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Industry Oct 22, 2012 5 min read

Whistles' success formula: proof in data

Long-time readers will know we’ve previously looked into the failings of well known retailers and brands, but our data isn’t limited to exposing poor performance, it al...

Long-time readers will know we’ve previously looked into the failings of well known retailers and brands, but our data isn’t limited to exposing poor performance, it also gives a comprehensive view of when things are working well. Last month British premium fashion retailer, Whistles, bought back the majority of shares owned by the Icelandic government (following the banking crash in 2008, Icelandic bank Glitnir’s shares were handed over to their government). This follows on from 2011’s 13% increase in sales and company indications that this year has seen “double digit like-for-like sales growth”. Whistles are riding high right now – so let’s look at their recipe for success.

1. Giving Customers What They Want
Season after season, Whistles garments get picked up by the press and run as must-have pieces, selling out fast. The reality of this for most retailers is simply a swifter than anticipated sell through, not company-changing floods of cash. But savvy retailers have the data to hand to be able to anticipate that demand in time to act upon it.

Take the (now iconic) knife pleat Carrie skirt from 2011, for example. It wasn’t simply one skirt which sold fast to the keenest customers – the skirt ran across 7 colourways and 2 different lengths. Spanning from its first drop in pink in March 2011, to the latest black version which arrived in store last month and was sold out by 8th October. Other garments rerun seasonally include the Bella dress, first seen two years ago, and their £295 extended shoulder leather jacket. Our graph to the right shows a steady and healthy pattern of more restocks than first drops. Whistles aren’t afraid to keep giving customers what they want – there’s no need to entirely remodel your line each season if the demand is still there. Better still, they are saving time and resources by running an existing style with seasonal updates.

2.  A Unique Price Structure
Whistles stands out on the UK high street, which is mostly dominated by low-cost, fast fashion. Their stores are in close proximity to the mainstream retailers, but have a premium price point for high street. It works for them though. How? They have quite a unique pricing architecture which places them clearly in an aspirational space for the high street shopper. While other brands show a very even spread of price points in their segment (Topshop for example), Whistles have a defined four-tier pricing structure which relies upon their tactic of reworking successful designs. Their customers know how much a Whistles dress, jumper or coat will cost as each season they consistently sit in their chosen brackets.

It’s a strategy that Coast also use, and it works; they’ve recently opened two new flagships, had £2 million of investment from parent company Aurora Fashions, are hunting for bigger store locations and expanding into Europe through e-commerce. Coast have found that despite a tricky financial climate, customers are willing to spend more on a special product. It’s sitting in this space and purposefully differentiating themselves from the high street competition that serves both Whistles and Coast so well.

3. The Duchess
It would be remiss to mention Whistles’ successes without discussing the effect Kate Middleton‘s endorsement of the brand has had. The Duchess of Cambridge has made a noticeable effort to support the British high street, pairing Zara frocks with LK Bennett heels. For Whistles, this has seen her wearing the Bella dress at the Jubilee concert in June and at the Olympic closing ceremony, and the cream Whistles blouse she wore for the Testino engagement photos. Whistles re-released the discontinued blouse swiftly afterwards with a 30% price increase, and at John Lewis the style sold out within 6 days.

Kate’s effect can’t be underestimated. Other brands she regularly wears have seen strong sales growth too; Reiss’ profits are up 12% and Zara’s 10%. HRH exposes the brand on a global scale and is the ultimate PR – but with these sartorial decisions coming from Kate’s own taste rather than collaborative agreements, its not something a brand can chase. What brands can do is identify who is influential to their customers and how far that message is going to travel in increasing brand awareness. Reaching out to these people in an appropriate way, identifying the garment on social media if the personality wears something from the range and watching web statistics to see if orders are coming in from new markets when that garment is worn internationally are all good ways of testing any optimistic endorsements.

4. Online Presence
Whistles excel with their online presence; their  12,000+ Twitter followers at @thisiswhistles are backed up by a separate account from their PR team, @whistlesPR. While this account states “All views expressed are my own and not reflective of Whistles”, the presence breathes personality into the brand without damaging the professional face of the main account. It’s also a good way to reach out to fashion’s insiders and influentials who are less likely to interact with the main brand page. It’s a technique that’s worked incredibly well for DKNY PR Girl.

It’s not just Twitter that Whistles have a good grasp of. From the 24th August this year, Whistles began linking their email newsletters to their Pinterest account, where all garment images direct back to their e-commerce site. As brands latch onto the value of this channel, it’s something we expect to see more of. In fact, Whistles newsletters are powerful tools themselves. They’re visually bold – with large imagery, a grid format and simple headers. They work especially well when an edited selection is pulled together. Take the email from the 24th August, with its ‘Shop the Coat’ edit. The featured Jaime Boucle Car Coat at £312 sold out of 5 of 6 sizes by the first week of October and has since been restocked.

Another tactic that works really well online is giving your products a name. Every single Whistles garment carries a girl’s name. It plays up to the viral potential – it’s far easier to talk about ‘that amazing Bella dress’ than ‘nice body con dress with splashy print’. It’s also easier to monitor who is talking about your items if they’re identifiable within a search term. Chuck in free shipping on all online deliveries and you’re on a beeline to success. Thankfully all that effort is working for Whistles.

With plans to open a further 20 stores in the UK in the next two years, as well as setting their sights on US expansion and being ASOS’s best selling premium brand, its a story worth investigating. And watching.