Interview: James Kearns, managing director of TM Lewin
Here we talk to James Kearns, managing director of TM Lewin, about the company’s relaunch and his plans for the long-term success of the TM Lewin brand.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your career in retail
A proud Londoner, I was the first in my family to go to university where I read history at the University of London. My mother was a nurse in the NHS and father a builder in the construction industry; my two siblings would agree, they weren’t best placed to advise on the world of academia and subsequent career paths!
As I got older though, I realised that they gave me something much richer; their years of hard-work, team-work, and gritty determination to succeed, are the virtues that have driven my career and philosophy towards business. I sincerely believe that you can’t succeed unless you start with colleagues and customers. I am passionate about developing quality clothing that is built to last; and equally, on delivering excellent customer experience across every brand touch-point.
Through my career, I have seen technological advances revolutionise the retail landscape; while this continues to be exciting and customer accretive, I steadfastly believe that the old principles of good shop-keeping remain the key to success.
TM Lewin has now relaunched as an online business following its entry into administration and its purchase by new owners…
It was a privilege to relaunch TM Lewin in May 2022 – our talented team worked incredibly hard to return to market as quickly as possible. Thank-you to all of our customers for their patience, and for their many messages of support. With the long-term support of our new owners, we are committed to re-establishing TM Lewin as the destination for quality workwear and stylish occasion wear.
How will you use your experiences gained at retailers such as Boden, Tesco and Marks & Spencer to make the business a success?
The commonality that knits these retailers together is that they were laser-targeted on who their customer is, they were highly strategic and ruthlessly commercial. These components help lay the foundations for what we believe will be one of the greatest transformations in recent British retail history.
What are your top tips for developing a successful online business?
Such are the improvements in commerce platforms in recent years, the barriers to entry in terms of establishing a digital operation have drastically reduced; however, these improvements in the ease and accessibility of commoditised products has led to an explosion in competition, with more merchants than ever. To simplify, while it has never been easier to launch a digital operation it has perhaps never been as hard to do so profitably over the long-term.
Therefore, in terms of “top tips” for establishing a successful online business, my view is that it is incredibly important do the following: 1) offer a differentiated proposition – i.e. why should consumers choose your brand? What makes your brand special and /or relevant? 2) get the basics right – great product, excellent service, every time 3) build a community – good product alone isn’t enough in today’s world. What does your brand stand for? How do you drive cut-through? Your brand’s purpose should exist in everything your organisation does, internal + external 4) commerciality – work smart, spend every £ as though it were your own, and ensure that the basket economics are fundamentally workable for long-term success.
We understand that TM Lewin will also be making a return to physical stores. Can you tell us more about your plans on that front?
It is very much our intention to re-establish physical stores in selected locations with time; consumers live in an omnichannel world and this is perhaps most relevant for our customers who value service propositions such as styling and fit advice. Our immediate priority is to rebuild the digital business, but physical formats are very much part of our strategic roadmap too.
We’ve heard that you’re passionate about data and have recently completed a Masters in Data Science. Why is it important that you have such an in-depth understanding of data?
Data is central to optimising performance across almost all verticals; as the maxim goes, “without data, it is just another opinion”. From an ecommerce perspective, there is a wealth of rich data to utilise from web clickstream data through to transactional information which helps unlock shopping behaviours and basket composition insights. Smart data mining techniques are the most effective ways of listening to customers and improving their experiences; whether it’s sentiment analysis through social mediums, or machine learning methods that enable improved forecasting accuracy to aid operations – formulating a data strategy is critical to success in today’s competitive retail world.
I took on the challenge of completing a Masters in Data Science given this importance; but also because of what I see as a widening knowledge gap in terms of specialists vs generalists which is leading to frustration and stalemate on both sides. I’d highly recommend that more commercial leaders upskill in data mining and specialist techniques to help ask the right questions and better utilise their data and analytics resources.
How is the business adapting to the new trading environment following the pandemic, particularly for formalwear retailers?
Since relaunch, we’ve seen plenty of room for optimism in terms of the new trading environment. Although it isn’t true for everyone or everywhere, there is evidence that there are significant segments of consumers who want to return to business as usual, which includes formal attire. Overlay onto this a peak year for weddings/occasions, together with pent-up demand for TM Lewin product(s) given our recent absence. As a result, we are encouraged by recent trading patterns. Of course, there are market headwinds that will present challenges, but to help de-risk the business, we shall diversify the platforms and territories we operate in, as well as the product categories we offer.
How do you foster loyalty amongst customers and keep them engaged?
Customers come back when they’re delighted with the products and services they receive. At TM Lewin, we’re proud of our expertise in curating quality products sourced from the finest fabrics cut with precision; this helps us deliver quality products that fit perfectly, driving resulting customer loyalty.
We also strive to talk to our customers in an engaging way through the content that we produce and the partnerships we develop – for instance, we recently gifted stock to a charity that helps vulnerable people dress well for job interviews. A great cause, but also an area we know that our conscious customers care about!
Of course, we don’t get everything right – for various reasons, it has taken longer than it should have for customers to receive refunds for returned item(s). We’ve worked very hard to resolve these issues and whenever problems do occur, our position is always one of openness and transparency. These are our values. This was demonstrated recently when we issued a handwritten apology mail from the Managing Director to customers impacted by delayed refunds.
What is TM Lewin doing regarding sustainability?
We are passionate about developing products that are built to last; the most valuable change apparel consumers can make to shift towards a more sustainable world is to ‘buy once and buy well’. Alongside this, we work with selected suppliers whose sustainability record is excellent. They pay fair wages, use eco-friendly and safe materials with the minimum usage of natural resources, and utilise solar energy in the manufacturing process.
We hold our supply base to account with regular visits from the UK. We also use alternatives to plastic in our packaging through recyclable card. Despite this, we understand the drag that the apparel and textiles industry has on resources, and acknowledge that we need to do more and move faster. From more natural fibres through to a fully traceable supply chain, improved sustainability is one of our business priorities.
What are the major challenges and opportunities you see for the business in the next couple of years?
There’s lots of important opportunities for us to get after; we are starting by rigorously ‘fixing the basics’ including restoring core availability and delivering exceptional customer service. In parallel, we are busy engaging our supply base with new product development as we look to improve our assortment and stay relevant through new trends and styling. Beyond this, we need to improve our service propositions with an improved selection of delivery and returns options, as well as alterations and exchange options.
With time, we shall also venture into new global territories and open physical formats. Of course, there are market tailwinds to face into – manufacturing and supply chain costs are increasing, and consuming expectations around price and promotions place a strain on the bottom-line. We shall leverage the best in TM Lewin’s rich history to offer a differentiated proposition, and are incredibly excited to relaunch this brand in a way that delights our customers for long-term success.
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