Melissa talks about the benefits of considered growth, the importance of NZ made, the advantages of bricks n mortar retailing, how KILT listens to customers, the process of making decisions and how to kit out your company clothing using KILT!
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The Ryan Marketing Show
Melissa Williams – Kilt Clothing – EPISODE 17
Voice over: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, fire.
Ryan Jennings: This is The Ryan Marketing Show and you are listening to Episode 17 of 100. Today I’m down at Kilt Clothing HQ in Hawke’s Bay with CEO Melissa Williams. How are you doing, Melissa?
Melissa Williams: I’m good, thanks.
RJ: Good, good. Now, I’m pretty excited to interview you today, because from what I’ve seen of how you operate your business as an external third party of how Kilt Clothing presents itself to the market, it looks like you guys are doing a great job. What can you share behind the scenes of how Kilt Clothing operates and how you want to be seen? Is it an accident? Is it on purpose? Where are you at right now?
MW: Definitely not an accident. We’ve got a really good management team and advisory board and we work really hard to be a good business and we have some really good short term and long term goals and plans in place and meet regulation, kind of make sure they all happen. So, it’s definitely not by accident that we’re a good business, for sure.
RJ: And you’ve been around for some time, right?
MW: Since 2000. We started in 2000, yep.
RJ: And you’ve now got almost, what, a dozen retail premises over a period of time when many were doing the opposite and just solely moving online. Talk me through some of the decision-making around that.
MW: So, we’ve got twelve– we’ve got eleven physical boutiques all around New Zealand and we’ve got one online boutique, and we definitely won’t just go online. We are opening up more boutiques – our plan is twenty by 2020, so we’re working towards that all the time. And the reason for that is that we offer a really special in-store experience and we have trained stylists in store. That experience actually we just can’t provide online, so you come in and it’s all part of the Kiwi – we make you feel really welcome, but also we really want to make you feel great in our stuff, so our stylists in store will do the best they can to kind of make that happen. And while our online store – our online boutique – provides that, you obviously just can’t give as much styling advice and we can’t physically get you to try things on while we’re there and helping. Yeah, so we’ll definitely keep our physical boutique model growing.
RJ: And then how do you balance that need for in store to put the customer first and make sure you’re looking after their individual needs with what then you do online? How does that dovetail in? Is online just for repeat buying or what’s the…?
MW: Yeah, well we sell lots of basics online, but we also sell to lots of our kind of loyal kilties who know our product really well and know what kind of size and fit our product is. So, I think it’s definitely a really good backup for people that already know us and already shop with us, and it’s good that it’s mainly who we sell to, but definitely there’s a whole variety of people all over the world that buy our stuff online.
RJ: Oh, so you find you’ve got an international customer base as well?
MW: Yeah, definitely. Yep, we send stuff overseas.
RJ: Expat Kiwis, or…?
MW: Yeah, some. Yep, yep, but definitely not all. Yeah.
RJ: So going back in time when you first started, talk through some of the challenges back then.
MW: Yeah, well it’s been really fun. It’s been quite interesting and definitely quite stressful growing. So, it was 2000 when I started Kilt in my Wellington bedroom, so as just design graduate and worked a lot of retail and I saw a gap in the market for clothing that fit New Zealand women really well, and so kind of had just made a little bit of a collection at home and then started selling it to friends and then took a collection up to Auckland to a clothing retailer there and they fed it through their stores all around New Zealand and it sold really well and it kind of grew from there. Some of the challenges I guess is that Kilt’s been fully self-funded from day one, so we grow as we can afford to, and that’s been a great way to do it, but it’s– so, there’s not any risk with banks and stuff, but obviously you’ve earned that money and you’ve worked really hard for it so the risk is that it’s almost a bit more– you kind of want to do a bit more careful growth, I guess, or be really sure before you grow. Other risks and other challenges that we’ve had have been being a smaller place, you know, fabric manufacturing – sorry, fabric and manufacturing, is people go offshore to get their product made – kind of creates a much smaller pool of where you can buy fabric, where you can get things manufactured, so we’ve definitely needed to kind of carve our own way there and start looking for our own places to get fabric. As we’ve grown, we need a lot more volume and a lot more fabric meterage, so…yeah, does that make sense? Just trying to– because we’re kind of doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing, we need to kind of make sure that we can survive if everyone else decides to not make garments in New Zealand any more.
