When Bernie de Le Cuona founded her home furnishings businesses over 25 years ago, she started with a range of cushions that she took in person to interior design stores in hopes to generate sales.
Since then her business, De Le Cuona, has grown into a luxury retailer with stores in London and New York, as well as a global distribution. She’s managed to weather many storms, such as the 2008 global financial crisis and the current coronavirus pandemic – and De Le Cuona has managed to thrive each time. Not without its share of challenges, of course.
“Pre-Covid, we had had one of the best years on record with plans to grow further in Asia and exciting launches planned,” Bernie told Retail Gazette.
As the outbreak escalated in the UK and forced retailers here and abroad to close stores amid a wave of lockdowns, it changed day-to-day operations for many retailers – and Bernie said De Le Cuona was no different.
“For me it’s been a complete change of role,” she reflected.
“On the upside I have got to know the teams across the world so much better.
“I have more time to look at the company and strategically plan for the near as well as longer term future.
“I have loved the peace and solitude”
“The downside is uncertainty, in terms of future business growth and opening of new stores, availability of raw materials and mill closures due to Covid disruption.
“And then there’s the role I need to play to constantly motivate my team and ensure their health and wellbeing.”
While some retailers have been hit harder than others amid the pandemic, Bernie said she’d be “pretty suspicious” of any claimed that the pandemic didn’t throw them off course in some way.
“Yes, it was a known unknown at a government level, but no retailer will ever have accounted for a pandemic in their crisis planning,” she explained.
“That said, in the 20-plus years since I founded De Le Cuona, we’ve weathered a range of different crises, from fraud to flooding and then the 2008 financial crisis.
“We have survived them all and I like to think there’s a real resilience at the heart of the business together with an ability to work through pretty much any difficulty that comes our way.
“I’m a very determined character and I’m not going to let a virus defeat us and everything we’ve achieved.”
Despite the challenges, Bernie said the positives outweighed them all.
She said that prior to the pandemic, she and the team would spend “a little too long” discussing new projects. Now they take leaps of faith and “just get on with the things” to ensure the De Le Cuona’s survival.
Bertnie added that like most businesses, De Le Cuona has become “heavily dependent” on video technology to communicate.
“Communication has become a lot more regular and I do believe it’s brought our teams closer together,” she said.
“There is something to be said for working together on a common goal in the face of adversity.”
Lockdown has also given Bernie the chance to identify future leaders for her business.
“The last few months showed me that I have a core of people in the business who really rallied round and supported me,” she said.
“That’s an incredible gift and I know I’m very fortunate.”
When non-essential retailers were forced into lockdown, many turned to online as a key source of income. While Bernie admitted that De Le Cuona had been lagging behind in its ecommerce efforts, once the pandemic hit they managed to have it up and running.
She said that while ecommerce sales were still only a small percentage of the De Le Cuona’s total turnover, it would still help take the brand to a broader audience – something Bernie finds really exciting.
Prior to the pandemic, Bernie would be catching flights between different locations and suppliers. And while that is no longer possible, she discovered that video was still an effective replacement – and it’s something she’ll keep using once the pandemic blows over.
“Some things you really need to do face-to-face,” she conceded.
“But time that would have been wasted in airport lounges and flight delays is time that I can invest on the ground making things happen in the business.”
De Le Cuona is a retailer based around tactility, which is hardly surprising given it specialises in home furnishings and fabrics.
“Pre-Covid, we really invested in our in-store experience and sadly Covid has put paid to a great deal of this sensory approach,” Bernie said.
As a result, De Le Cuona developed new ways of merchandising its textiles that didn’t heavily rely on inviting shoppers to sit and experience the finished products.
Bernie explained that over the course of lockdown, she and her team have been working hard to find solutions that “re-opened stores provide an equally enjoyable experience with safety at the core”.
“We have sourced gossamer-fine disposable gloves that clients can put on when they touch our fabrics,” she said.
Staff now wear face coverings and the stores operate on an appointment-only basis alongside various other social distancing measures.
Amidst this challenging time, Bernie reminded other retailers to remember to check on their employees, not just consumers.
“Keeping your team on board is so important”
“They are the lifeblood of the company and they may be feeling fearful, both for their jobs and for their own safety as retail reopens,” she said.
“Communication and empathy are hugely important.
“Keep them in the loop and be honest both about the challenges that all businesses face and the measures that are being put in place.
“Ask for their opinions and make sure you really listen.
“After all they are the ones that will be making things work at the coalface in this new normal.”
Bernie added that the future of De Le Cuona would revolve around the core values of wellbeing and healthy living.
“If there’s one thing this crisis has taught us, it’s that people crave clean air and natural living,”
“Look at how people flocked to our parks and took up running.”
She explained that natural fibres, particularly linen, are part of the De Le Cuona DNA, adding that she’s always done her best to avoid chemical dyes and have sustainability at the forefront of the business.
Before focusing on the future, Bernie spoke about the importance of waiting patiently.
“Yes, you need to understand that you find yourself in a critical situation but any action you take needs to be carefully thought through,” she said.
“If I didn’t know it already, Covid has taught me that personally I am very resilient and determined and I’ve built the business to be exactly the same.
“Each crisis you go through teaches you this and makes you just that little bit more resilient each time.”