Consistency is key to international expansion

This was the message that came through from a number of organisations presenting at the recent Retail Bulletin International Expansion Summit in London who have successfully opened operations overseas.

These include upmarket cycling brand Rapha that is very much an international business with only 25% of its sales derived from the UK. Emilio Foa, CFO at Rapha Racing, told delegates at the event: “For Rapha it is all about the brand. We’re spread across continents but we’re always consistent with the brand.”

Control over the brand is maintained by the fact Rapha products can only be bought direct from the company – from its website and physical stores (known as Clubhouses). “We’re 100% direct to consumer. We’ve full control over the brand and engagement with customers,” he said.

Challenge of keeping control

Keeping control is undoubtedly tougher when dealing with franchisees and joint-venture partners. But ensuring there is sufficient control to deliver a consistent experience for shoppers around the world is still a key objective for WH Smith.

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Louis de Bourgoing, international director at WH Smith, said: “We’re in high footfall locations that are heavily shopped and so brand consistency is the key. We’ve rules to make it consistent and one of these is to have the stores built by the UK team. And we also have a way of coping with busy trade by having replenishment rules. This is vital at 24-hour stores in airports.”

This approach has clearly been beneficial because WH Smith successfully operates stores all around the world – from company-owned outlets in Australia and Singapore Airport, to joint-venture units in Oman, to franchised stores in the likes of India, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

Localising the proposition

Alongside consistency of the brand there is still a need to localise the model. Bourgoing says great effort is made to ensure the book range, for instance, reflects domestic authors: “We don’t just want to sell souvenirs.”

Even with its strong brand ethos, Rapha recognises the need for adopting a dynamic model that enables its outlets to chime with the local market. This is incorporated into its Clubhouses.

Foa said: “We blend the global view with local nuances. We want to have a common tone and DNA but local differences. We’ve not got the same boxes and content cloned. It has to be Rapha – never in a shopping mall – but we want to be different and have local elements.”

Arguably, nowhere in the world is there a greater need to localise than in China. This is why the successful international operators in the market including Amazon have adapted their presence to the Chinese marketplace.

Christine Xu, senior business solutions manager at Webcertain, said part of the problem faced by retailers is down to their lack of understanding of the market. For instance, there is little knowledge about the language (over 80 are spoken in Chinese) and the sheer scale of the country (221 cities will have populations of more than one million people by 2025) takes people by surprise.

For starters, websites have to be adapted: “The internet landscape is very different. Websites are cluttered because Chinese people like…