drive experience in neighbourhoods. Look for us to start innovating more. We won’t be shrinking. It’s about growth and innovation. IR: In terms of the e-commerce side of the business, where is Oroton at right now? JC: We have Barry, who’s the head of digital product. I would say that’s the main source of capability built inside the business. How do we want to attract the right talent? Because sometimes what’s interesting is when you go to recruit, let’s just say a data scientist and you say, ‘Oh, you know, you’ve trained in data science, you love data science, come work for a fashion retailer with a bricks-and-mortar base.’ They’re sort of like, ‘Huh? How does that help me on my career path?’ We’ve had to do work with Barry at the helm. He physically looks different than everyone here, with a black T-shirt and high-top sneakers. He has that vibe and that’s the world he’s come from. He, as the leader, has been our linchpin to say, “We’re doing something different here, we’re building a new capability here.” If you look at the crux of our new hires, it’s been digital, CX design, developers, data science. And building that engine for the business is something that will then turn into a transformational experience digitally for customers. What we have now is transactional commerce. It’s good, it’s solid, it took us through Covid quite well. But obviously, it needs to be more and it needs to be able to deliver what we said, which is an experience first and a transaction second. It’s the same thing that we’re expecting from our stores. And in order to do that, you need a team of people like we’ve been building. Then they can be nimble and do stuff within to drive that innovation. IR: Ideally, what would you like the digital side of the business to look like? What’s your vision there? JC: I would like us to offer more experiences and services digitally than we do today. So if you want to buy an Oroton bag, and you want to get it repaired or you want to resell it, we actually have a network of connectivity and services that allow you to do those things so that your relationship with us extends past the point of purchase, into what is obviously a decade-long experience with the one product you bought. The other really important element is that within those services, let’s make sure it’s the right thing for you. I think the last thing that especially our young people in the business want to be is fast fashion. We don’t want to be putting stuff out into the world that is frivolous – things that you buy, wear once and you’re done with them. That’s not our brand. It’s really about mindful consumption and there are digital services that we can embed in our experience that help ensure that. There’s RFID, so that you can see where something was sourced all the way through the value chain. Styling advice, so that when you think about where it’s sitting in your wardrobe, what does it go back with? It’s almost like the calculation that I think a lot of women are starting to do, which is, ‘How many times am I gonna wear it and, therefore, how much is it worth?’ That really is connected to your wardrobe, the other things you have in there and how much versatility it offers you. We think digital is a great place to house and offer that suite of services and tools. And in that, what’s really powerful, we can talk about mindful consumption. We can talk about our impact as a fashion player on one of the most important topics happening in the world, and one for which fashion has been criticised. I think we play a great role there in the way we interface with our consumers. IR: What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion in retail? Is that important to you at Oroton? JC: I was the all-in [diversity] champion at McKinsey for almost my entire 15-year career there. I spent a lot of time studying diversity and inclusion, in particular gender diversity. There was a particularly acute problem, because we had very few women and we had very few women in leadership positions. Here, I walked in the door, and it had literally flipped. It’s a business of all these amazing women and very few men. I think balance is important. I think diversity and inclusion are about balance, and getting people not just of different genders in the room, but also different experiences, backgrounds and ways of thinking. That’s how you create the best answers in the world and the best ideas. So it’s very important to me. I think it has commercial implications and it also has cultural goodness to it. We’ve gone through a recent piece of brand work and we talked about inclusive exclusivity. We are still in luxury, it is still aspirational, but we want that to be inclusive of all different types of people from all different types of backgrounds. This is part of why we have a retail brand that stands for beauty and utility, and a sister brand that is our outlet brand (we’re renaming our sister brand internally). For us, that sister brand is based on the same principles of design, of beauty and utility, and we’re able to offer it at a better price. Not because it’s cheap, but because it has fewer bells and whistles. We don’t put as much hardware on it, so we’re able to offer it at a better price, but still with quality, beauty and utility behind it. For me, inclusivity, from a customer point of view, sometimes does just have to do with what you can afford. Being a brand that only some people can afford – I think there’s a place for that in the world. But I don’t think that’s us. It’s never really been us, and so we’re bridging it in that mechanism. But our people practices internally, the marketing faces that we show up with, the different sizes that are on the website…We are moving as fast as we can into that space in a way that people here can digest and absorb.