When his pyjama business was first launched, Peter Alexander didn’t imagine he would spend the next 18 years growing a brand and an online business. Now he shares how Peter Alexander, the brand, led to a profitable business.
It all started with a pair of pyjamas bought in Hong Kong. The uncharacteristic purchase prompted Peter Alexander to take a closer look at why they appealed to him, and how he could get them to appeal to others. Discovering a gap in the women’s nightwear range—there was ‘hot and sexy’ or ‘virginal neck-to-knee’ and little in between—Alexander thought he had an idea for a business that was going to last about six months and started designing. “And,” he jokes, “it stuck.”
The business, which started from his mother’s dining room table, has undergone many changes. “We started off very slowly, doing wholesale,” he explains. “Through accident or misfortune, we were forced to have a go at mail order to try and clear some stock.”
This paid off, and Alexander realised not only had he created a niche with his products, he had uncovered one with his distribution. “At that time, around 1992, there wasn’t much mail order happening in Australia, particularly in the upper end of fashion,” he says. “Then our business changed to be more about catalogues and direct selling and we got out of wholesale.”
As this new business “chugged along very nicely”, Alexander focused on developing better methods to foster mail order sales, including producing beautifully photographed catalogues to send into the market. Then, in 1996, the “internet thing”, as he calls it, came alive and despite not having any interest or skill in the area, Alexander recognised its potential and launched his first site solely as a branding tool. “I ignored it for as long as I could, as I’m not very computer literate myself, and eventually we decided to stick a very simple site up which was more information-based.”
This simple site—put together by a “computer nerd” friend—started getting hits, so Alexander decided to take it a step further and use it as a selling tool. “It was really quite bad,” he laughs, “as we couldn’t tell when we were out of stock or anything like that, but it worked very well for us.
“I had this really bad internet site and it was making money but I didn’t invest much time or money in it.” So he kept his “home-made” site working as a secondary tool to the mail order business for a few years. But by the turn of the century, after realising the full power of the internet, Alexander took the site up a notch. “We got the experts in and completely revamped the site and turned it into not only a branding site, but a good selling site.”
Doing Business Online
“You have to figure out whether it’s a branding tool or a selling tool and treat it as such,” explains Alexander. “If it’s a branding tool, then it’s great for that. If you’re just trying to provide information on it, then I would say look great, get the message across and make it flashy and smart to represent whatever image you want. If it’s a selling tool, you’ve got to make it simple,” he says. “You’ve got to make it feel like there’s a human touch, because if someone’s giving their personal details and money across, they’ve got to feel like they’ve got a contact—there’s a phone number there, there’s a face there, there’s a company there—there’s not just a beautifully designed void.”
Choosing the right design for the site and its main functions had to reflect Alexander’s own personality, the Peter Alexander brand, and it had to be simple to use.
Thanks to the increasing traffic to the website, it continues to go through changes to ensure it provides customers with all they need to know and so it moves with the times. “We just changed our site to include all these colour swatches and sizes,” he explains. “I don’t want to be first with the news, I just want it to be easy. I’m not looking for someone to go ‘Oh my God, have you seen the Peter Alexander site? It’s brilliant’, I want people to be focusing more on the product.”
In the early days, web security wasn’t the highest point on his agenda, Alexander admits, with few checks and balances in place to monitor security of purchases. There were checks on orders over $350, with calls placed to banks to ensure the credit card details matched the order name, but these checks were random, at best. “We had very haphazard spot checks,” he admits. “Now obviously there are systems that are built in, but I don’t really understand; it’s a nerd thing!”
Despite his original misgivings about joining the world wide web, it has paid off, and then some. “The web now is huge for us. It’s 40 percent of the business and works very well in conjunction with our catalogue.”
Evolving the Business
Innovation is important to Alexander, who finds inspiration in the constant change of direction. Now the business operates through the internet, mail order, retail and its wholesale interests. “It’s a four-pronged business, and they all need special attention.” In the last eight years, Peter Alexander moved from a pyjama brand to become a lifestyle brand, with the introduction of a resort range, intimate collection, bed linen, tracksuits: “Customers allowed us to expand because they liked the service and they liked the quality, price, and brand. They said we’ve got enough pyjamas, what else?”
