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Charles Tyrwhitt: selling shirts to one customer at a time

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According to Nicholas Wheeler, you build and lose a business in exactly the same way: “one customer at a time”. It doesn’t matter whether the business is big or small, said the chairman and founder of Charles Tyrwhitt , the principle is the same.

Speaking at the Demandware XChange Conference in Berlin, Wheeler outlined how the shirt and menswear retailer tries to ensure it never loses its focus on the customer. In part, he said, this is about core principles. “Quality, value and service is the bedrock on which Charles Tyrwhitt was founded,” he said. “[This] has not changed today and it will not change in the future.”

The next big thing for the company, he joked, was “to sell more shirts to more customers”. People might find that dull but: “I think that’s really important. It’s really simple, it’s a clear message that goes out to the rest of the business, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Wheeler also outlined the practical approaches the retailer takes to customer service. Wheeler’s email address is on every shirt he sells, and he spends an hour or two every month in the company’s call centre. “I learn more in that hour than I do in any other time in the rest of the month,” he said.

In a keynote presentation that outlined the company’s history – rooted in turning a profit on a classic car to finance the business, and encompassing going bust in the 1990s thanks to an ill-advised children’s clothing venture – and which owed something to Michael McIntyre in its delivery, Wheeler also explained the role of the store in delivering customer service.

Currently, Charles Tyrwhitt is opening six stores a year. Not only do most people buy shirts and suits in-store (roughly 85% as against 15% for online), but many of Charles Tyrwhitt’s online customers start out as store customers. That’s partly because they’re not confident enough of the retailer to buy online from the off, especially when purchasing suits and shoes. Capturing the data of first-time customers when they come into the store is particularly important, said Wheeler.

He summed up the company’s approach to gaining, rather than losing, one customer at a time: “When we’re thinking about decisions, we think what would the customer want? It’s terribly simple, but nobody does it.”

The presentation was in keeping with one of the overarching themes of the Demandware XChange Conference: how to put the customer at the centre of the business.

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