Going head to head with Marks & Spencer is, on the face of it, a bold move. Who dares to challenge the giant of British retail - especially in the undies department? We do that's who, and we are not alone.
Thanks to eCommerce platforms, such as Shopify, independent brands can now reach a national or even global market, connecting with shoppers who are looking for something that bit different.
Time was we were all consigned to shopping at monolithic stores in the high street dominated by the usual big names - of which M&S was perhaps the best-loved. The internet has opened up the market, allowing niche brands to come to the fore. These new brands are specialists; they focus on a narrow but well-defined proposition. Its what Seth Godin describes as 'thriving on the edges' - which is not as precarious as it sounds.
The secret says Seth "is to do what you do so well that people come looking for you". That philosophy has been our guiding light at Robert Owen. We specialise undershirts for men. The modern men's undershirt is a performance base-layer designed for the office instead of the sports field. It's a step-change to the traditional men's vest it replaces, and it takes thought to select the right fabric and create the right cut for this kind of performance underwear. Because this is our entire focus, we believe we do it rather well - our aim to make the best men's undershirt in the UK. Certainly, the feedback from our customers is encouraging to say the least.
In my day, M&S was the benchmark for men's underwear, so I admit to a leap of joy when, in our early days, we received a customer note entitled "NEVER BUYING FROM M&S AGAIN!". We knew we were on the right track, and we've plenty of similarly positive reviews since.
Is M&S concerned? They won't even be aware of us. However, in the future, Robert Owen and British Boxers will likely be joined by other similar independent brands, each with their unique offering and collectively perhaps a threat to the status quo.
The new brands, the good ones at least, stand out because they have a sense of personality, craft and quality about them. They double-down on their small scale and uniqueness. They are focused, and they live or die by doing one thing well. The stakes are high, so there are no half-measures, and it shows in the depth and quality of their products.
It's not for everyone. The majority of shoppers will not be tempted. They are happy with the familiar. This quiet revolution in shopping isn't happening in the mainstream, and it doesn't need to. Global markets are big enough to support many players. Plus, it doesn't take that many loyal customers to sustain a small brand - a thousand true fans can be enough, according to Kevin Kelly of The Thechnium. For a brand with a quality product, personalised customer service and the will to stick it out that's not too challenging a target. Many of these new brands are doing much much better than that. Here are three good examples:
- British Boxers - undies galore and possibly the best pyjamas in the world
- The Cambridge Satchel Company - handcrafted leather bags, each one pretty as a picture
- The British Candle Co - hand-poured soy wax candles, plus the brilliant 'Mandle'
For customers willing to pay a premium for quality, it's a welcome improvement to the generic offerings of the high street. In the end, this story is not about direct competition with the likes of M&S - this isn't a zero-sum game. It's about those who seek difference having a choice and access to the most talented makers in the UK and beyond. There's plenty of room for better.
The new-world equivalents of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker are going online. They are now available to the UK - and the UK is interested because, for some, it's exactly what they've been missing.