Executive Insights: Alessandro Maria Ferreri by Cheryl Chu

The CEO of The Style Gate shares his perspective on a new vision for the fashion retail industry as well as the key attributes needed to manage a brand.

As the retail and luxury markets experience sweeping change, the c-suite at many fashion companies is also undergoing a transformation with executives and creative directors departing, being replaced or going o to launch their own businesses.
Amid these changes, there are executives who are navigating the challenges of the current market by innovating, taking chances and deploying market intelligence strategies aimed at building business. With over two decades of management expertise working with the industry’s top brands, Alessandro Maria Ferreri is considered a leader in this approach.
Over the past two years, he has dedicated himself as a Strategic Advisor to luxury brands, helping them to achieve success by strengthening their market positions. Here, Ferreri discusses current trends and what it takes to thrive in a di cult market.

WWD: Mr. Ferreri, how do you see luxury retail today, and what is the advice that you’d give your clients?

AMF: We’re witnessing an epochal crisis of the traditional “brick and mortar” stores and the apparent inability on the part of the brands to marry the online and offline experience. Assuming the focus of attention should shift from simple transaction to participation, I think that a more engaging and entertaining consumer experience can be created through the merchandise display and sales associates – the only two things that distinguish physical stores from online ones.

Merchandise display: the word “store” comes from “storage”, and for many brands, a brick-and-mortar shop is still a place where the goods are nicely displayed like in a chic warehouse. To revolutionize the shop concept, you have to think like a psychologist rather than an architect. I always advise my clients to think about the “experience per square foot”: time is the new luxury for the modern-day customers who want the highest possible return on the investment of their time during the in-store experience. So, you need to give them a good reason to go into your store. This leads to a study of “every square foot” of the space that can revolutionize consumer circulation at a point of sale. For example, one of the new trends (as seen at Apple or Saint Laurent) is changing the shop configuration, a concept which I love: instead of having products surround the consumer, it is the consumer who has to walk around the products. Of course, this needs a lot more space and space is costly to have. However, we can re-design the customers’ route inside the store, deciding what they should see and when, once we are freed from the limits of physical space and from the need to place the products along the walls. The possibility of having the consumer walk around the product lets us create alternative routes based on their buying potential or desires; or change the look and layout of the point of sale, such as moving shelves or altering setups, so that the consumer experience can evolve continuously.

Sales associates: needless to say, training is fundamental in order to have a high-performing team. But it is important to understand the main Key Performance Indicators and the relative forms of remuneration for the personnel. I myself am rather against commissions of the total sale. The team needs to have a clear idea on the margin of every single merchandise category and be instructed on the positive or negative dynamics that trigger certain cross-selling mechanisms: sales target met does not necessarily mean a very good margin. The team might have inadvertently created logistics or merchandise issues, or even cause a return from the client, who, once home, may realize that s/he is not satisfied of the purchase. In addition, brands should develop their retail staff like true ambassadors, by qualifying and quantifying (eventually use this as reward) the experience that they deliver, the consequent downstream sales impact that they make, no matter where the actual purchases will be done: I can have a great experience in store due to a very charismatic and well-trained sales assistant, but leave without purchasing, then decide to go ahead with my purchase on the brand’s website after I get home.

WWD: While discussing this article, you also talked about the characteristics which the new luxury manager should have. Could you tell us about that?

AMF: Well, as a matter of fact, I just read a very good article here on WWD recently, in which a number of luxury head hunting gurus such as Caroline Pill, Antoinette Lemens and Karen Karvey – all professionals whom I admire a lot – describe their vision of the ideal top fashion manager.

I absolutely agree and have been advocating for some time that a CEO has to work more like an orchestra conductor who knows how to play every instrument of the musicians that he is conducting. This does not mean that he has to play a specific instrument better than the musician himself. I, for example, have never had any problem hiring collaborators who are better than me in certain skills; I welcome the opportunity! Knowing that my collaborator is an expert in his specific field gives me a great deal of confidence and security, which allows me to delegate 100 per cent and be able to dedicate myself elsewhere.

However, further to the profiles described by Mrs. Pill or Mrs. Lemens, I’d outline several more qualities that today’s manager should have. In addition to the hard skills which are usually presented during the process of recruitment, it is my fundamental belief that the 4.0 managers should also develop what I call “soft skills”. What I mean is of course an individual’s capacity for team-building, stress management and delegation skills. But over and above these, the companies also need managers who are:

  • Connected: it is fundamental for a manager to stay “online” with his company, ideally via social media. This assumes that the company organization facilitates such a connection, which seems like a blasphemy to state, since most companies do not allow the use of Facebook or Instagram on the job. But let’s imagine that a company is so forward-thinking as to substitute flawed intranets with a smarter, customized use of social media. Since it is one of the existing platforms on which the company talks to its clients and the world, and that almost every employee has a Facebook or Instagram account, why not use social media for internal communications? How many possibilities would open up simply through team-building, assessment/induction, while reading up on daily news or travel policy (where e-books could even be replaced with engaging imagery)? Not to mention private communities where think tanks can be created for new projects, along with Instagram accounts where managers can post and share photos from client visits or competitor products during market surveys.
  • Assertive and creative: Nowadays, faced with the system’s rapidly-changing reality, brands no long make 5-year plans, but 6-month ones. To survive, a company needs to be flexible and constantly innovate. As a result, the managers also need to be keen observers, have their ear on the ground, and above all, never take any strategy for granted. They are who I’d call “assertive creatives”: they don’t stop at the first solution which they find, they aren’t ‘yes’ men who just go down the best path which they think they have identified. Instead, they have the courage to dig deeper and show it to those who then make the final strategic decisions. Of course, having the right company culture helps, so does having capable leaders, and once those come together, the result can be amazing.

WWD: What does Alessandro Maria Ferreri envision five years from now, and what advice would you give to top managers who want to take their careers into their own hands?

AMF: In order to keep up with the changes in the world of luxury, I have decided that I will no longer make 5-year plans either, but those for six months or a year. I’m really glad about it, because, contrary to what one might believe, my clients are truly listening to me as their strategic advisor, compared to their internal managers. But I won’t rule out going back to a company, if it is worthwhile and with an enlightened interlocutor. In fact, this is exactly the advice which I’d like to give my top manager colleagues: whether they want to take on a career as a freelance professional or a company CEO, they should always choose “whom to work with”, rather than “which brand to work with”. A brand cannot be the best forever. It will inevitably suffer downturns and the consequences, but the people who work for them and with them are the ones who will make a real difference.