From launching Australia’s first ever online store to bringing Topshop back from near extinction, Prue Thomas has established herself as a retail marketing superstar. Marketing sits down with her to discuss how she helped push the retail industry into the digital era.
Prue Thomas kicked off her career as a shopgirl at UK department store, Selfridges. Her time there saw Thomas travel all over the world, rubbing shoulders with international celebrities like Bill and Hillary Clinton and spending the week with Kylie Minogue. Her marketing journey began when she was given a “ridiculous budget” to put together the celebrity program for the UK department store at the tender age of just 21.
“I couldn’t believe that they were empowering me with spending millions of dollars. It was incredible,” she says.
But it hasn’t all been gallivanting around with celebrities and sipping champagne. Thomas has been a pioneer in fighting the digital fight since returning to Australia from the UK six years ago. She started her tertiary education in Brisbane where she “weirdly” dabbled in sports science and physiotherapy, but very quickly realised it just wasn’t the path she was meant to follow.
Just shy of 19, she packed up and left for London, where she landed the job with department store, Selfridges.
“When I moved to London, I very quickly realised that shopping over there was going to become a hobby, so I thought I may as well start earning money where I probably planned on spending the most money – it was actually a very logical choice.”
Thomas started working on the shop floor where she was handed a “really bizarre internship” with the marketing team and was gifted the task of handling all of the Christmas activities within the store over the holiday season.
“Once I had done that, it was basically into the marketing team and the rest was history after that. That’s how I got my start.”
She volunteered a lot, putting her hand up for as many things as she could, a trait Thomas is seeing less and less of now with young up and coming marketers today.
“I could be alienating a huge segment of my demographic here,” she admits. “What I find interesting is that there is no one really putting their hand up for the sake of bettering themselves and experience. It’s all very much, ‘I want to do this,’ but then, ‘If I’m giving you this, I want this.’ For me, it was much more about soul-searching, finding what I wanted to do with my life and quite happily just do it and see what comes of it.”
A fashion marketing and PR role eventually presented itself at Selfridges and Thomas jumped at the chance, explaining it is a little bit like ‘dead man’s shoes’ in an institution like Selfridges, where people have to move on before your can move in.
At the still young age of 24, Thomas then set her sights on the next challenge and decided to start her own business – launching a fashion production company, which she has only recently sold her stake in. She spent two years on the road doing fashion show productions across London, Paris, Milan and New York. It was during this time that Thomas was confronted with some of the steepest challenges in her career.
“The biggest mistake I made, I think, was thinking I could suddenly do everything myself, and failing miserably on some really important kinds of projects. I think you’re only as strong as the teams around you and the people you put around you, and I underestimated the power of collaboration. I wanted it for myself and it was wrong. And ever since [with] any project or any role that I take on, I make sure that all the people around me are either with us on a strategic direction or they’re not. I’m very much a believer that you empower the people around you and you get a better result.”
She soon realised that while owning a business sounded very glamorous, doing her taxes at 11 o’clock at night was “becoming a drag”. So she jumped ship, and landed on the steps of Topshop.
For the best part of the next six years, Thomas was at the helm of the Topshop revolution, relaunching a brand that was, at the time, floundering with an outdated image and flailing profit margin.
“We saw this big beast of a brand turn really quite quickly. We didn’t realise how small the changes had to be to turn that business around. It went from a business [where] girls would go into Topshop to just get their sparkly top for a Saturday night, but they were forever saying, ‘The quality is shit, the store is shit, the brand experience is terrible.’ And then we just did these few tweaks and started positioning ourselves quite differently. We had nothing to lose. The brand was not performing. And that was only 11 years ago.”
It took a baby and a burglary for Thomas to make the decision to finally leave Topshop, after spending over half a decade repositioning an ailing brand into one of the strongest retail commodities both in the UK and around the world.
“I came home to nest [after having her first child] and got sick of being burgled in London, and knew it was time for a change. I knew that I was never going to be the Mother Earth, stay-at-home mum, so, as soon as we landed here, I very much threw myself into looking for a position,” she says.
