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Andrew Keith, BoF 500: ‘Keep Your Teams and Customers Close’

To manage through the coronavirus crisis, it’s critical to find new ways to stay connected with employees and customers, says the president of Lane Crawford and Joyce.
Andrew Keith, self-portrait, 26 March 2020
By
  • Andrew Keith

From the BoF Community’ is a new format featuring unique perspectives from our community of fashion professionals around the world.

HONG KONG, China — We have been managing the situation with the coronavirus since mid-January and for Lane Crawford that means managing our mainland China operation and our Hong Kong operation, not always in sync as the two regions have been impacted differently and the respective Governments have taken different approaches and measures. Hong Kong is now experiencing a second wave of "imported" infections (people travelling into Hong Kong from abroad), and the Hong Kong Government has implemented tougher measures while China has stabilised and is fast returning to normal.

Managing Through the Crisis

Throughout this period, we have been agile and flexible as the situation is fluid and fast-changing. In mid-January, before Chinese New Year, we enacted a business continuity protocol prioritising the safety of our staff and customers across Greater China and Southeast Asia. We separated our company into two teams — A and B — with staff working every alternate day to mitigate the risk of widespread infection if one of our people were to fall ill, and to ensure business continuity. All office staff in China and Hong Kong have, for most of the period, been directed to work from home and we have essentially been running an operation remotely.

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One of the most important things we’ve done throughout this situation is keep our teams and customers close, finding new ways to communicate. Members of our teams have been in constant communication with our customers — it has not been driven by a need to sell, but rather the need to stay connected, to make sure everyone is safe and to know we are all pulling through this together.

But there are customers who have shopped throughout. We are encouraging human connections wherever possible and we’re using what we like to call human-powered technology — taking human product curation, content creation and person-to-person communication, and using technology to reach and fulfil to our customers. We have our proprietary styling and clienteling app which helps our staff curate looks personalised to their customer, with orders fulfilled through our e-commerce infrastructure, and throughout this crisis it has proved very successful in facilitating remote selling. This is connected to our WeChat channel — our mini-programme and WeChat store which launches in May. Our staff have been remarkable, they are absolute superstars.

We are also using the time to review the business end-to-end and mine the opportunities we find. We are starting to see green shoots in our China business with customers coming back, particularly to the privacy, and what they feel is the security of, our Private and Platinum Suites. We are looking at how we can accelerate our business in China and create new customer experiences.

One lesson I'd like to share with the industry: when it comes to China, love the people, not the wallet.

We’re also examining the fact that our stock deliveries are going to be potentially disrupted so we think this is an opportunity to look at the flow of the season, review previous markdown practices and look at markdowns more aligned with seasonality. Over the past few years, we had been working to reduce the time we mark down our product, and as our partners know we have achieved very successful sell-throughs without sale or return of merchandise or product on consignment because of how we buy, what we buy and how we sell it. However, we have been very challenged, like many other retailers, by the amount of merchandise that has been discounted on global platforms, essentially creating a race to the bottom, and product has become undervalued by the customer. So, we think there is an opportunity to readdress that.

Lessons for the Wider Fashion World

The crisis has also been an opportunity to think more broadly about the fashion business. One lesson I’d like to share with the industry: when it comes to China, love the people, not the wallet. For many businesses, and for the fashion and luxury industry at large, the Chinese people, and China as a market, have been very good to them. But I remember talking to some of our China teams in the third week of January. The emotion, fear and shock at the speed the situation was changing made them feel isolated from the rest of the world because it was portrayed as “a China problem.” We had colleagues in Europe and in London who were being shouted at because they were Chinese. There was definitely a feeling within China that the rest of the world was quite anti-China. On reflection, I’m still not sure that many brands understand the psyche of modern China and respect the Chinese consumer.

The crisis has also reinforced to us the huge value of a more curated model because there is too much stuff in the system and it really isn’t helping anyone. If after this, we see brands taking new approaches to how they want to show their collections and when they show, that is a good thing. If you look at luxury and craft, the product is ready when it is ready and should be shipped when it is ready. We should look at having the very best product when it is available and not at how we fill floors of department stores and get as much product on marketplaces. Product needs more time to be considered, to be creatively incubated and more time to be produced. The idea of pre- and cruise collections and diffusions and runway shows — all of this stuff… it’s not what we really need.

Andrew Keith is the president of Lane Crawford and Joyce.

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The views expressed in ‘From The Community’ notes are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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