Value Retail’s Desirée Bollier on what makes it - and Bicester Village - unique
The are few greater success stories in fashion than Value Retail, and its crowning glory is Bicester Village, the luxury outlet in Oxfordshire, which is almost certainly the highest performing shopping destination in terms of sales per square foot anywhere on the planet. This weekend, the village unveiled its latest expansion – adding 25,000 square foot more, and launching boutiques for labels like Roksanda, Anya Hindmarch, Dunhill and Charlotte Tilbury.
Founded in 1992, Value Retail owns 11 villages worldwide, including La Vallée near Paris and its two newest units that are in China. Privately held, it does not release financial results, but its annual turnover topped €2.8 billion last year. It has around a score of different shareholders including the founding team, institutional funds and private investors and a sample of each sits on its board.
Its founder and CEO is Scott Malkin, the son of the real estate investor who owned the Empire State Building. But on the boutique floors, its most dynamic executive is Lebanese-Swiss Desirée Bollier. She was born in Lebanon, but studied in a Paris Lycée and studied law at the Sorbonne. While married to a “Swiss genius” in Boston, she began working for Ann Taylor’s multi-brand operation in that city, before taking over Ann Taylor’s 57th street New York flagship, managing product development, merchandising, shop floor development, and windows. Subsequently, Ralph Lauren hired her, and she stayed there for 14 years, before joining Value Retail in 2001. Today, Bollier sits on Value Retail’s main board, and most tellingly is the group’s chief global merchant, be it in China, Europe, UK and Ireland.
We caught up with her to find out what makes Value Retail so special, and how it has elevated its villages into luxury shopping experiences, light years away from the old image of a discount mall as a brand’s dirty little, illegitimate secret. Instead, Bicester boasts uber brands like Prada, Gucci, Dior and Céline; swish little food trucks, jazz and blues musicians playing live on its cobblestone streets; clean park benches with warm plaid throws; a Contemplation Room and, next up, London’s legendary Wolseley restaurant that will open there in May 2018.
How did Bicester emerge?
When we first came here it was a field full of sheep and cows. And we said this is going to be the next Rodeo Drive. The bankers thought we were mad. Today, and I am being humble when I say this, Bicester is the number one shopping destination in the world when it comes to productivity.
What’s the core DNA of Value Retail?
We have never thought of our villages as an outlet or shopping centre or outlet park. It’s extremely important to brands that we are creating a luxury-shopping destination.
What has gone wrong with the department store model?
The US department stores took their customer for granted. They all say that digital was their worst enemy. Not at all, they were their own worst enemy. 10 years ago they decided profitability would be their own guide, instead of listening to their customer they were ruled by accountants. They had nobody on the shop floor to help you; not even to take your money. Hence the sameness became mundane. When I joined Scott Malkin at Value Retail, we wanted to shift the paradigm of perception from an outlet that has the stigma of being cheap to something that would emulate Beverly Hills, since the Spanish Steps of Rodeo Drive was one of Scott’s projects.
How important is choosing the right location?
The location was very strategic. The connectivity of the space: We have our own train stop; a major highway and Heathrow is quite close! This is a wealthy area full of castles and restaurants to discover. Oxford is 20 minutes away. The location determines everything. It has to be a destination.
What is your typical deal with a luxury brand?
After 20 years, Bicester, La Rocca (Spain) and La Vallée (France) have become very important revenue drivers for many brands and key parts of their business strategy. Our model is based on a percentage of sales; rent and, of course, some service charge.
What staff training do you provide?
We have created specific training modules with the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne that combine retail with hospitality, as part of a prerequisite to work here. We just did three months of training, with 380 sessions covering staff. My instinct is that ‘sales people’ should not think of them selves as sales people, but as butlers and concierges.
Which new brands really excite you?
You will always have niche brands that sizzle. They are our beacons of fashion, like Christopher Kane or Roksanda; and we have labels like Bamford or Acne, with their first ever outlet. But the key is to have a mix of great fashion labels, together with niche and the right high street brands.
What are your sales per square foot?
This year? £3,950! La Vallée is about €2,500 per square foot. Breakeven is not how we look at it. But for many brands it would be €500 per square foot. In America, any successful shipping mall gloats when they produce $500.
Dressed when we meet dressed in a Roksanda, tulip-sleeved black top, Bottega Veneta pants and Manolo Blahnik heels, Bollier visits China every month. How is China performing?
Extremely well. Just last week Suzhou Village became the number one travel destination on Dianping, the Trip Advisor of China, out of 1,500 destinations. Sounds bloody good! Footfall was on average 22,000 to 25,000 per day. The top brands were scoring €900 per consumer, which is really, really pleasing. And we are breaking ground for phase two probably by June next year.
What was the key in convincing luxury brands that they should be in your villages?
The quality of our clientele. Basta! That summarises us. Because if our clientele is qualitative then we match what the brand wants. Chinese shoppers, especially, discover brands through us. There are two categories of tour operators from China: minivan luxury and short-and-T-Shirt consumer, who has a backpack and is getting off the bus to take a picture. The latter is not our target. The former is. On average, tourists account for 40% of our revenues. Though in the summer it is more like 50/50.
What brands do you lack?
Not yet Chanel, but don’t you see Chanel selling very well in this context? Louis Vuitton, not yet. And Hermès… those are the only three brands we don’t have. But we have Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Brioni and Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Burberry, so we don’t do badly.
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