Interview: Sweaty Betty on the rise of athleisure and eCommerce growth

When Sweaty Betty was founded 20 years ago, no one had even heard of the term ‘athleisure’. Now, you can’t walk down any high street without seeing skin-tight leggings teamed with trainers, not to go to the gym, but to meet a friend for a coffee or to the cinema to catch the latest blockbuster.

And this trend for work-out clothing being fashionable for both in and out of the gym has clearly helped the sportswear industry. JD Sports and Mountain Warehouse are both benefitting from an increased interest in fitness and athleisure, with both companies reporting expansion plans and profit hikes. And Sweaty Betty is too seeing a piece of the action, its last public figures for its 2017 financial year revealed increase in sales, like-for-likes and profit. Thanks to the athleisure trend, the British brand, which was founded in 1998 in Notting Hill by husband and wife team Tamara and Simon Norton-Hill, has also expanding successfully overseas, with US boutiques and a partnership with Nordstrom.

And at the core of any successful retailer today is a fine-tuned digital strategy and eCommerce site, which is headed up by Annabel Thorburn, SVP of eCommerce. Thronburn joined a little over a year ago following a consulting role at Isobar and before that, a 13-year stint at Tesco where she helped develop its grocery site. But it’s clear she’s left her grocery days behind her, as she meets me for our interview dressed in a very stylish Sweaty Betty jumpsuit, an advocate for the retailer which clearly does not just sell clothes to exercise in.

She describes the journey co-founder, Tamara, went on to create fashionable activewear. Fed up of the lack of stylish gym clothing for women – it was all “dark, boring, masculine and shapeless” – she decided to set up her own company with her husband to fill the gap in the market.

“And this was before anybody had even coined the phrase ‘activewear’,” says Thorburn, who admits she has always be into sport and fitness, even playing lacrosse for Scotland. “It wasn’t a category yet and no one talked about ‘athleisure’ as a growing market,”

She adds: “The brand was also founded on empowering women through fitness and beyond, because we love fashion and want to look amazing – and actually making yourself look amazing, makes you feel amazing and makes you perform better. It gives you endorphins if someone says ‘I love your leggings’, it just makes you want to get out there and go to another class.”

And of course, Sweaty Betty is known for its brightly patterned leggings – no workout class from spinning to hot yoga would be complete today without at least one pair of legs enveloped in a beautiful, yet breathable, print.

Beautiful technical

Internally, the company refers to its products as ‘beautiful technical’, due to its contour sculpting fabrics and ultra-light, sweat-wicking material. But Thorburn likes to take this term and apply it to the retailer’s digital products.

“How do I make people walk away from the website feeling like they’ve both had a really seamless easy experience, that is forward-thinking in terms of technology, but is also genuinely beautiful and reinforcing the brand?”

How do I take that beautiful product and fabric and the touchy-feelyness that you get in a store and bring it to life online?Annabel Thorburn, SVP of eCommerce, Sweaty Betty

The first challenge in order to achieve this vision was replatforming onto Salesforce Commerce Cloud, which Thorburn was thrown into the middle of when she joined the company last May. “My first three months were spent doing nothing but getting that platform live. So the key thing for me has been moving into the cloud, but also moving the company from a mind-set where you made changes when other people asked, to being one team where we are constantly driving the customer experience and moving in an agile way.”

This included iterative releases and more user testing, which was all possible under the new platform. She describes the new website as a “sophisticated Ferrari” which needed some getting used to after driving a much older, slower car. “Suddenly we’ve got to learn how to drive the Ferrari and actually that’s quite a complex beast.”

In order to drive at optimum speed, Thorburn’s team has had to learn the new platform from the ground up, but also take part in a Salesforce accelerator programme, and investigate the use of the vendor’s Einstein AI platform. “AI is something I’m very excited about, just seeing how we can test it against manual merchandising and ‘complete-the-look’ recommendations – it’s an ongoing test and learn for us, where are the things that Einstein can really beat us and where are the areas that we should be investing our efforts to really drive the customer experience?”

Store to eCommerce                                                                   

Sweaty Betty now has over 60 stores across the UK and the US, which Thorburn believes offers best-in-class service, with sleek design, expert staff and free in-store work-out classes every week. Thorburn says the stores form the heart of the Sweaty Betty community. And thanks to this, the retailer has a pretty good view of its customer, with data on over 80% of its shoppers and the ability to connect online purchases to an account. “It’s because they’re part of a brand people love and it’s a brand that people want to join and want to be part of. So they understand the data exchange.”

The big challenge for Thorburn is how she can expertly take this successful store experience online. “How do I take that beautiful product and fabric and the touchy-feelyness that you get in a store and bring it to life online? Because that’s all a very human experience.”

One way Sweaty Betty has tried is by creating videos of its staff talking about the products, after customer research found shoppers like talking to a friendly, approachable expert. Thorburn and her team have experimented with lo-fi iPhone clips of different members of the team in the office talking about products as if they were chatting to a friend.

“Historically most brands would have had a very slick production video, whereas what customers respond to is the fact that it is clearly a genuine person who’s in the office – it’s authoritative, but authentic. And we’ve been posting them on social and they’re doing brilliantly.”

Aside from a website replatform, dabbling in artificial intelligence and taking the store experience online has taken up much of Thorburn’s time at Sweaty Betty so far, but looking to the future, her biggest concern is keeping up with the pace of change.

“I think the challenge is: how do we keep up with the customer? Because the speed at which they switch social channels or expect more using different devices – actually it’s the time it takes us to develop the capability to be there with them that worries me,” she says.

“But actually that’s something we’re all working on and why we work with the likes of Salesforce because they are making that investment on behalf of many retailers rather than just one.”