Jacqueline Gold, Chief Executive of Ann Summers and Knickerbox, is known as the woman responsible for bringing sex to the high street. She turned Ann Summers into one of the most profitable private companies in the UK and took home a string of titles with this success. She has been named one of Britain’s Most Influential Women, the Most Inspirational Businesswoman in the UK, and the second Most Powerful Woman in Retail.
You are the guiding hand behind one of the most recognised retail brands in the UK, what do you attribute your success to?
I think Ann Summers provides women with an outlet for escapism that wasn’t visible on the High Street previously – and it continues to drive women to our stores even in these difficult times. The ‘fun’ and distracting image which is attributed with the brand encourages women to come to our stores, or go to an Ann Summers party to step out of their daily lives and cheer themselves up – they can treat themselves to something sexy to make them look and feel fantastic, or maybe treat their partner to something. We have found that this image is really important to our brand, and is what makes us unique.
The Ann Summers brand caused quite a bit of controversy when it first launched, how did you deal with the negativity?
You cannot compromise on who you are, and what your brand is about. We realised early on that causing a bit of controversy and testing the limits would ultimately play a big part in our success. Initially we faced some opposition from Landlords who were unsure about the brand and tried to prevent us from opening stores, and we were also warned against a negative backlash in cities such as Dublin – but we were willing to take some risks, take a few extra security precautions, and stay true to the fun and boundary pushing ethos that we’re all about.
Do you feel that you played a part in retailers becoming more liberal in their product line selection?
When we first started out the industry was very male dominated and had a ‘top shelf’ air about it. We faced a lot of negative attitudes both internally and externally from men who felt women were not interested in sex (I think that said more about their sex life than it did about our business!) and therefore felt the business would not work commercially. Luckily not everyone agreed with this and we have proved that women love being in control of what they buy on the high street. I think that we have shown other retailers that it is ok to be more liberal and push boundaries, because there definitely is a market for it.
How did you manage to keep up with the developments in technology?
It has always been very important to us as a brand to invest in systems and processes that support our Multi-channel business and its expansion. Investment in new technologies is a big part of our business strategy, and as a business doing pleasure, systems to satisfy you is a key part to our future growth.
As one of the pioneers of female entrepreneurship in the UK, do you think that we, at last, have a level playing field?
Undoubtedly there is a huge amount of opportunity for women in business today. Especially in the lingerie industry women are paving the way with successful brands. However, if we are looking at the wider picture other industries are predominantly still dominated by men. I believe it comes back to the issue of balance. The opportunities are there but women still have to struggle with work and family life, which can be a tricky and slow progress.
Which of the female entrepreneurs are you most impressed with?
Anita Roddick – founder of The Body Shop has definitely been a big inspiration to me throughout my career, mostly because of her huge achievements as a business woman; and also because of her strong ethical values.
Do you think there are sufficient support initiatives available to assist female entrepreneurs and working mothers?
Being a mother and running a successful business is always going to be a matter of juggling and trying to be in at least five different places at once. We are expected to be there for everybody without slipping up, that is something that we have to deal with and unfortunately it’s never going to go away. I believe that there are still not enough powerful women in business – which would suggest that something is not quite working. There are definitely still areas of injustice.
How has retailing developed on the high streets over the years?
I think it is really important for retailers to be multi-channelled, so that they are not reliant on their High Street stores but also sell online and in our case – through home parties as well. These channels complement each other and provide customers with a diverse and convenient retail experience. This is something that we always strive to achieve at Ann Summers.
How do you achieve a work life balance?
Having a dedicated and talented team allows me to balance my workload. It is really important to me that I have people around me that I can trust, and know how to make the business work successfully. Since becoming a mum finding this balance has proved more of a challenge, as it is hugely important that I spend time with my daughter – whilst also remaining dedicated to the business. There are times when you think you have got it just right and then all of a sudden you are really stressed; it’s never easy.
What you do to relax?
I love spending time with my family – my daughter Scarlett and Husband Dan. I find going out for dinner and catching up with my sister and closest girlfriend is a great way to unwind. I also enjoy a bit of retail therapy every so often!
Had you not launched the Ann Summers chain what do you think that you would be doing?
I can’t imagine not starting Ann Summers, however, I suspect I might have done something creative. I previously worked at Royal Doulton and always had a keen interest in art.
Finally, if there was anything you could change about the policies for small businesses in the UK, what would they be?
It’s been quite a while since Ann Summers was classed as a ‘small business’ so unfortunately I’m not fully up to speed with the current legislation.
I will never tire of saying how important it is to support your local high street. I am a big traditionalist and I really believe in family and community spirit. There are often independent retailers stocking local produce that you just can’t find anywhere else! It’s depressing when you walk down a High Street and find half the shop windows boarded up. I love the feeling of walking into a shop and feeling like you know the shop keeper – it adds a personal experience to the shopping experience which needs to be nurtured. Local councils and governments could help keep the feeling of local, community-led High Streets alive by lowering rent prices.