Aussie apparel brand Cotton On is as much about fun-fashion as it is about fast-fashion. The Geelong, Victoria-based brand operates more stores in the United States (124) than Zara and Uniqlo combined, and is an international behemoth with more than 1,300 stores operating globally under 10 different banners, including the 522-unit Cotton On, Cotton Body, Cotton On Kids, FREE by Cotton On and Rubi Shoes.
Growth has been fast and strategic, but peppered with humor, optimism and the occasional dose of controversy. Overseas, Cotton On makes headlines for suggestive or controversial slogans, garners press for unorthodox expansion strategies and pushes its message through strong social media tactics. While the brand may be a little quieter here in the United States, the Aussie optimism and sense of fun are still in full view.
Chain Store Age senior editor Katherine Boccaccio talked with Cotton On general manager Felicity McGahan about the company’s unique approach to expansion — focusing on opening stores in smaller cities or outside major shopping districts as opposed to establishing large flagships in big markets — and how it plans to play to the American consumer.
In short, what is the Cotton On story?
Cotton On was founded in 1991 by Nigel Austin, a young 20-something guy from Geelong, who got his start by selling denim jackets out of his car at the local markets. Now, Cotton On is in 17 countries around the world. Nigel still owns the business and is very actively involved in the day-to-day of all aspects of the business.
We like to think that we are exporting the quintessential Australian optimism and positivity around the world, wherever our Cotton On stores are. We offer effortlessly cool and quality on-trend fashion — what everyone wants to wear now — at the best price. We’re a very relaxed and laid-back brand, which is reflective of the Australian lifestyle. We are committed to creating a healthy and balanced workplace; in our Geelong headquarters, we have a “bring your dog to work” policy, a gym with personal trainers and a cafe with a focus on healthy food on-site.
Our customers want the must-have fashion and they want it at a great price, and that’s what we deliver. With monthly seasonal in-store drops, our product is always new and fresh, and we can keep up with the latest trend and what’s hot now and make it accessible for our customer.
How does your real estate strategy differ from others in the fast-fashion space?
We already have more than 100 stores in the United States, and we plan to grow organically as the brand gains recognition. Our strategy is significantly different than others in the same space. We haven’t been the brand to open a flagship in the main shopping districts and put a multimillion dollar marketing push behind it. We’ve entered markets that make sense for our customer. Many of our shoppers are exposed to the brand via social rather than traditional marketing and advertising channels.
How does Cotton On differentiate itself from competitors?
Cotton On is proudly an Australian brand, and our products reflect the Australian lifestyle. We offer the latest on-trend styles that everyone wants, at an accessible price point. We like to think that we’re taking our Australian effortlessly cool style to our customers all around the globe.
How would you describe the company culture?
We pride ourselves on being positive and optimistic, yet in true Aussie style, we’re also hard working, and we’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and work hard on any project. The company culture still feels very much like a family business.
What is your typical store footprint?
It is hard to define a typical store footprint, as our stores can vary from 150 square meters (1,614 sq. ft.) to up to 2,000 square meters (21,528 sq. ft.) for our multi-branded mega concept stores (which showcase a mix of our Cotton On Group brands).
In the United States, our typical store footprint is about 2,100 sq. ft. to 2,600 sq. ft. However, our average typical footprint is growing as we start shifting from small stand-alone stores to large-format stores.
What key design elements underscore the Cotton On brand?
We always ensure our stores are open with bright shopfronts, to reflect the brand’s optimism and make them feel more inviting. We start with a clean base with a mix of brick, wood and concrete finishes, which allows our visual-merchandising set-ups to be dominant, bold, confident and colorful. We also always try to maintain a balance in our store environment between the Aussie relaxed style, with modern on-trend updates.
How important is technology to Cotton On’s success?
Technology is a very important tool for us to ensure we can remain successful in the retail world. We’re always looking for new technology, which will allow us to engage with our customers in different ways. We always want to remain customer-focused, and technology allows our customer to dictate when and how they want to interact with us — so we must always be implementing fun and engaging initiatives (such as our app and our recently launched Augmented Reality window campaign) to make sure we achieve this.
Digital and social also play a huge role in the way we share content, reach our customers and engage on new levels. We have established some brilliant relationships with key fashion bloggers from around the world who can connect with our customers and help share our brand story.
Technology also provides us new ways to engage with our customers in-store too, with the introduction of digital screens in some locations.
The opportunities that technology brings are limitless, and we’re very excited and committed to staying on top of these advances to ensure we’re always engaging with our customers in new ways.
How would you describe your leadership style, and who has most influenced how you lead?
Our leadership style is modeled on six pillars: resilience, integrity, results-driven, resourceful, inspiring and visionary, and I would like to think I lead in a way that reflects these characteristics. I am extremely fortunate to be mentored and inspired by our founder and owner Nigel Austin. He is an extraordinary leader, and every day I learn something new from him. He constantly inspires and challenges me (and many others in our business), and he has certainly influenced the way I lead my team.