Interview: Austin Reed suited and booted up for international growth

UK-based formal and casualwear retailer Austin Reed has placed international expansion at the top of its agenda, as the company looks to bounce back after a turbulent few years.

The retailer is in the process of a strategic turnaround stemming from a company voluntary agreement at the turn of the year, but after a new injection of cash and moves made to reduce its store portfolio, the business is open to investing in new technologies to help take it in a new digital-led direction.

A significant focus is on growing international sales for the Austin Reed Group's family of brands, which includes its eponymous fascia, Viyella and CC (formerly County Casuals). As such, the retailer is one of the first raft of UK retailers to partner up with eCommerce solutions provider Borderfree - a Pitney Bowes company, as the US tech company enters the British market for the first time.

Harrods, Space NK Apothecary, The Dune Group and Aspinal of London are also among the UK businesses to sign up to the eCommerce platform which can sit alongside retailers' existing web operations and promises to help them with an array of functions when targeted new global markets.

Joe Fletcher, eCommerce manager for Austin Reed, told Essential Retail that Borderfree's technology will be used on all three of the Austin Reed Group's brand websites.

He commented: "The subtext to it all is we've got a plan for growth internationally online, which is at a fairly nascent stage. We've shipped internationally online for a number of years, but our international eCommerce business has been more passive and mainly been focused around the UK."

He suggested the Borderfree partnership will aid Austin Reed strategy related to currencies, pricing, taxation and duties, payment methods, and marketing customisation based on individual territories.

"It's a multi-dimensional integration and it'll help us localise in a number of different areas," he noted.

Since June, Borderfree's global ecommerce platform has been available to UK retailers looking to expand their international sales and reach. The tech company already works with more than 175 retail businesses in its home country, the US.

The Borderfree team works with retailers to tailor a fully-optimised international site experience based on local preferences, best practices and market insights while keeping the respective retailer brands front of site. The technology can integrate with a retailer's existing eCommerce infrastructure and international operations, with Borderfree saying its BFX platform gives businesses an opportunity to launch quickly after implementation.

Supported by this new system, it is clear the newly streamlined Austin Reed is looking to up its game as a digital retailer with a larger global remit.

It operates 200 stores across the three brands, including concessions. This portfolio comprises a combination of standalone stores and multi-branded shops.

The company has an international store presence on a license basis and Fletcher says there is existing awareness of the brand internationally, with the largest online demand currently coming from North America, Australasia, and Europe. Fletcher has chosen to partner with Borderfree, saying the collaboration will "help open up some of the latent demand from the rest of the world".

"It's about testing and continual optimisation and I'm willing to have our expectations and assumptions confounded. As with any retail business, it's a journey of discovery."

International as a mix online is currently less than 10% of total Austin Reed sales, but this is expected to grow in the coming years.

"International is currently a small part of what we do online, but it is getting an increasing focus here," said Fletcher.

"We're optimistic about our chances and I see over the next 12 to 24 months that this will change quite considerably."

When asked where he'd like the Austin Reed business to be in one year's time, Fletcher remarked: "I'd be hoping to talk about the arrival and prominence of new markets through our own domains or other channels, where we are exploring a number of opportunities through third parties, department stores and marketplaces.

"In terms of multichannel offering, it's about improving the customer experience across channels."

Austin Reed has just completed the replatforming of its tech infrastructure on to IBM's Websphere, and this covers all three of the company's brands. Asos CFO Nick Beighton recently likened business replatforming to painting the Forth Bridge, meaning it is a perpetual process that continually needs attention, but Austin Reed is confident the new system will provide the foundation to growing its multichannel capabilities.

"We've got a big emphasis on fulfilment, improving delivery options and increasing payment options in-store and online," Fletcher commented.

"We're quite experimental and are willing to try a lot of things over the coming months as the technology comes out and possibilities are opened up to us."

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