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Drapers Next Generation: ‘Online is fundamental’

Simon Burstein, boss of luxury indie Browns on how it has remained relevant over 40 years.

Browns’ reputation lies in its ability to spot new designers and expertly edit the collections of well-known brands.

How has it managed to retain that DNA in the face of tough competition for over 40 years? The credit has to be given to my mother [Joan Burstein], who has this ability to spot talent. That’s what’s always fuelled Browns from the beginning. It’s important to be passionate and I’ve always told our buyers to buy what you believe in, and I think that’s still what makes us a bit different. We give them directions, and within that budget they have to have big brands because they drive business, but they also have to have new and iconic brands. So this mix is key and is what makes us different.

How will the luxury sector evolve in the near to longer term?

We are all customers. What do we expect? It’s about the experience, especially in luxury. The customer is expecting a lot and I think it will be emphasised, because why should you spend £1,000 on a bag from a disgruntled sales person? The challenge for luxury retail is to make sure the experience is pleasurable.

Online is a big sales channel for Browns. Is it true that 40% of that customer base is from international markets?

I think that’s particular to Browns. We are kind of an institution for overseas customers. They come to Browns and they know they can find what we have in our stores online. And we make a point of being able to offer what we have in the stores online, bar one or two brands that still don’t want to have their brand online. But otherwise it’s to say we’ll be able to service you from home and hopefully give you that service you get in the stores. So online business is fundamental and it can only promote your name and attract people to you.

So you still find that some brands are reluctant to go online, even today?

Yes, I can name some. Dior [for example]. The main reason is they hate to not be in control. And if you think about it, having an online business today is about being able to deliver to people who live elsewhere and the customer knows what they are buying. So I think a company like Dior will get its head around it, because
it’s inevitable. And providing the quality of service is there, there’s no reason why someone wouldn’t come in and try on a skirt and then decide to buy it at home. So it’s a question of loss of control, but they are coming around to it.

What is Browns’ strategy in regards to discounting, given there is so much of it affecting the sector?

We operate our online business the same as our retail business - it has to be consistent. So what we sell online and what we sell in store is the same price. When we go on Sale, that’s probably where online has a 24-hour advantage, especially at Christmas when we go on Sale online before we physically go on Sale on the 27th.

Otherwise we don’t discount and what most online businesses do today is they offer different types of services, such as free shipping. So there are ways you can incentivise the customer, but it’s back to who you are, what you are proposing and if you have something that’s different. Then I believe the customer is prepared to pay what should be the regular price. Anyway, the prices are more or less set by the brands. A lot of the brands have their own stores and a lot of the department stores set the same prices. So the most important thing is the customer can buy the product in different places and that it should be the same price.

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