18 May 2024, 13:28
By Furniture News Sept 16, 2021

OKA – a multichannel marvel

From its mail order origins to its recent acquisition, lifestyle and luxury interiors brand OKA has embraced fresh routes to market for over 20 years. For new CCO Jennie Farmer – an ex-beauty industry doyenne and passionate homewares advocate – the pandemic is just the start of a new chapter for the ever-progressive business …

Can you summarise the journey OKA has taken since its founding?

OKA was founded in 1999 as a mail order interiors firm – the business has come a long way since then!

In 2000, we opened the doors to our first store in Parsons Green, West London, and over the next decade OKA stores popped up in some of the UK’s prettiest market towns such as Harrogate, Broadway, Knutsford and Guildford. Our Chelsea flagship was launched in 2010.

Alongside the digital push brought by the new millennium, we launched our website in 2001, and continued to develop our range over the next 20 years, including our launch in the US in 2019.

The business continued to grow – in 2019 we were bought by Investindustrial, an Italian private equity firm, who has been a very supportive ‘parent’ ever since. Last year, we marked our 21st birthday with 14 stores in the UK and sales of £30m. 

OKA has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering a multichannel shopping experience. How might its approach evolve?

I believe that success comes from serving the customer where and how they would like to be served, and therefore a multichannel experience has always been core to our strategy.

At OKA, we see tremendous value in our stores. We have 13 in carefully chosen locations across the UK, and by the end of the year we will have two in the US, supported by a strong online strategy. We know that our customers love to come to our stores to ‘touch and feel’ the product. Furniture and homewares are emotive items that bring personality to your home, so it’s important that customers have a chance to experience the products. 

Each customer journey is unique – some start their journey online to research and then make the purchase in-store, whereas others start in a store and then, after consideration and measuring up their home, make the purchase online – so it’s key to be fully connected across channels.

We launched a major digital transformation programme in 2019 and continued to invest in our technology throughout 2020 – accelerating our plans rather than slowing down – which meant we were well prepared when our business was forced to go completely online during the first lockdown.

Our strong financial results in 2020, despite all the challenges that were thrown at us, prove that the brand is strong and relevant, our omnichannel business model is effective, and the marketing and product initiatives that we put in place over the past 12-18 months are paying off.   

Online homewares sales have boomed during the pandemic. How has OKA performed, and have matters changed much since stores reopened?

Our 2020 financial results were strong, despite a difficult year for the retail sector with UK stores shut for four months and disruption in the supply chain.

Our UK sales reached £30m, which was broadly flat compared to 2019, but we saw a very strong performance online, with sales up +36% YoY. We saw a further acceleration in the second half of the year – after reopening our stores in June – with overall sales up +13% and online sales up +47%. 

It was great to see our store and online strategies working hand in hand, and, as a result of investments we had made in our IT infrastructure before the pandemic hit, we were ready for the influx of new virtual shoppers.

New customer purchases over-indexed in furniture, which we were delighted to see – this is an important sign of confidence in the brand, and in the quality of our products.

These results, the strength of our team, and the initiatives we have in place, give us a lot of confidence about the future of the business. While we still have to be agile and innovative, we are a healthier and stronger business than we were two years ago, and we have a clear strategy in place.

Is there scope to grow your UK market share?

Absolutely. We want to double the size of our UK business in the next two to three years, and are working hard to widen our customer demographic to enable us to do that. We are adding new products – including a number of more contemporary styles – to the product range, and evolving the brand tone of voice, making it relevant and engaging for a slightly younger customer base. 

We have had several successful digital brand campaigns to bring to life the OKA spirit, including our ‘Perfectly at Home, with’ series featuring Erin Doherty who played Princess Anne in The Crown, which told our brand narrative in a playful way, successfully delivering strong engagement and brand awareness across our social media channels. 

Over the past year, we have also collaborated with a number of ‘friends of the brand’ – including Binky Felstead and Donna Air – to further establish our brand presence across social media channels. It’s important to us that we only collaborate with people who are genuine fans of the brand.

What’s your professional background, and what have you brought to OKA?

My passion is bringing brands that have a unique story to life, and that is what attracted me to OKA – it’s a truly individual brand with beautiful products and a strong, founder-led story. 

I have spent time working in prestige beauty at P&G, leading brand and marketing at De Beers Jewellers and at LVMH – my background combines retail, luxury and omnichannel expertise, and I hope to bring this unique blend to OKA. My belief is that the combination of a strong brand DNA with deep customer understanding sits at the heart of a successful strategy.

What’s been the hardest part of stepping into the role?