RJ: Is that– that really has been the trend over the last decade is more offshore manufacturing. Has that provided you opportunities where you’ve been able to take over other materials or remnants of New Zealand-made businesses over that period of time?
MW: Yeah. I mean, we’d much rather have more people manufacturing here. Obviously the more people that manufacture here, it’s better for New Zealanders, it’s better for job opportunities, keeping the skillset alive. In New Zealand, at the moment, sewing is a really dying art, and so we’re needing to kind of make sure that we set up initiatives to make sure that that doesn’t happen over a longer period of time. So, advantages of that? Yeah, I mean, I guess there’s– we’re kind of a bit more standalone, so we stand out a little bit more than lots that are made in China, but the same or higher price point than us. We– yeah. I don’t know.
RJ: Going through that period where you’re making the conscious decision not to take debt on, not to take bank loans on, or angel investment, or any of those things that also come with strings, has there been any– now looking back with hindsight, has there been particular opportunities that if you had known the outcome 100%, you would’ve now taken on that debt back then?
MW: No, I think for us it’s been about– we wanted to stay boutique, we wanted to stay kind of smaller, not turn into a chain store – become this big machine, so it was really important for us to have a boutique and then kind of carry then– mirror that boutique throughout New Zealand. So, we call ourselves– we’re a collection of boutiques rather than kind of a chain store. I think if we had kind of just borrowed a lot of money before we knew we could grow, we’ve grown slowly, so we’ve been able to kind of adjust in debt to that. Each time we grow, we kind of thank god we actually can’t manage that – “What are we going to do? We need to put this structure– a new kind of structure in place.” Yeah, I think it’s just kind of been a bit more considered growth and being a bit slower pace, we’ve been– we’ve kind of enjoyed it a little bit more.
RJ: And having that model in place– well, do you have a model in place to know now, when you open up your twelfth store, or your thirteenth or your fourteenth, what to expect? Or are you still learning on each store opening at a slightly different store?
MW: No, it’s pretty same-same but different. Obviously different regions are going to have different things, but pretty much it’s the same kind of plane: it’s the same thing happening, we’ve just got different pilots in place, different people running them, and that is normally the thing that makes all the difference, the team that you’ve got working in store.
RJ: And for customers of Kilt that go to one of the newer stores or a different store, will the look and feel be the same or are they slightly boutique– are they different per region?
MW: Yeah, no, we keep the same. That was a really conscious decision right from the start that we wanted it to be the same experience everywhere, so even the smell’s the same. We have the same kind of fragrance in every store. Yeah. Yeah, very plain, so it’s all about the clothing, so you can be anywhere and kind of get where you are, but you know you’re in a Kilt store.
RJ: Got it. Now, let’s talk about the online equivalent. When did you first go online and start selling?
MW: Good question. It must be– oh, it’d be a few years ago now – I actually couldn’t give you the year. Yeah.
RJ: Yeah, early 2000s? Late 2000s?
MW: It was probably early, yeah.
RJ: So you’ve been there for some time?
MW: No, actually maybe mid? Oh goodness.
RJ: We’ll look it up. We’ll put it in the comments afterwards. I’ll put something up there.
MW: Sorry. Yeah, yeah. Yes.
RJ: And is– I guess one of the challenges for any business is knowing when to jump onboard with something – a new platform. When as a business do you decide, hey look, we should now sell online, or we should now go on Facebook or we should now actually put some time and effort into Snapchat, for example. When does that become a– it’s now the time?
MW: Right, so we have great managers throughout. We’ve got in marketing an e-commerce manager, we’ve got a designer manager, so that kind of– it would normally come from that department, and we have a management meeting and advisory board meeting, so that kind of stuff normally arises in that. Someone might mention that we should start an online store and then it would create a whole lot of discussion and then we put some time frames in place, do some research, due diligence, and then just kind of go from there.
RJ: Okay. Is there any particular channel that is really working for you at the moment?
MW: In social media?
RJ: In social media, yeah.
MW: Facebook’s always been really good for us. I know that we are currently growing our Instagram and the girls are Snapchatting, so, yeah, I think it’s just kind of an ongoing– they’re working on that.
RJ: Now, I also noticed on your site that you have not just clothes that you’ve decided this is the new product of the week, there’s also a company art and clothing area.
MW: Kilt Kit, yeah, yeah.
RJ: Yeah, talk me through a little bit about what that’s about.
