Hard work, not magic, casts the spell
Australian brand Witchery says it's doing well in SA
It's a sunny day in Melbourne and, like any other tourist in a city for the first time, we're eager to do a little shopping. That is, of course, after taking in some of the more highbrow attractions such as the National Gallery of Victoria, where luminous koi fish swim across the gallery's façade, enticing visitors to the Escher exhibition within.
One of the first things a South African notices when shopping in Melbourne is how ubiquitous Witchery is - the familiar brand has a prominent place in most shopping districts and malls in the city and suburbs.
Witchery's head designer Gavin Gage and his team do more than 24 collections a year to meet the insatiable consumer appetite for newness.
"These days you only have to flick through your phone to see something new and exciting and our customers expect that from us," says Gage. "The trends have to be instantly available, and available everywhere."
There are 130 standalone Witchery stores in Australia, and a huge flagship store in Chadstone, Australia's biggest mall, a 35-minute drive from Melbourne's city centre.
Witchery was founded in South Australia in 1970 by Robert Matthews and was acquired in 1987 by Peter Lew, who gave Witchery the look and feel it has today. Witchery launched concession stores in David Jones in Australia in 2004, and in 2011 came to SA.
The brand opened inside Woolworths stores in March 2014 after Country Road, which Woolworths owns, bought Witchery in 2012 for A$172m (about R1.8bn now).
Last year, Woolworths pulled David Jones from its South African stores and has since "repositioned" it as the Woolworths Classic Collection.
Witchery, however, is doing well, says the brand's MD, Simon Schofield.
"Expanding into SA has been relatively easy," he says in an interview in the new Melbourne offices that the Country Road Group moved into last year. The building houses five brands: Witchery, Country Road, Trenery, Mimco and Politix.
"Having Woolworths as a parent company has facilitated our entry into the South African market. We came into the country and stayed true to our brand identity while gaining a good understanding of the quirks of this particular market, the nuances that make the South African market different to the Australian one, especially from a colour perspective," Schofield says.
"In Melbourne, people are famously known for wearing top-to-toe black, and for being conservative when it comes to colour. We've discovered that South Africans are much more embracing of colour in the clothes they wear and we've taken that into account when designing new ranges."
Schofield himself doesn't dress conservatively. For our interview, he is dressed in a natty, ink-blue corduroy suit and smart leather brogues.
"The brand has resonated very well with South Africans, particularly in terms of the value equation. It appeals to the same kind of customer we have in Australia - the 34- to 54-year-old working woman who wants affordable but aspirational clothes for the office, but with a definite edge of fashionability. The brand keeps growing in SA. "
But from one continent to another, how does Witchery keep the brand identity intact?
"It is built around the idea of a specific type of woman," says Schofield. "She's strong, confident, independent, and appreciates quality but understands value. Our brand purpose is to empower women to look and feel good every day, and we try to stay true to that.
The value of SA's baby-and children's-wear, according to Euromonitor International
"My belief is that you have to be true to your customer and really understand who she is and what her needs are if you want your product to be successful."
Schofield says his marketing team spend a great deal of time gaining insight into their customers' needs.
"We have touch points for interacting with our customers: post-purchase surveys,
e-mails asking how we can improve, customer focus groups - our customer tells us what she wants.
"Of course, we have less information coming from SA given the tyranny of distance, but we still manage to get quite a lot of insight into the South African customer. And we have a specific team devoted to deciding what will work in your country."
Schofield is confident about brand growth in SA.
"We've seen great success lately with our 'dress party' collections, for instance, stretching the work-wear business into something more elevated, fun and sophisticated - the 'desk-to-dinner' ethos - put on a higher heel, change your floral blouse to something with sequins and you're good to go," he says.
"We're also looking at the 'weekend-to-wedding' solution - from absolutely casual, when our customer is at home or walking the dog, to being glamorously dressed up at a special occasion. There's a great deal of work behind our success."
Part of that work is predicting what the customer will want next. Schofield's teams expend a great deal of time and energy looking at international runways, reading the zeitgeist, knowing what will trend and keeping on top of social media.
"We've noticed that what the influencers are wearing now, everyone will be wanting in a few months' time.
"We put a lot of trust in the South African influencers we've identified to 'sell' our brand to the market. We have to be sure that their style and their followers fit with the brand identity so that we have synergy. What they project has to be right for our customer."
The digital revolution continues to be the biggest disruptor in the fashion industry.
"Technology has changed shopping in huge ways. If we're not using it to aid purchasing convenience, we're using it for research. It's never been easier to stay informed, which puts pressure on us to be better all the time, and faster, to keep up with the trends.
"We're also exploring how best to merge the bricks-and-mortar experience with the digital one - delivery options like same-day delivery or collection or parcel lockers. We're aiming at utmost convenience so the customer can shop exactly how she wants to."
And what makes the brand stand out among all the others in fashion retail?
"All of the above," he says, "and we also work with an amazing colour agency in London. They do unique colour palettes for us for each range. They give us insight into what's coming and give us the confidence to be brave."
Schofield speaks enthusiastically of possible expansion into Europe. "Why not - collections are becoming more seasonless and suddenly the northern hemisphere doesn't seem impossible to conquer. If you've got a true enough brand identity, you can do it."
• Nagel was a guest of Witchery in Melbourne