Zeeman proves that even when offering low prices, you can be a forerunner in sustainability. With typical Dutch obstinacy and frugality, the retailer is building a European success story: "We will enter the eighth country next year."
The revival of local stores
Textile chain Zeeman has overcome the Covid crisis without too much damage, says CEO Erik-Jan Mares. "Financially, we have never come close to running into problems. We are active in seven countries, and we have never had to close in all seven countries simultaneously. At the beginning of the crisis, when Belgium and France had to close, the Netherlands remained open. And when the Netherlands had to close, France and Belgium were open. In retrospect, we were lucky in that respect. You also saw a revival of local stores. Large shopping centres remained empty, but mostly, we are located next to a supermarket, an Action or Kruidvat. Besides, we are a basic store. We sell basic textiles. Those goods you will always need anyway, children will grow..."
Remarkably, Zeeman did not push the problems on to its suppliers. While many fashion companies cancelled orders and extended payment terms, the textile supermarket did the opposite: "We sent a letter to all our suppliers reconfirming our short payment term - 14 days, just about the shortest in the industry. We did postpone some orders but did not cancel any. We work with framework contracts, within which we always have room to move. We already operated like that before Covid. We work differently."
The word "different" is perhaps the core of the success story: "Belgians often think the Dutch are stubborn - and we are. But we are, above all, determined: we are convinced that we do things better our way. Since our establishment in 1967, we have been stunned that everything has to be overly complex and expensive. So, with a twist, we want to show that our products are high quality and come at a good price. We do this intelligently, with few resources. It's about keeping the message consistent and always finding a hook that shows that you are keeping it simple."
In doing so, the textile discounter also became a cult brand in recent years, with notable marketing initiatives such as the launch of exclusive fan collections (trainers, hoodies, etc.) or the sale of second-hand clothing. Is there a clever master plan behind this? "It's just who we are", Mares thinks. It does help the chain to appeal to new customers.
He takes a sip from his Dopper bottle, personalised for Zeeman. It says: I am frugal. "Here at the office, we no longer use plastic cups, but Dopper water bottles instead. It's cheaper and better for the environment. This typical Dutch frugality is a nickname Zeeman is super proud of, he says.
"Not just being frugal with money, but also with your fellow citizens, the environment, society, everyone in the chain. As a family business, we operate with a long-term view, and we do not easily deviate from our path. We have chosen to be a frontrunner in sustainability because it suits our brand and our clothing industry role. Otherwise, your stakeholders will turn against you. We want to be a step ahead. It's in our genes, and it has to do with that frugality."
The biggest misconception
Therefore, Zeeman would like to deny that cheap could not be sustainable. "That is the biggest misconception there is! Good and cheap can go together very well. It has to do with your operational management. Look, we sell lots of white T-shirts, from size XS to XXL. We don't have different styles; at most, we offer a V-neck and a round neck. If you make big volumes, the factory doesn't have to adjust often, saving a lot of money. Because we pay promptly, the people in Bangladesh do not have to go to the bank for an expensive loan. It is not that difficult at all!"
While the fashion industry is a big polluter, Zeeman is in the 'slow fashion' business. "The Primarks and the H&Ms of this world have something new every three weeks, not us. In fact, 80 per cent of what we sell are white T-shirts, underwear, socks, towels, etc. And we are in constant dialogue with our suppliers to make things more sustainable every day."
The same logic also drives the opening of second-hand corners in selected Dutch stores. "We have set up a pilot project whereby we collect second-hand clothing in our stores. We donate it to Het Goed, a chain of recycled goods stores. They clean the clothes. In six of our large stores, we buy back clothing that we subsequently sell second-hand. These could be items from, for example, Hema, H&M, Gucci, etc. That is how we want to do our part. Of course, it is also trendy to sell second-hand. It is quite special that we as Zeeman were one of the first in the Netherlands to do that."
The trial will run in the Netherlands until the end of this year. If it goes well, it will also come to Belgium. "The good thing is that the items can be transported with our trucks from Alphen, the south of the Netherlands straight to Belgium. So, in terms of footprint, that is also good. Our two daughters sometimes place orders on Vinted, and then you see that a parcel might come from Barcelona. How good is that for the environment, even if it is second-hand?"
Within the Benelux, Zeeman is already pretty much everywhere. Therefore, more important than expansion is organic growth: through better availability, better marketing, and by appealing to a different type of customer. "Real growth for Zeeman must come from new countries and new customers", says Mares. "We have two types of customers. On the one hand, the customer that has to buy at Zeeman because their wallet won't allow buying anywhere else. On the other hand, the customer that wants to buy at Zeeman because they think it's ridiculous to buy overpriced basics. We need to reach more and more of these new customers in Belgium too. The trendy aspect helps. We are becoming more popular."
The Covid crisis also brought with it an exponential growth in e-commerce. This evolution came just a little too early for Zeeman, but the retailer learned a lot from it. "It caused a rapid learning curve, as a result of which we are now further along than where we would have been. In hindsight, that was a good thing. I expect we will be able to run a profitable operation sometime next year. Since 1 May, we have switched to a Belgian fulfilment partner, Katoen Natie, for our e-commerce. It is a very professional partner, and we are delighted with the switch. With them, we also hope to conquer Europe."
Nevertheless, online still only represents a few percentage points of sales at Zeeman. "Online, we are only active in two countries. We will be opening a webshop in France at the end of this year. And next year, we will enter the eighth country, with stores and a webshop at the same time. No, I'm not going to say where yet..."
Perhaps Erik-Jan Mares will reveal more details about the plans of Zeeman at RetailDetail Day, which takes place on Thursday, 16 September in Antwerp. At this marketing congress for the retail industry, speakers from Mars Food, Colruyt Group, C&A and Dobbi, among others, will take the stage. More speakers will be announced soon. It will be a hybrid event: 200 tickets are available for participants who want to experience the congress on-site and Covid-proof. Others can watch the live stream remotely. You can find additional information and tickets through this link.