MW: So, we decided to do– Kilt Kat came about because we were selling a few uniforms for companies and we decided that it would be nice to be able to do that and then for you not to go into a business and then be wearing exactly the same as you, so kind of how could we utilize some of our past designs and kind of create a bit of a collection that would work really well for workplaces. We know that our product washes really well, it wears really well, so it’s ideal for a uniform. We’ve come across quite a few different organizations that’ve come to us and said, “We’re really passionate about New Zealand-made as well. We’ve got this many people,” and we can work with them and try and work out what’s going to be a really good new uniform for them.
RJ: That seems to be quite an interesting space, at least to me, because if you can get your frontline customer service people feeling good, then they’re going to respond better to their customers, and if what they’re wearing helps them feel good, then your product and your clothing can help actually deliver a bit of customer service outcome for businesses.
MW: Yeah, yeah. There’s lots of research that’s been done around when it does [or not? 0:13:47.9] uniform and people feel good wearing it, their productivity increases and they feel better coming to work and stuff. And the people that are approaching us about uniforms are generally people that are Kilties anyway, our customers, and so are pretty happy to be coming to us asking for a uniform and being able to wear it every day.
RJ: Got it. So they’ve got Kilt clothing already and that’s what they wear out or that’s what they wear in their own time and think, “I wish I could wear this to work.”
MW: Yeah, yeah, they can see firsthand that it wears really well, that it’s easy to care for, and they feel good in it, so why not have it as a uniform as well? And bonus that it’s New Zealand made, yeah. Lots of council-run businesses, organizations, have been really supportive and come to us, so that’s cool. You know, local.
RJ: So, our local government?
MW: Yeah, yeah.
RJ: Okay. Now, so you’re kind of different how you do your releases – you don’t do big seasonal releases or collections. What’s the thinking behind that and how does that give you an advantage, do you believe?
MW: Yeah, that was one of our main points of difference from day one, and in fashion it’s really standard to have a summer or winter drawl and potentially two in between, so you might have a high summer and a– you might do two summer runs and two winter. So, for us, or for me personally, I don’t design anymore, but when I was designing, it kind of just took the fun out of it. You couldn’t design what you wanted to, it was kind of high pressure, and you had a deadline and you needed to take it to the buyers by this date and they had to be fall collection, and you know which fabrics you needed to research that you could have. So, for me it was all about I wanted a career that was fun, so it was quite– for selfish reasons. And then from that came a whole heap of different advantages because we found that we could buy fabrics outside of– we could buy them in-season, which we were getting a massive discount for, so we were– normally you would have to buy fabrics at least a year prior to using them, so I would buy them then kind of release them a month later. So, turn around times are really quick and there was just a whole heap of advantage, and customers were kind of really liking that we could respond to what they wanted really quickly as well.
RJ: It seems to be quite an agile way of being able to launch new clothing, new fashion?
MW: I’m really surprised more people don’t do it, to be honest. It’s a really fun way to do it, and like I say, there’s advantages, but when we’re designing and making ourselves here, we can respond pretty quickly, so we can have something from design stage to hanger stage really quick.
RJ: Leading in from that, how important then is it to listen to your customers and what they believe is on trend in fashion? Or are all the ideas, does that all come from internally– or who sets the trend? Is it 50-50 or is it all you?
MW: Yeah, really good question. So, we have feedback ideas and inspirations that come from the store, and used to be weekly and now I think we do it a bit more– kind of a bigger one monthly, and it’s kind of every customer idea or feedback that we’ve been given. And we’re definitely not so much trend focused, but more just kind of what our customers are wanting to wear and what they’re asking for. So, if we have, say a dress in one of our boutiques, they might say, “I’d love this with long sleeves,” or, “It’s a big long,” or, “How about you do this in a sheer?” And that gets feedback to our design team and they have a meeting and they will design from that, so it’s very much– and our staff as well are feeding back a lot what they want to wear. So, yeah, not so much a trend kind of dictated–
RJ: So, more the Kilties as you core group – people that you respect their opinions. You ask them and then that either tweaks or helps inform what that next step of design’s going to be?
MW: Definitely, yeah. And feedback has been that they really enjoy kind of seeing that then on the hanger. They’ll come in and say, “Oh, I asked for this. You guys have listened, which was cool.” Yeah.