But this time a dream role didn’t just fall into her lap. After a stint at David Jones, it took Thomas a good two years to land the right role, when she started working at Sportsgirl.
“It was the only brand that, I think, I got to go in and innovate, so it was almost a relief. From my perspective, Australian retailers have really found themselves having to play catch-up, and are genuinely shocked that they’re having to play catch-up.
“The biggest change and improvement you can make is educating all internal stakeholders – which should not be underestimated. You can’t execute change and lead a digital battle if the troops aren’t with you!”
During her time at Sportsgirl Thomas was responsible for creating Australia’s very first online retail site. She attributes the digital success of Sportsgirl to the brand’s management, who trusted her enough to experiment with various digital ideas, paving the way for the brand to innovate consistently.
“Sportsgirl’s CEO Elle Roseby, I would still count as one of the most respected people I’ve had the pleasure of working for. She just let me run with it. She didn’t particularly understand where it was going or what it was doing; she just had this feeling that it was absolutely right,” says Thomas.
Another highlight was launching the first ‘augmented reality magazine’ that was able to come to life in shop windows and the first QR coded shop windows for Sportsgirl in 2012, pipping Woolworths at the post and taking first position in delivering ‘shoppable windows’.
The idea was borne out of stores that were being refurbished and closed for a period of time. Thomas says the challenge in this was keeping the local customers engaged. To add to this, she then launched the first social media-activated fitting room mirrors, encouraging customers to share their looks with their social media platforms, which led to the most substantial lift in social recruitment for the brand.
Coming full circle, Thomas has now returned to where her digital marketing career first began, as the group marketing director of Topshop and Topman, and Glue Store Australia for retail group Next Athleisure.
The move was just as much about lifestyle as it was about her career, as a move to Sydney was on the cards. “The surf in Melbourne just wasn’t cutting it,” she explains.
Topshop had been courting Thomas for almost two years when she finally agreed to make the move, during which time she spent 10 months as senior marketing manager at online fashion brand Asos. Before that, the timing wasn’t quite right, but eventually the brand director for Topshop, Mary Homer, “just kind of made it too exciting,” says Thomas.
“They made the offer too irresistible, and have basically given me a fantastic brief to drive this business in Australia, and I actually really like a challenge as well. Asos was kicking over so well, I was missing that kind of ‘I’ve got to fix something’ [feeling]. I didn’t have that ‘fix it’ kind of job to do with Asos, because it was just trading so well. So, for me, I came into this business and Topshop and Topman are just absolutely flying, but the Glue Store business really presents an interesting challenge for me.”
Her view on the Australian market is that it was taken by surprise by how quickly the game changed and retailers always expected the customer to, “just do what they did”.
“I saw it play out in the UK, but there was a real tipping point, probably about 10 years ago, suddenly, when what we were doing wasn’t enough. It surprised me that when I came back to Australia the attitude was, ‘We’re too far away from the UK for it to matter’, which was an odd thing for me to hear.”
The other thing she keeps “banging on about in board meetings” is brands having a large footprint when their retail footprint isn’t working.
“Why wouldn’t you consolidate your stores and develop a strategy that lets your brand live in the best way possible? So, instead of having 70 stores, why not halve that and develop an exciting strategy? And if people can’t get to [say] six flagships, then you make your online experience incredible. And I think if I had a hand in changing the way we do business over the next however many years that would be one of the predictions from my perspective.”
Thomas also predicts the future of Australian retail is now in the hands of the consumer, and the deluge of data and information will only serve to help retailers if they are switched on enough to pay attention.
“We have empowered them to almost dictate the role, which I actually think is a really exciting place to be. I know that a lot of people are probably a bit nervous about that. I don’t think ever have retailers had this much feedback, technology and knowledge, that lets them understand their customers so well. So there’s kind of nowhere for brands to hide and [no] excuses really. It genuinely excites me. I think it’s a really exciting place to be – that your customer is defining what their experience has to be. And that’s pretty wonderful.”