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Interview: Wimbledon's head of retail David Hewitt

From a sporting perspective, the eyes of UK tennis fans are focused on whether Kyle Edmund, Johanna Konta and Heather Watson can go deep into this year’s Wimbledon.

On a commercial level, there’s a great deal of attention on how the new-look retail store attached to the venue’s famous Centre Court is received, having being knocked down last year, refitted and re-opened on Monday.

David Hewitt, head of retail, merchandise and licensing at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) which runs Wimbledon, calls it “an eye-opener” with “a completely different look and feel to the previous store”.

“It’s the first proper look at how we display our new made-in-house selection,” he says, adding there are high hopes for the 5,500 sq ft space, which hadn’t been fully refurbished for ten years.

The in-house model Hewitt talks of is the central part of a strategy he was brought in to lead in 2015, involving a switch from relying on third-party merchandisers and brands to design and make the official Wimbledon apparel, to a more integrated supply chain.

“If you buy one of our T-shirts now – a white tee with the championship logo for example – we bought that fabric and we made a pattern with a team of developers and designers,” the former Daks managing director explains.

“We dyed the fabric to the colour we wanted. We then went to the factory and gave a technical specification for that item because we want it to fit a certain way, with certain tapering and stitching.”

Working alongside the Wimbledon retail team on a consultancy basis are current and ex-designers who have experience at premium brands. It is part of Wimbledon and the AELTC acting more like fashion players than a sporting institution in terms of retail.

“If we can control if the grass is 2cm taller, we should also control what we’re putting on people’s backs – there’s also a better margin and better brand control all round,” Hewitt argues.

The only drawback, he says, is that unlike generic merchandise you can’t restock quickly. “Exactly the same way that Burberry, for example, would be finished for a season – it’s gone, it was a bestseller, there’s no stock left.

“If you’ve done this work on apparel, which is the biggest part of our business, you then try to put the same curatorial consideration into the keyrings, the mugs, the bags, and the baseball caps.”

Wimbledon sells approximately 45,000 baseball caps, 36,000 championship towels, 85,000 keyrings and other event merchandise – all in the 13 days the tournament runs. Hewitt says there has been “significant growth” in sales since taking the operation in house, and in 2017 – the first year of the full in-house collection – more womenswear was sold in the first five days of the tournament than in the previous year’s fortnight.

Hewitt sees his approach as pioneering in terms of retail at sporting events, but envisions a time when it could become more mainstream.

“I see a world one day where something as big and institutional as Manchester United Football Club will say ‘we’ll do our own stuff now, we’ll design it and we’ll own the factory’.

“At what point do you say ‘as good as these sports labels are, my brand is even bigger’. We’re not saying that at Wimbledon, but what we are saying is we don’t need to have Adidas, Lacoste and everyone else selling in our shops if we can do it ourselves.”

The retail operation

The products are sold via three major shops within the Wimbledon grounds, six “express shops” dotted around the site and one outlet at the point visitors queue for entry. For the first time this year the AELTC has opened a pop-up store in Wimbledon village – which will disappear when the tournament ends in mid-July.

“It’s a neighbourly thing – we want to be part of the village scene,” Hewitt notes.

With a full-time retail staff count of five as the AELTC caters for 90,000 customers during 11 non-tournament months, the organisation employs 310 people in retail during championship fortnight. 80% of annual sales are done on those 13 days, as just shy of half a million guests filter through the gates.

The online shop is viewed as a wholesale partner, in that Hewitt’s team sell the collection to Fanatics – owner of sports merchandise e-tailer Kitbag – which does its own ordering and buying and gives AELTC a contribution from products sold.

Customers can find the goods by directly visiting the Fanatics website, or being directed there via the new IBM-platformed Wimbledon.com site, which launched ahead of this year’s tournament.

“Most traffic goes through Wimbledon.com and even more so now thanks to the new website,” Hewitt notes.

Wholesaling more widely is not yet on the agenda for the AELTC’s official in-house items. “Give me a few years to get this operation up and running in-house and then I’ll decide,” Hewitt adds, suggesting wider distribution of its products would require a much larger, sophisticated supply chain first.

Wimbledon’s new big screens

The big outdoor screen has become a symbol of the Wimbledon fortnight. Whether fans call it ‘Henman Hill’, ‘Rusedski Ridge’, or ‘Murray Mound’, the Aorangi Terrace has become a viewing place for those without show court tickets thanks to the large public screen installed in the 1990s.

But as part of the new-look retail operation at Wimbledon this year, there are now additional digital screens on the premises. The newly opened Centre Court shop entrance features two large LED screens displaying content about Wimbledon’s history and grounds, and a 6x4-metre screen at the back for Ralph Lauren to run content on how it crafts the umpires’ outfits – one of the few Wimbledon fashion items not manufactured in-house.

Thanks to POS technology company, Bleep, for the first time this year there are also customer-facing screens on the tills, which will aim to attract the eyes of visitors with messages about the personalised My Wimbledon community and other services.

“It’s big screen tech for the first time,” Hewitt says, acknowledging the AELTC’s previous thinking was to avoid significant in-store distractions that might cause congestion.

“We’ve tried to move the big screen concept along to the existing shops on site – the Number One Court’s is the biggest shop and the only place where the whole collection can be housed. We intend to use the screens at the back of that store to convey Wimbledon’s digital stories captured from social media.”

Once the Wimbledon fortnight is over, the museum store, which is open all-year round, keeps the tills ticking over when Edmund, Konta and co are playing elsewhere on tour.

Hewitt says that, like a luxury fashion brand, 2019’s clothing and accessory collection is already wrapped up and will bring new design, colours and style to the fore. “What we’re trying to do is tell a story each year,” he notes.

And in terms of the technology provided in store, it’s some way behind what others are doing on the high street but the customer experience is not being discarded. China Union Pay is part of the payment offering, for example, and the wider organisation is offering contactless payments for gate entries.

The retail operation doesn’t offer click & collect, but Hewitt expects visitors will soon be able to order something in the queue and collect it when they enter the premises. It’s part of a journey that he can take step by step, acknowledging he doesn’t have to “chase the dollar” like traditional retail organisations do.

“Do I have lots of staff walking around with iPads taking orders while people are in queues in the shop? The answer is ‘no’. Will I have it next year? Yes, I will – I just haven’t got there yet.”

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