Big Interview: Jennie Farmer, Chief Commercial Officer, Oka

Luxury furniture retailer Oka started off as a mail-order company and has now grown to have 14 stores across the UK and US. Chief commercial officer Jennie Farmer talks to Retail Gazette about how the company is trading as homeware sales continue to rise in the wake of Covid-19.

Jennie Farmer.

“I’ve always been fascinated by retail as a child,” Oka chief commercial officer, Jennie Farmer told Retail Gazette.

“I used to set up shops in the house,” she laughed.

Since graduating from University of Nottingham, Farmer has worked with Procter & Gamble and on Hugo Boss fragrances as head of luxury fragrances for several years before joining Oka.

“I got to work directly with the fashion house Hugo Boss, and its creative director,” Farmer said.

“I then became head of brand marketing at De Beers and went into diamonds, which is obviously the pinnacle of luxury in some ways.”

Starting off as a mail-order company in 1999, Oka has transitioned into a luxury furniture retailer

Farmer said there was limited ecommerce and social media when she joined De Beers, which are now core to the strategy.

The company also launched the brand into China in 2011, which is now 50 per cent of the business.

Joining Oka was a “good transition” from De Beers due to being a totally different industry, but from a skill set point of view, it was quite similar.

“After De Beers, I went to Paris for a couple of years to look after the wine business of LVMH, which was a real passion project. I find wine fascinating,” Farmer said.

She explained that working in these roles has been about “bringing a story to life” which has been helpful since she joined Oka in January.

Starting off as a mail-order company in 1999, Oka grew to become a luxury furniture and home accessories retailer, now with 13 stores across the UK and one in the US.

Oka now has 14 stores across the UK

“I’ve been working with Oka’s product team to really understand what’s the story behind the product,” Farmer said.

“I think it’s something we can still be better at. There’s these amazing stories about how we hand weave these beautiful rugs in India, and I don’t think we bring that across enough yet – that’s something I’m keen to do.

“Oka is at such an interesting point in its life. It was bought by Italian investment firm Investindustrial in 2018, which invested in the business by bringing in a really strong management team.

“When I was looking to join, I would ask people, ‘have you heard of Oka?’ and they would either say ‘no, I’ve never heard of it’ or ‘oh my god, I love Oka'”.

Farmer acknowledged that Oka still has an awareness problem, and interestingly, quite a high percentage of its clients are from a small radius within five miles of the store.

“What we’ve done well is integrate into communities and we now have stores in beautiful places like Broadway in the Cotswolds or in Harrogate,” she explained.

“But the broader population, like London, needs to see more initiatives to get it known.

“We launched our new season product in September, and we’re going to do a takeover of a beautiful site in London.

“I really want to understand what the story is behind a product”

“We have very loyal clients, but we want to make sure that we’re appealing to the next generation as well.”

Although Farmer joined Oka a year after the Covid-19 pandemic first began affecting UK retailers, she witnessed an uptick in ecommerce sales – which was happening across all of retail last year.

Oka’s sales were flat last year but the shift to online managed to help the retailer as sales eventually picked up.

Moreover, products such as sofas and desks were trending as more people spent time working from home.

“It’s a great industry to be in at the moment because people are really appreciating the value of their homes and investing in those core pieces,” Farmer told Retail Gazette.

In response to demand, Oka extended its range of desks since early last year as people adapted to hybrid-working.

Farmer added that soft furnishings are also doing well as sales of bright cushions and lamps went up.

“People want to make sure that their space is not just functional, but reflective of their personality,” she said.

Farmer added that Oka was initially affected by the ‘pingdemic’ which led to a few vacancies.

“We’re seeing not the usual number of applications because people have been concerned that stores have closed during Covid-19, so many were considering working in a different industry,” she said.

“We’ve managed to retain the vast majority of our staff, but that’s something retailers in general need to ensure.

“We make sure we pay the living wage, and we’ll make sure we offer a good paid holiday. People need to see retail as a really exciting industry to work in, even after Covid-19.”

Oka is in the midst of re-platforming its website, and there has been a lot of investment in terms of CRM processes, according to Farmer.

“I want to make sure that we put the customer at the heart of the plans we’re building, but at the same time, build the brand, and make sure that people are really excited by it,” she said.

“We started our tech roadmap about two years ago to really look at how to take the business forward for the next 10 years.

“Site visits went up 60 per cent last year, but the site development was actually planned before the pandemic.

“The new website will be much more reflective of the brand. It’s bringing us to where we need to be from an omnichannel point of view.”

Farmer still believes in bricks-and-mortar, particularly for the homewares sector as people want to go see and feel sofas, and test it out before they buy it.

“Homewares is a great industry to be in at the moment”

Oka undertakes an annual customer survey which asks all sorts of questions around what products they’re looking for.

The retailer also receives insight through social media, with people sending direct messages.

“The customer service team are worth their weight in gold,” Farmer said.

“They’re the people dealing with mishaps and delayed deliveries, but they also obtain amazing insights about products.”

Farmer said Oka is currently focusing on sustainability by launching the company’s second sustainability report – which it will do annually.

“I’m passionate about sustainability, it’s one of the things that made me excited about joining Oka because they really started this journey,” she said.

One of the biggest challenges that Oka is currently facing, is the issue of shipping. The retailer ships a lot of its furniture from Asia, some as far as India and Vietnam, and has seen container costs go through the roof.

Farmer warned that it’s going to take until next year for shipping to a normal cost.

Meanwhile, Oka has managed to steer clear of the current lorry driver shortage because it has its own in-house drivers and vans.

“We are more affected by inbound shipping costs as opposed to driver shortages, as we have our own drivers,” Farmer said.

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