Thanks to the retail arm of the business, he can cater to those people who don’t want to shop online or buy from the catalogue. “It’s been an evolving, changing business. We’re now getting into retail, we’re back into wholesale with David Jones, so it’s gone through lots of changes and it’s still growing and evolving. It’s 18 years old, the company, but it’s still in its infancy for us.”
With the constant evolution of the business, Alexander has come up against many challenges. When he started out as a young 22-year-old, he wasn’t prepared for the brutal world of business. “People can be ruthless,” he says frankly, and learning to “trust no one” was a hard lesson in the early days.
Recovering from mistakes, no matter how catastrophic, was another one. “I always say to people when they make mistakes, give yourself a day to be a drama queen and then sometimes you can see the good in it and it can be a really positive thing, believe it or not.”
Alexander is quite candid about his mistakes, which he says have been plentiful. As the business was just getting started, he was lucky enough to secure a large order of 2,000 pairs of pyjamas from Myer. Or, so he thought. Because he didn’t have an official order number yet, when the order was cancelled at the retail giant’s end Alexander was left with mountains of stock—paid for thanks to a mortgage on his mother’s home—and no way of recouping his losses. He was forced to come up with some way of clearing the stock without losing everything. When the idea of “flogging” them off at markets held no appeal, he set up his first mail order drive in Cleo magazine.
He thought he might be able to sell up to 1,000 pairs through the magazine to cover his losses, so was shell-shocked by 4,000 orders from interested customers. And because he was able to eliminate the middle-man (retailers) from transactions with customers, he was able to boost profits.
Thanks to a previous job as a shop assistant in women’s clothing store, Sportsgirl, Alexander got to know and understand the industry and the marketing and merchandising involved. When he first started in the pyjama game, the brand was called Slumber Downunder. Realising he could market himself, he changed this to his own brand. “It’s very hard to get editorial and press on pyjamas—the fashion media aren’t that interested—but if you put a designer name to it, you can sort of market yourself,” he explains. “I tend to hype up more about me and that tends to reflect on the pyjamas. I market the pyjamas, obviously, where I can, but I also have to push myself to be the face of the company.”
Along with the success of being the king of the pyjama heap comes the competition, which doesn’t bother Alexander much: he thinks it keeps his designs fresh. “There is not much competition; they come and they go,” he adds. He finds it somewhat flattering when his concepts are mirrored by competitors—albeit often12 months late—and this only bothers him if it hits too close to the mark. “It’s part of the fashion industry,” he explains. “I just keep moving on. I’m constantly doing new things.” Although, he admits he likes to be kept on his toes, so he doesn’t get complacent.
In 2000 he sold the business to the Just Group, and despite the loss of total control of the business, he prefers his new role as general manager much more than handling day-to-day tasks and growing his own business. Not keen on handling the finance, wholesaling, shipping, distribution and warehousing areas of the business, he is much happier. “Now I’m just in charge of design, and advertising and promotion, and they’re the two areas I like.”
“Just Jeans don’t interfere with my designs at all, they don’t even look at what I’m doing. I get my budgets, I have my monthly meetings, but it’s never about design, it’s always about the brand.” Since the sale, the brand has been able to expand and take more risks than Alexander was prepared to take when he was solely at the helm, and in charge of the purse strings. “I was too cautious to go that next step with the company.”
And although there may have been perceived concerns about how the loss of total control would affect his dealings with the business, he is more than content with how things have turned out and how the brand has grown in ways he admits wouldn’t have happened if it was still his business.
So, for the next five years or so, the push for more retail outlets will continue, with hopes for three to four stores opening per year, and a relaunch on the international market which was halted when the Just Group took over. “I’d say the next five years is about Peter Alexander going on to be quite a major force in retail.”