In the 1970s around one in every 200 American was employed by Sears, the pioneering retailer which dominated the country for decades.
During its heyday, it was America’s largest publisher, printing more than 315 million catalogues per year. It was this catalogue that propelled the retailer to never before seen heights and changed the landscape of the industry forever.
Americans from anywhere in the country could now search through hundreds of items that would never be available from local stores, for significantly lower prices.
Few retailers still use physical catalogues, with the status quo now favouring what many describe as catalogue retailing’s natural evolution: the internet. Meanwhile, Sears’ stock price has dropped from $195 in 2007, to just $2.31.
However, one of the few that still uses catalogues is Boden, the fashion retailer favoured by Kate Middleton and sold around the world.
“They have a very strong brand”, Boden’s digital experience director Phil Lewis told the Retail Gazette at Adobe’s Experience Forum.
We now release a new feature every two weeks, that is something that from my standpoint is huge and its huge for our customers
“The board were ready to invest in digital they just needed someone to help shape that.”
Lewis was drafted in two years ago to drive chief executive Jill Easterbrook’s ambitious plans to “to develop Boden as an international multi-channel brand”.
The same year Lewis was appointed in 2015 marked the third year of flat sales for the British retailer. The temptation for many companies in Boden’s position would be to blame this on an outdated model. Boden saw it as a template for progression.
“Our customers still love it, it’s one way of getting that aspirational lifestyle across,” Lewis said.
“We’re looking at how we take the great things about the catalogue and distribute it across the rest of our channels. How do we get that impact across digital and in store?”
Initiatives like image recognition software, chatbots, mobile payments and the introduction of new targeting tools to understand customer behavior in more depth are already in development at Boden.
In part this rapid development is down to Lewis’ experience developing these platforms in the sector, joining from a three-year stint at Ralph Lauren.
“We now release a new feature every two weeks, that is something that from my standpoint is huge and its huge for our customers,” Lewis said.
“It doesn’t matter whether that’s a small bug fix or whether that’s a big feature, it’s just important to keep that moving.
“It’s been a big focus for the back end over the last year and all through the remainder of last year that we embed that culture in of continual improvement and always trying to move forward as quickly as possible.”
Embedding a culture of continual development takes more than one person, though. For such dramatic change to take place the company itself must remain forward facing and open to change, something Lewis states drew him to Boden.
“What’s so good about Boden is it’s quite entrepreneurial in terms of behavior, it’s still got quite a bit of that small company policy,” he said.
“You can make things happen really quickly. It’s not always a committee off people to get things done so it means you can be somewhat autonomous. You’ve got to be able to move fast and the consumer expectations change quickly.”
Far from simply transferring the successes of Boden’s catalogue to a more modern format, Boden’s strategy is to flourish across all channels. This week it announced its second standalone physical store in Westfield London’s new expansion, following a successful debut in London’s Kings Road last year.
We see the benefit when a customer feels the quality of the product and tries it on
For a company which gets 95 per cent of its revenues from online sales and saw 9.6 per cent growth in profits last year through that channel, a move into physical retail may seem like an unnecessary step. But for Boden, this represented its commitment to evolution.
“It depends on what the role of the store is, is the ambition to get out onto every high street or is to create pockets of stores that are experiential?” Lewis said.
“We see them as experiences, and that’s very much what we’re moving towards. Making sure that when you go into a store, it’s an experience, you get an opportunity to understand the brand.
“It’s really a demand from the customer to put (physical) retail in, we could just stay online. But we see the benefit when a customer feels the quality of the product and tries it on. We can create an environment to make that quite special.”
Although, like Sears, Boden built its brand and reputation around its catalogue, its devotion moving forward will prevent it from succumbing to the same fate partly thanks to figures like Lewis driving these changes.
“Standing still is going backwards, you’ve got to constantly be challenging yourself,” he said.