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 in 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. 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.
For as long as anyone can remember, M&S has been the benchmark for quality underwear. So imagine my joy when here at Robert Owen, one of our customers makes this comparison in his product review "NEVER BUYING FROM M&S AGAIN!". That's when we knew we were on the right track.
Is M&S concerned? They won't even be aware of us. However, in the future, we may be joined by other similar independent brands, each with their unique offering, and collectively we may threaten the status quo.
There are many new independent brands from which to choose. The good ones stand out because they have a sense of personality, craft and quality about them. They double-down on their small scale, they focus, 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.
Not everyone will be interested; 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, but neither does it 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. That's not too challenging a target for any brand with a quality product and personalised customer service to back it up. 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 adding something new for those looking beyond the high-street. It's about reaching more of the talented makers in the UK, and beyond. In this more accessible world, there's plenty of room for the new and extraordinary, to sit alongside ordinary.