Big CEO Interview, Chris Griffin, Anatwine
PUBLISHED: 15:48 06 October 2015 | UPDATED: 15:48 06 October 2015
From creating global nightclubs and music festivals, to pioneering profitable fashion e-commerce, Chris Griffin is now building 'the world's most powerful retail engine'
Despite incredible volumes of sales being made from e-commerce, for years many retailers’ weakest link has been making online selling as efficient and profitable as it could be. A European retailer once complained to me that it would be more cost effective for DHL to sell frocks than a fashion retailer to achieve a profitable e-commerce delivery service, because at least DHL had logistics expertise.
Then Cheltenham-based international retail brand SuperGroup proved the gloom mongers wrong. Instead of shoehorning an e-commerce and logistics strategy into a traditional bricks and mortar retail set up, it established its e-commerce strategy as a stand-alone division, built and run by Chris Griffin. Five years later SuperGroup continues to report phenomenal online growth: 40% growth in online sales this financial year (over 18% of total retail sales), up from less than 1% when Chris set up the division five years ago.
Having established a reputation for delivering e-commerce success, and with itchy career feet, Chris said farewell to SuperGroup and launched new business Anatwine in 2013. With his track record, he had no problem getting some of retail’s biggest global hitters on board. Check out this roster and be impressed: Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, Robert Willett of Best Buy and David Schneider of Zalando. Tucked up here in the lovely Cotswolds, you might not have heard of Zalando, but it’s Europe’s leading online fashion platform. It also recently bought 20% of the Anatwine business because it can spot potential a mile off.
So what does Anatwine do? Put simply it helps retailers and brands sell more of the right stuff.
“My job is to take the world’s best fashion brands and put their products on the world’s best on-line retailers globally,” says Chris. “We build and run the systems to make that happen and standardise the process so they can scale.”
Imagine being a retail buyer having to predict the design, colour and sizes of thousands of the individual branded fashion items you think people will want to buy, months before they appear for sale. Having committed to buying a selection of, say, 50 items from a brand’s T-shirt range, they’re photographed for your e-commerce website and stored in your warehouse. What happens if the exact shapes and sizes you ordered (which seemed perfect for the next season back in January), are suddenly no longer as desirable? The fashion-buying public is notoriously fickle. The media might show someone uncool wearing exactly that design so no one wants to buy it. The result? Excess stock and lower profits.
As Chris says: “A person making a decision to buy something in advance must guess. Some people are very, very good at it, but it’s always going to be a guess.”
But what would happen if buying can be done in a ‘live’ environment? If technology could tell you what was selling and could take those 50 items and guarantee that every one of them would be one of the 50 best sellers.
Anatwine standardises the customer experience and takes live sales data from a brand to identify what is selling where, and when. It anonymises and ranks the information before giving it to a retailer to enable it to create its perfect stock mix.
Such is the power of the Anatwine offer that 175 of the biggest global brands and retailers, from sports to luxury, are signing up. In fact the whole process is so simple that I’m surprised no one thought of doing it years ago.
They undoubtedly have, but what might sound simple requires brands and retailers to standardise the customer proposition across every single touch point. It also requires Chris’s clarity of vision and knowledge, and the very clever statistical and tech-savvy people he’s brought into the company.
For Chris, the role of the retailer is changing. “A retailer is many things but take away its stock mix and it’s about delivering customer experience. The image it expresses, the language it uses to talk to customers, the packaging notes, delivery and returns methods. Customer experience comprises, on average, 120 things for an on-line retailer.” Anatwine calls this the ‘How’. “If we could make every one of those 120 things the same, no matter from where that product was shipped or fulfilled, and we could give the retailer the perfect stock mix, they would have the most powerful retail model in the world.”
After this interview I test his claims. As a new customer I bought two items from Zalando. It was simple. I didn’t pay postage and when the items arrived, everything was there to send them back. In order to test the system from start to finish, I’d planned to return them, but I liked the skirt and top so much I kept them.
Born in Cheltenham, Chris grew up in Cornwall and by 18 was a music promoter in London. In the early 1990s he set up and ran a global chain of nightclubs, including God’s Kitchen. In the summer of 2001 he staged his first outdoor festival, GlobalGathering, with 25,000 partygoers descending on Long Marston Airfield near Stratford-upon-Avon. He owned a nightclub in Las Vegas and organised festivals and clubs all over the UK, Europe, Asia and Malaysia.
“It was a great life for a young man,” he says, but when he was 33 he sold the business. He’s 45 now, and it makes him laugh to think that he considered himself old then.
“For me, that industry felt like a young man’s game. I’d had years travelling the world, having great fun and being paid for it. My then business partner is now running the company, and doing extremely well, as the Hakkasan Group.”
After selling his company he moved back to London, but his heart remained in the Cotswolds. By a stroke of luck his wife, who he met in London, was also from this area and they moved back to bring up their three children.
So how did he come to work with SuperGroup? Apparently he and its founder, Julian Dunkerton, have known each other since teenagers.
After selling his business, Chris had no firm idea what he wanted to do.
“Julian and I chatted about e-commerce and clothing, and specifically how to dispose of excess stock.” It’s well known that SuperGroup doesn’t like to discount and uses designer outlets as a controlled form of discounting.
At that time it was trying to evolve an efficient clearance plan. Chris had had a lot to do with eBay in the US and suggested using it to dispose of clothing. In 2009 he formed a company called 888 Clothing, which bought clearance products off SuperGroup to sell exclusively on eBay. The business went from being a start-up to the largest seller of clothing on eBay in Europe within eight weeks.
Such was its success that SuperGroup bought 888 Clothing from Chris and invited him to join the company as director of e-commerce.
“It was the biggest learning curve of my life,” he said. “We were building systems no one had done before. We launched a local language site in China and were working out how to do logistics when even logistics companies were learning. We launched in Australia, America and created 21 different local languages sites across the world, setting up local returns and efficient distribution methods. We’d chosen to run the e-commerce logistics department through the e-commerce site so these were all my responsibilities. I knew what things cost, how they worked and fit together.
“SuperGroup gave me all the right support and the autonomy to implement and operate a strategy.” Which is? “Keep it simple, make it quick.”
Fast forward a few years and the global carrier network has evolved to move single parcels around the globe cost-effectively. “When I started shipping into Germany from the UK in 2007 it was around £8 for a five day delivery. Now I can move a parcel into Germany for £2.10 in 48 hours,” says Chris.
The future of logistics is e-commerce, he says. “When you have the volume and the competition, you have the price.”
He employs more than 80 people, including some Cambridge graduate ‘geniuses’. “Our office contains the best technical resource I’ve ever seen in one room,” says Chris. “And they are very well looked after. We put 10% of the company into an employee trust so that everyone shares in the business as it grows.”
Could the Anatwine model be adapted for sectors outside fashion? Possibly, but the fashion market is where Chris chooses to sit the business. “It’s better to be the best in the market we’ve chosen.”
He won’t say what the company turnover is, but reports it’s ‘multiple millions’ with annual compounded growth of 2000%, which just means Anatwine has grown very, very quickly.
It’s not enough. Chris is still ambitious. “I want to create the world’s most powerful retail engine. And when we achieve that, I’ll be a happy man.”