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Interview: Gymshark’s Ben Francis – ‘I want it to be iconic all around the world’

Interview: Gymshark’s Ben Francis – ‘I want it to be iconic all around the world’

Since launching in 2012, Gymshark has captured the hearts, minds and wallets of fitness obsessed consumers across the globe with its practical products and community-centric approach.

As the gymwear giant prepares to open its second store in Westfield Stratford this weekend, CEO Ben Francis speaks to Retail Gazette on his expansion plans as he looks to make Gymshark “a globally iconic brand”.

Learnings from its first store

Gymshark first entered the world of bricks and mortar back in 2022 when it opened the doors to its highly anticipated Regent Street store.

The much-hyped store has garnered results.

Francis says: “I’ve been blown away by how well it’s done, both in terms of the commercial performance of the store, but when you add on the events that we’ve run and the community that we’ve been able to build, and the people that have gone in and purchased in the store before purchasing online as well.”

Cracking the world of physical retail is no mean feat for the online specialist. “We hadn’t run a store before and we didn’t really know how it would go. It was very much ‘we’ll see how it goes’ and then hopefully we’ll be able to do more  – whereas now Regent Street has been incredibly successful.”

“We’ve learned that the customer loves events, and they love to be able to touch and feel the product and try the product on which is great as well.”

 

As the brand readies to open its Westfield Stratford City store this weekend, Francis explains that much like Gymshark Regent Street, its new store will house specific events in the space – from athlete meet and greets to activations.

“It’s a slightly different shopping experience to Regent Street. This is a smaller, more shopping focused and more product focused space”, which he says will enable it to highlight different product ranges.

Store expansion

It comes as no surprise that Gymshark is looking to open more stores on the back of the success of Regent Street – but Francis plans to be picky.

“I want great locations that are in places that our customers are, that really allow us to showcase the brand,” he says. “We are actively looking across the UK, the US, and Europe, but we are committed to finding the right units before we agree to anything.”

He explains that Gymshark will be “unit-led” rather than targeting store numbers or specific locations.

“Rather than saying, ‘We’re going to open a store in Manchester,’ we need a really great unit,” he says.

Internationally, the US is a big focus as it looks to double down on its biggest market.

“We’re actively looking around the world. But again, it’s all about finding that right location. The US is our biggest market and also our biggest opportunity,” Francis explains.

“It’s the biggest fitness market in the world, and our goal is to become a globally iconic British brand. We want to be known not just online but across all facets of the market, and that requires a strategic presence in key locations.”

 

Each new store will be designed to host specific events, and meet-and-greets, ensuring that Gymshark’s community-building efforts are consistent worldwide.

“We want to take learnings from our existing stores but also adapt to local nuances,” Francis says. “In the US, stores might look slightly different due to product or local preferences, but the core experience of community and high-quality products will remain the same.”

However, he says it is “still really focused on the UK”. “We’ve got two stores in the world, both here. Our headquarters is in the UK and there’s no plans on changing that at all. My dream is for us to be a globally iconic very British brand but I want it to be iconic all around the world”.

Digital pioneer Francis, who set up Gymshark as a 19-year old in 2012,  is clearly a convert to the world of stores

He says they help to “really showcase the product”.

“It’s making the product more available, because there’s still a large proportion of customers that don’t shop online. The the fact that someone can walk through this shopping centre (Westfield Stratford) which is one of, if not the busiest shopping centres in the UK, and think ‘I’ve seen Gymshark online, let’s pop in have a look at the product’ – that’s where stores really worked for us.”

With one store open so far, Francis admits that it accounts for a “very, very small” amount of the brand’s sales but he says “it will inevitably be a growing percentage over the next three or four years.”

However, he promises Gymshark is “not going to go and open 50 stores next year”.

The power of community

Since its inception, Gymshark has managed to develop a strong community and culture around its brand, almost reaching cult status.

Francis says events are key to growing that community as it expands, adding that “Gymshark is “really, really focused on the community and the purpose of our brand and our products”.

Last month it launched its new brand platform ‘We Do Gym’ in a bid to “deliberately position” the business as a gym brand first and foremost, setting itself apart from athleisure rivals.

The new platform acts as the foundation for all of its brand and marketing activity for the coming 12 months, specifically designed and named to tell everyone, including existing members of the community, what Gymshark is all about.

Francis explains: “I think the risk of losing that community becomes larger when we overexpand and try be somthing for everyone.

“‘We Do Gym’ is us saying, we’re not going to focus on sportswear, for example, we’re just going to do gym.”

The launch has been met with praise, which Francis calls incredible, because the campaign harks back to the roots of the brand.

“There’s so much temptation to over expand. Expand your product range, expand your brand, expand commercially and by putting these natural constraints on the business by saying this is what we need to be focused on one, it helps us in terms of our allocation of resources internally and focus on being really good at one thing rather than average at lots of things.”

He stresses that it also makes communication to the cusromer “really simple and really easy and people can know what Gymshark stands for within two seconds of seeing it”..

Expanding horizons

Earlier this year, Gymshark officially opened a permanent space in Selfridges in London and Manchester Trafford Centre as the department store became the activewear giant’s first-ever wholesale partner.

The Gymshark spaces, which appear in both the women’s and men’s departments, feature a selection of mainline products, popular best-sellers, and exclusive limited-edition ranges, including its first premium athleisure range.

Francis says: “I think Selfridges is an amazing business. I want this to be a globally iconic British brand and Selfridges is a globally iconic British brand. So partnering with a great brand like Selfridges is only beneficial to both parties”.

He adds that it also gives Gymshark an opportunity to showcase its brand to a slightly different consumer, which he says has “been incredibly successful”.

Earlier this year, the business appointed former Adidas global VP Hannah Mercer to the newly created role of general manager for wholesale and retail.

In her role, Mercer will be responsible for the growth of the business across all physical channels “to represent the best of the brand globally”.

Francis says her appointment ties into its international expansion plans.

“We see a big opportunity for Gymshark to be an omnichannel brand around the world and like i said before, being a globally iconic brand. Globally iconic brands don’t just exist online. They exist in all of the different facets of the market and that’s what we now need to do. Go from being an online brand to a true omnichannel and a global brand.”

Francis is clearly on the right track as the brand that he started in his bedroom at the age of 19 is now valued at $1.45bn. With more stores in more countries on the horizon, that hefty valuation may grow even higher.

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