Business Essentials: Find the right look or shrink to fit: that's the Question Air

The fashion retailer wonders how it can keep expanding without compromising the quality of its service. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

If you're a follower of fashion, you'll know that the upmarket London retailer Question Air is in vogue among celebrities including the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, the supermodel Claudia Schiffer and the Gallagher brothers from rock band Oasis.

If you're a follower of fashion, you'll know that the upmarket London retailer Question Air is in vogue among celebrities including the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, the supermodel Claudia Schiffer and the Gallagher brothers from rock band Oasis.

"We started out as a little shop in Covent Garden 12 years ago and we've now grown to a chain of eight across London," says Dylan Ross, director and buyer at Question Air.

But the business, which stocks collections from designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith and Patrick Cox, has become a victim of its own success.

"As we grow, we're finding it difficult to maintain the exclusive level of service that our clientele demands," he explains.

"As a result, we think we may even have to reduce the number of stores so we can get the business back under control."

He believes the main reason why the control issue is important is that Question Air is a family company - run by Dylan, his mother, father, wife, sister and her family - with a very particular way of working.

"We do things differently to other retailers," he says. "Rather than employing a beautiful young girl with a name badge who looks better in the clothes than you would, we ensure that our employees have character, a sense of fun, are very hands-on at styling customers, and go out of their way to help them.

"It's about a silver service - not in terms of sucking up to the customer but in terms of getting them exactly what they want."

He admits this requires a certain level of commitment that is difficult to find.

"We spend a lot of time working with new employees in the shop to train them and, at first, they seem very motivated. But with many of them, it doesn't last. They don't seem prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the business in the same way that our family is.

"In many ways, I can understand it because, ultimately, it's not their family business. But in other ways, I don't understand why they can't work with the same enthusiasm we would."

The employees who come from well-known retail stores with strict regimes often cause the greatest problems. "They take advantage of our relaxed and flexible way of working," says Dylan. "We have always believed in giving people a lot of responsibility if they show willing, but it may be that we are a bit too free."

Indeed, he admits that the family doesn't come from a background of big business with big ideas.

"It took us several years to become computerised because of the way things have worked in the past," he laughs.

The more the fashion chain grows, the more remote the management of staff becomes. "This is why we feel stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea," says Dylan. "We have now got to a point where we either bring the company back to grass roots to get back the control, or we open up more shops and hand over the control. Taking into account our current success, we have the opportunity to do either."

www.question-air.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Stephen Pegge, head of external communications, Lloyds TSB Business

"Dylan Ross and his team have reached a strategic crossroads and need to determine in which direction they want to head.

"Management control and short-term profitability could be maintained through closing some peripheral outlets and focusing on the more exclusive ranges, allowing them to choose their best staff from across the group.

"One alternative route to growth would be to consider franchising existing and future outlets in cities such as Birmingham and Manchester, while holding on to a few flagship stores in London. This would ensure that expansion could be managed centrally, with the additional benefit that staff would hold a stake in the business's success.

"Other means of motivating staff, such as profit-sharing schemes or recognising the contribution of outstanding performers, could also be introduced.

"There's scope to review recruitment practices by bringing in staff from outside the retail sector, ensuring they have a love of fashion. Unburdened by experiences elsewhere, these people will provide the management team with a clean sheet for induction training."

Rebecca Clake, organisation and resourcing adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"Building a bigger business doesn't have to mean sacrificing a committed workforce. Question Air's vision of a 'silver service', and its willingness to give staff real responsibility, is a great starting point for getting employees to buy into the company.

"If expansion means the family can no longer be so hands-on, it's time to focus on the skills of the supervisors out there in the shops. Making sure frontline managers 'live' the company values, and are able to give support via coaching and regular feedback, will be crucial in team members' willingness to go the extra mile.

"Reviewing the effectiveness of your recruitment process (is large store fashion experience necessary, or are competencies and potential more important?) will help ensure you are best placed to select the most promising future ambassadors for your brand."

Paul Cooper, director, Institute of Customer Service

"It would be a shame to reduce the number of stores just for the control, unless absolutely essential.

"To begin with, Question Air should always hire for attitude, values and potential, and train for skill. After that, investing management time and effort in supporting employees in the right way pays off.

"Try to position a business/service 'champion' within each outlet who becomes a mentor and a key element in employees' personal development. Make sure that the path they can take and the rewards of taking it are easy to see and, most importantly, achievable. Building in trust with the responsibility will help staff buy into, and be a part of, the 'family business'.

"Finally the old adage of 'management by wandering around' is a major asset in a retail environment: work, talk and mix with staff and customers. What else have you got to do that's more important?"

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