RJ: Is there much variation from the top of New Zealand down to the bottom in what fashion [? 0:18:42.3] the feedback you get? Is there some regional variation?
MW: Oh, I don’t really think so. There’s definitely– that’s debatable. Personally I don’t, but there is so much, you kind of– yeah, definitely debatable. Some managers might say, “Yeah, we want– we have kind of– we want more dressy things because we’ve got a bit more of a corporate market,” but yeah, I just think it’s…
RJ: So, your stock’s kind of the same.
MW: It’s the same in every boutique, yeah, and it kind of moves the same in every boutique, so you definitely get some people that think that, but I really haven’t seen that where there’s a huge variation throughout New Zealand.
RJ: At a bigger level, what would you like to see in New Zealand from the fashion industry as such? What would you like to see? What do you think’s exciting that’s coming up that’s new for New Zealand and fashion?
MW: What I’d like to see is more made here. That would be awesome. I think if we could kind of keep growing our industry here, it would benefit everybody instead of having to send it over and have things made overseas. Are you meaning trade-wise?
RJ: Well, I’m thinking for that, what– so, if someone’s listening that is in your shoes, maybe in 1999, 2000, is at that step, what should they be doing right now to start the next Kilt Clothing of 2030?
MW: Just, I guess, really focus– well, we’ve surveyed our customers and 99% of them say that it’s really important for them that we stick to New Zealand made, and I think ethically people are kind of a bit more aware of where their clothing’s coming from. For me, that’s my personal opinion. So, I guess just kind of starting with it. Just start getting things made here and just kind of see it’s so easy and it’s really quick and we’re actually really skilled at making clothes in New Zealand at the moment, so kind of keeping that alive.
RJ: Is there particular places that they should be contacting?
MW: All over New Zealand, yeah. But no, they can definitely contact me and I’d give them a list.
RJ: There you go, people. That’s a great little insight there, so you’ve got that opportunity now from Melissa. What else do we need to cover off on the list here? So, we’ve talked a lot about Kilt Clothing, because you’re just women’s clothing?
MW: Yes, we are.
RJ: What about for guys?
MW: Yeah, we’ve done menswear before. I think for a couple of years – three years it might’ve been. Guys just– from what we found is that our boutiques are quite small, kind of floor layout plan – yeah, they’re all quite small, and we just didn’t really have enough space to kind of really focus on menswear and have kind of a certain area of the store for them, and they kind of just didn’t really buy enough either. Women are really happy to come in and spend and buy every week, and men are a little bit more– there’s guys still wearing the stuff that we used to sell like seven, eight years ago.
RJ: Right. So, just for the amount of shop space it’s taking up, it didn’t have the same return as for women?
MW: Yeah. But it’s not to say we won’t ever do it again. I think that we’d just need to have a really careful look at space and the interworks to run it properly.
RJ: Is there a brand out there for guys that you respect that you think are doing a really good job? Or do you think that’s kind of wide open right now?
MW: Oh, good question. I actually can’t answer that one for you, I’m sorry. I’m a little bit in the dark about menswear at the moment. It definitely isn’t where my focus has been.
MW: Yeah, but I think there’s always an opportunity for New Zealand made menswear. I don’t think there’s any one kind of– that I’m aware of that’s doing New Zealand made at the moment.
RJ: Okay. Now, to get to this interview today, we’ve walked through your warehouse – your factory area. Talk me through a little bit about what goes on here to actually get the clothing made and sent out to store.
MW: Well, we’ve got a bit of construction happening at the moment and that is because we are merging our clothing factory and design room, so we’ll be having half of the current space at the moment. When you walk in here, we’ve got just our kind of head office stuff from our main kind of running marketing and accounts and all that kind of stuff, and then out the back is our creative space, so we’ve got our design room out the back and our stock area where we feed all of our stock out to our boutiques. And then this new space will be– that’s going to be a design room and then we’ll have our factory out the back.
RJ: And when will that be complete by?
MW: In two weeks it’s meant to be completed, so we’ll see.
MW: But they’re not here today, so we’ll see how long they take.
RJ: Well, it’s probably quite lucky, because we’ve got some great audio quality here without the hammers banging in the background.
MW: Yeah, very true.
RJ: Well, thank you very much for your time, Melissa.
MW: Yeah, thanks Ryan.
RJ: It’s been great having you on the show, and best of luck in the future.
MW: Cool. Thanks very much, you too. Cheers.