Interview

“It Has Been a Year of Success”

Lluís Sans, president de Santa Eulalia

It was one year ago that Santa Eulàlia, the historic fashion business on Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia, opened its new store. They didn’t change location, but the alterations designed by reputed interior designer William Sofield gave the establishment a complete overhaul.

 

It is necessary to match Santa Eulàlia with the adjective ‘historic’ because its origins date back to 1843 and the present store has occupied the same spot since 1944. After four generations, today it is businessman Lluís Sans who is leading this era of change but at the same time continuity.

 

Local roots are Santa Eulàlia’s chief value. Highly regarded among the top-end and luxury customer segments, it has never wanted to lose sight of the fact that its clothes are principally targeted at the local market, even though the rise in foreign purchasers is very important today.

 

The Barcelona Chamber of Commerce awarded Santa Eulàlia ‘Best Business Initiative’ at the 5th Barcelona is Fashion Awards held last summer.

 

In a situation like the current one, did it surprise you that the new store has done so well in its first year?

No, I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, although it’s true that before we opened the store we put a great deal of enthusiasm into the project and we didn’t know whether it would work until it was up and running.

 

What have the public liked about it?
The idea of making a store that was special and different from anything else in Spain or other places in the world went down very well. A unique store that reflects the history of the firm, which at the same time is a modern, high-end establishment. Everyone has been really taken with it.

 

This new concept is a reference for sector professionals, who expressly come to see it…
Yes. Many people from abroad have come in person to learn more about our store concept and have liked it and been pleasantly surprised. We are very pleased because it endorses the project we designed.

 

How has that translated into sales?
Sales among local customers rose by 17% in the first year, and sales among our foreigner customers grew 68%. Over all, since opening the store, we have grown by around 25%. Why? Because we are mainly aimed at local customers.

 

That’s a contrast to 2009 when sales fell by 11%, although they were up again by 10% in 2010.
Well obviously the present growth is because we’ve made a very considerable investment. Without this investment, the results would be different. So we are talking about a consequence – the good reception of a project which is all-encompassing, not just the store but the selection of brands and customer service.

 

What is your opinion of and how are you preparing to deliver on the huge demand from wealthy Russian and Chinese customers who visit Barcelona?
We are thrilled, to put it plainly. When domestic consumption grounds to a halt, your joy comes from foreign buyers. Among them, the Russians, who are the biggest customers here.

 

What are the Russian customers like?
They’re great customers, and they have been changing in recent years. At first they were more interested in brands, logos and prices. That’s no longer the case: today they have acquired a vast deal of culture, have become more refined, they travel a great deal. They’re increasingly similar to European customers, but with one difference: they have money to burn and they can’t wait to spend it.

 

What do you think it is that draws them to Barcelona?
They’ve fallen in love with this part of the world and are very assiduous visitors. Plus, of course, prices are cheaper here.

 

But you emphasise that above all, yours is a business targeted at local customers?
That’s true. Two-thirds of our customers are local. The other third are foreigners and that’s the section which is growing the most. But we like to think about our local customers and we wouldn’t want it to be the other way around. When we make a brand selection, we always try to remember the local customers. I don’t want a brand that only Russians can buy.

 

Do you think businesses should open on a Sunday?
That’s a very controversial question and I am of the opinion that it isn’t necessary to open. If we did open, people would come; but if we don’t, they plan other things to do, knowing the store is closed. The pie wouldn’t get any bigger, it would just be sliced differently. Also, opening would increase costs and worsen the working conditions for all of us who are dedicated to trade.

 

‘Brand Barcelona’ is very powerful today. How has that come about?
Many things were done well and those that weren’t haven’t had much of an impact. A brand involves an emotional bond and people like the attributes they identify with Barcelona. It is a liberal, open-minded city where you can live well, among many other things.

 

To go back to Santa Eulàlia, you often talk about the strategic role of customer service…
Yes, in fact I think many companies say that customer service is the most important factor, but then they contradict themselves in their day-to-day work. We carry this policy through to the end.

 

How?
Every day we have customers asking very particular things of us, or coming to us with a problem that really has nothing to do with a business like ours. But we always try to help them in any way we can.

 

Are these requests the result of the trust you have built up over the years?
It is the result of many things. Particularly, I would say that as a business we look after our customers via the people who attend them in-store. So the most important thing is to first have happy, well-trained staff. You have to give them initiative so they can make their own decisions.

 

Boost staff loyalty in order to boost customer loyalty, then?
Yes, and that can’t be achieved with a high staff turnover. When someone new joins, they don’t know the firm’s way of thinking. So it’s important to have a global policy that considers all of these things in order to be truly customer-oriented.

 

Has the present crisis increased the value of retail personnel?
I would say that, more than increasing their value, what has happened is that when there is a crisis a company looks at itself more carefully. Proven, solid projects are chosen and weaker ones are dropped. When times are good, sales do well enough that there’s room for them all. Today, companies with a solid foundation stand out from those that were built on shakier grounds. The crisis is really separating the wheat from the chaff!

 

Speaking about products: tailoring is at the heart of your commercial project. How do you manage to preserve the know-how of professional tailors, who are practically “under threat of extinction”?
Let me just say how paradoxical it is to find that, with 25% unemployment, we placed an ad for people to sew for us and we couldn’t get anyone.

 

Do we need more people learning trades?
Yes, in fact there are no good trade schools here. The figure of the apprentice has been looked down on for a long time now and it hasn’t been protected under labour laws. People aren’t learning trades and we need good tradespeople.

 

So are companies assuming this role?
Yes, we are doing it ourselves. But it’s hard to train someone up from scratch. If they’ve never even held a needle it’s going to take years to teach them to sew.

 

Finally, what project is taking up most of your time at present?
We don’t have any big projects on the table. Online sales are an area we will get into at some stage, to serve our foreign customers better, but we’re not in a hurry.

 

In a year or two?
Yes.

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