Q&A: Mikkel Grene, chief executive of Søstrene Grene
Here we catch up with Mikkel Grene, chief executive of Danish homewares retailer Søstrene Grene, about the history and philosophy of the family-owned brand, and its plans to expand in the UK. The retailer is a household name in Europe with nearly 270 stores.
What does Søstrene Grene mean and what was the inspiration behind the name?
The words Søstrene Grene are Danish and mean the Grene sisters. Grene is our family name.
Søstrene refers to the two hosts, sisters Anna and Clara, who represent the company and concept, and were inspired by my mother’s two aunts. While Anna is the creative sister with a highly developed sense of aesthetics, Clara is more practical and orderly. Together, they represent the diverse experience that Søstrene Grene offers. Occasionally, ‘Grene’ has erroneously been translated into ‘Green’ in English, but Grene is in fact a family name.
Can you tell us about your parents Inger and Knud and why they set the business up?
My parents were ahead of their time when they launched a store with a self-service concept in Aarhus in 1973. While my mother gained her business sense and negotiation skills whilst growing up in Skjern in the west of Jutland, where her father was a business owner, my father had a background as a ballet instructor. From this came the inspiration for many elements of the Søstrene Grene concept we know today. For example, the classical music in the speakers, the dark walls like the setting in a theatre, and the active staging of products with the use of lighting to create a cosy atmosphere.
To keep costs for the budget market low, the store displays were built from reclaimed wooden boxes that were previously used to deliver dates and figs to the store. These boxes have since become the inspiration for the classic, raw wooden boxes that are central to the interior decoration of all Søstrene Grene shops today.
In its 50th anniversary year, the company is still family owned with you as chief executive. How has the company developed over the years and what has your own journey been?
I take great pride in the fact that we are a family-owned and operated company after all these years, growing stronger year-by-year and still managing to stay independent. It enables us to think really long term and to operate Søstrene Grene according to our core values . We can also create a very unique and strong culture which we call the “Sisters Spirit”.
It means a lot to me that staff members (who we refer to as ”Sisters”) feel a certain connection to the company and regard their work as much more than a job – some even say it feels like being part of a family and that working with us is a lifestyle.
I always try to look ahead and think about how retail will have progressed three years from now and I stay close enough to our customers to understand how they develop over time. I also try to understand what they will need from us in the future and how we can stay relevant and attractive to them years from now. As “ever-changing” is one of our core values, we are always looking ahead to new ventures.
With our strong legacy and culture, it is important for us to stay open-minded, curious and to understand the changes that the world is undergoing. We retain many of the great elements of our original concept, which goes back 50 years – but at the same time we are undergoing a massive transformation, especially with regard to digitalisation, ESG, the future of retail, and AI. I usually put it this way: “we are constantly changing what we are – but not who we are”.
On top of that, we are accelerating expansion of physical stores to bring the wonderful universe of Anna and Clara to more customers – we had 60 million visitors to our stores last year. Our UK goal is to go from 14 to 60 shops by 2027. In addition, we are expanding our online store and assortment, and we expect to be able to open web shops in five additional European markets within the next year. We also expect to double our ecommerce turnover over the next two years.
I took over as chief executive 11 years ago when we only had stores in Denmark, Norway and Iceland. Today our turnover is 10 times higher than back then and we have close to 270 stores across 16 countries. A lot has happened since the company grew from being just the family and a few employees in an office and warehouse to having thousands of staff members – but it still feels like Søstrene Grene.
I am so proud to be able to continue my parents’ legacy, not least with my brother and creative director, Cresten, who works alongside me as co-owner.
We are particularly interested in your store concept. Can you tell us more about that?
As a retail concept, Søstrene Grene is characterised by the exquisite and creative store experience that appeals to the senses. The labyrinth of aisles, pleasant lighting, classical music and the smell of untreated wooden crates creates a unique experience for anyone who enters the store. Our product displays aim to inspire customers’ creativity as they make new finds and set their imagination free. New products land on the shelves every week, making every visit feel like a treasure hunt for great products. In addition, all Søstrene Grene stores include the characteristic storytelling signs about the two characters, Anna and Clara.
Søstrene Grene is more of a household name across Europe and now has big plans for expansion in the UK. What makes the the country an attractive market for you?
We have been very well received by the UK customers in our current stores. Therefore, we see huge potential for expanding our store concept to more areas as we look to invite customers to immerse themselves in Anna and Clara’s wonderful, aesthetically pleasing world. We are eager to expand both in the larger cities and in smaller corners of the country. Due to our presence in some of the largest markets in Europe such as France and Germany, it gives us great confidence to continue this expansion in the UK.
How do your source your ranges?
Søstrene Grene’s products are made by suppliers, primarily in Europe and Asia. It is important to us that production takes place under proper conditions, with respect for people and the environment, and in compliance with international law. We work with third-party auditors at our suppliers’ factories and follow this up with our own inspection. This is performed by our employees in our country office in Shanghai.
Can you tell us more about your sustainability and responsibility initiatives?
At Søstrene Grene, we continue to invest heavily in the sustainability agenda. We have phased out several single-use plastic products and will also phase out products in the future, if they do not fit our strategy to secure more circularity in our product range. We also have a goal to use as little product packaging as possible. We are continuously working, product by product, to reduce packaging. We are also mapping our CO2 footprint in the entire value chain, so we can see where we can create the biggest reduction. In general, we are working step-by-step towards creating a product range with as little climate impact as possible.
Can you tell us about any customer trends at Søstrene Grene and how you keep your customers engaged?
We are very focused on delivering the same experience to our customers offline and online and we try to tie these experiences in together. Last year, we launched a Søstrene Grene app which is a universe of free content that inspires our customers to add more creativity to their lives. There are no deals or special offers as this is not part of our concept, but it offers craft guides, interviews and lots of home décor inspiration, as well as the option to shop within the app. This is one of the many ways that we try to keep our customers engaged. We also arrange in-store events where customers can participate in various creative projects.
We understand that Søstrene Grene is in the middle of a digital transformation. Can you tell us more about that?
We opened our first online shop in late March 2020 and currently have online shops in 11 markets. We are very proud of this rapid expansion because it shows how great teamwork can achieve great results. We are of course looking to open an online shop in the UK, and will also be working to offer our UK customers access to the app.
What do you foresee as being the major challenges and opportunities for the business over the next few years?
I see some exciting opportunities to increase our market shares and a crisis is always an opportunity to advance innovation and business development. This will help us to ensure that the world of Søstrene Grene is still attractive and relevant to our customers in 50 years time. We must continue to innovate both digitally and in our physical stores. At the same time, a significant task lies ahead of us in implementing our comprehensive responsibility strategy, a field where much is happening.