Woolies brings fashion guru on board
High Street fashion expertise has come to SA's troubled Woolworths with the appointment of former Marks & Spencer style director Belinda Earl.
On Thursday, Woolworths announced Earl would be joining the team as an independent nonexecutive director.
Earl's appointment is the third addition to Woolworths' board since it unveiled its turnaround strategy in February.
As part of its plan to overhaul and strengthen leadership, the retailer in March appointed former Clicks CEO David Kneale as well as Thembisa Skweyiya, both as independent nonexecutive directors. Woolworths had been rocked by three key resignations in less than a month.
The company's misadventures have been dominated by the acquisition of the Australian retail brand David Jones almost five years ago. The deal, worth R21.4bn, is regarded by market commentators as the retailer's biggest strategic error.
Earl, with a rich retail background stretching from her first stint at Britain's famed department store, Harrods, as a graduate hire, would be beneficial for a retailer like Woolworths that has ambitions to compete on an international scale, said Lester Davids, a trading desk analyst. She also has experience at Marks & Spencer, on which Woolworths has modelled itself since its inception in 1931.
Earl also headed the clothing division at UK's Debenhams department store group, where she introduced the Designers at Debenhams brand - a curated fashion range by exclusive designers including Ted Baker, Henry Holland and Richard Quinn.
Woolworths has a similar collaboration with South African designers under its Style by SA, with designers Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi and Maria McCloy, among others.
Earl's experience would be "value adding" to the Woolworths business, would bring a "world-class view" to the South African retailer and also help it improve the performance of David Jones in Australia, Davids said. Earl might also be a win for Woolworths' specialist fashion lines such as its labels under the Country Road brands like Witchery and Trenery, he said.
"She'd definitely be able to bring her sense of globalism and her international experience into that particular line."
Woolworths' fashion segment has been one of the biggest culprits in the group's underperformance in recent years. Woolworths' apparel offering, particularly its David Jones brand, has been criticised for being bland.
When Earl was appointed to Marks & Spencer as style director in 2012, its clothing division was going through the same challenges as Woolworths' recent fashion woes and she was trusted with resuscitating that division. Marks & Spencer was losing to more trendy and nimbler retail players such as Zara and Next.
"The level of experience and the years of experience that she has at these various houses will definitely add a global element and a global perspective to the local Woolworths brand, as well as the international brand," Davids said.
Nicola Cooper, a trend analyst and cultural strategist, said Woolworths was making a mistake in trying to compete with foreign retailers H&M and Zara, which typically have shorter lead times that allow them to churn out merchandise much quicker.
Cooper said consumers were getting trends faster and cheaper at, for example, H&M and Zara, which had spurred a cost-cutting reaction by Woolworths when instead it should be altering its product.
"What they [Woolworths] are starting to do is trying to compete with price, and what they can't do is compete with a massive global chain like H&M.
"They just can't compete with that kind of price, also that kind of turnaround time."
Cooper said the retailer should consider an alternative offering to that of global players.
"They need to define themselves. What they're lacking is a definition of who Woolworths is. I think they're trying to be all things to everyone, and it's not quite working out for them," said Cooper.
Woolworths has "a tendency to overstock", she said, meaning that it has too much of the same type of merchandise, which means consumers don't feel the same impulse to buy immediately as they know they can return another day to purchase it.
"If you look at a Zara or an H&M, what drives sales is the fact that people think that they can't come back and get it."