The hardest part has been joining virtually! I have met all my team and the company via video, and everyone has been incredibly open and welcoming. Thankfully, stores reopened in April, so I was able to start being closer to the product and the teams, which I find very inspiring.

… and, conversely, have there been any pleasant surprises?

For me, it’s such a joy to work so closely with one of the founders. In so many luxury businesses you reference people who founded the business over 100 years ago, but Sue Jones is one of our founders, and a full-time member of the leadership team, bringing her expertise and amazing eye to the product development. To be able to spend time with Sue and understand what makes OKA so special has been inspiring and invigorating.

Do you source all your product directly, or work with suppliers to flesh out your portfolio?

We have an in-house product development team that work very closely with our suppliers to ensure we are creating products that meet our customers’ ever-changing needs, as well as reflecting the brand DNA. It’s important that this is a two-way process – we work with some incredible artisans that we have been in partnership with since the creation of OKA over 20 years ago.

OKA was built on strong international sourcing credentials – how has the pandemic affected how you operate in this respect?

This has certainly been a challenge over the past 18 months, as lockdowns have happened at different times around the world and caused closures in our partners’ countries. The most uncertainty has been driven by the global shipping situation – not only have transport costs increased significantly, but the unpredictable timings are challenging for a company that prides itself on great customer service.

Where are the gaps (if any) in your product portfolio, and have those disrupted supply chains created any new ones?

It’s important that our product portfolio continues to evolve in line with customer desires. For example, in 2020 we launched Tailored by OKA, our bespoke collection of sofas and armchairs handmade to order in the UK, offering our customers over 800 combinations. 

We will expand our offering off the back of its initial success, with new styles and more fabrics, and are looking to launch the Tailored collection in the US in 2022. This is meeting the customer need for personalisation and building on the trend for ‘buy less, buy better’. 

What’s selling particularly well right now – ranges, materials, colours, etc – and why?

Customers have spent more time at home during the pandemic, and have realised that certain big-ticket items – such as a stylish, comfortable sofa or a beautiful dining table for their family gatherings – are worth investing in. This has led to a strong increase in furniture sales. Our new Avitus Sofa that we launched this spring has been a hit, and we are already planning new colours for autumn. 

We continue to perform extremely well in lighting and cushions, which are signature categories for OKA and often the way that customers discover the brand. We have over 250 different patterns and fabrics in our cushion range, giving customers an incredible amount to choose from to craft the perfect look for their home. Those carefully chosen pieces – whether that be a rug, wall art or a statement console table – can totally transform a room.

What technological developments are currently taking place, and what will bring to the business and its customers?

Our digital transformation plan has been under way since before the pandemic hit, and we have continued investing throughout this time. We actually sped up our plans during 2020, as it became apparent how quickly consumer behaviour was changing, and the accelerating trend towards shopping online for high-consideration items was growing after our stores were forced to close.    

A big part of our digital transformation is behind-the-scenes planning and implementation to make all aspects of the digital journey work seamlessly for our customers. However, there are also some exciting initiatives under way that will be more visible. For example, we have launched HERO, which is a technology which allows our customers to live chat with our brand ambassadors in-stores, either by messaging or by a video call, where they can see the products up close. It’s only a few months in but we are seeing fantastic conversion rates.

We are also working on a new website that will launch in September, that will better reflect the brand DNA of OKA and make shopping easy and inspiring for our customers.

By the end of 2021, we are confident that OKA will be a truly omnichannel, digital-first business, with best-in-class systems to deliver exceptional customer service and insights, sustainable growth, and efficient and scalable operations. 

Why did OKA choose to cross the pond?

We launched in the US in autumn 2019 – online only to begin with – and opened our first store in Houston earlier this year. We have big plans to grow our operations in the States, with two more stores in the pipeline, and a strong trade programme planned.  

Launching in the US seemed like a natural move for us, as we know that as a quintessentially British brand, there is strong appetite for our products. Given our early customers’ response, we are confident about the future growth of the business, and we have exciting plans to continue building awareness and telling our brand narrative through brand-building initiatives, targeted digital media and integrating ourselves into the communities where we operate.  

What could UK furniture retailers learn from their US counterparts? And vice versa?

The scale of US stores is interesting, and we are learning about the desire for larger pieces for larger homes in certain states. The British have a unique way of layering product and mixing styles. Our stores play a crucial role in bringing this to life, and we present our product in roomsets for customers to discover and inspire their homes. 

Are you looking to expand anywhere else?

Our first US store opened in Houston in the spring, and we are excited to open our second in Dallas at the end of the year, followed by Westport, Connecticut in 2022. Our focus right now is on continuing to develop our UK business and building out our US presence.

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