Andrey Nikolaenko: building a pleasant working environment is the essential task of the director

interview , Le Frivole , costumeshop , underwear , play sets , Lingerie , exclusive

Andrej Nikolaenko, the Director-General of the company COSTUMEshop and the owner of the brand "Le Frivole", in a live interview with our portal's chief editor, told us about his work, his plans and his dreams.

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My badge has been ordered. It takes a five-minute walk from the metro station. The office is cozy, the warehouse is spacious, the employees look friendly and the owner is smiling. On the table we can see packages with lingerie, some playful figures with play sets on them. It is all business-like and playful, as this business is set for playing games. Everything is ready for the conversation.

Tell us, please, what did you begin with?

We began with opening a retail shop-a sex shop in Moscow. By the way, this shop is still working. At that time, the range of toys was comprehensive, while the lingerie range looked rather poor. No play sets at all.

How many years ago did you start?

Nine years ago, almost ten. The lingerie we were selling at that time was of bad quality, yet extremely expensive. Pure inconsistency. We couldn't even complete our shop with good stuff. So, an idea emerged. We understood this was a niche to be discovered. We started gathering information, looking for suppliers, manufacturers. We went there, found ones, had a talk, came to an agreement and began working.

I was acquainted with your products at EroExpo, during the bondage session, when the guests were told the play sets had been provided by Le Frivole. The set was amazing, but the model was a well-built girl. So, how do you manage the cases of non-standart body sizes?

In many ways. Some sets, undoubtfully, do not serve for unusual body shape. I mean, if a woman with non-standart body shape tried on the suit the model had on, you'd get a different effect. But there are suits that are more appropriate for such body shapes, they are capable to conceal the body's imperfections and to highlight the advantages. Such items exist. At least, we try to have them on sale, yet, to be honest, the large-size turnover is not big.

So, it means women feel awkward to use such lingerie?

I wouldn't say they do, but if you compare small sizes to larger ones, the first ones prove to be much more demanded than the second ones, at least in our shop. It makes no sense, though. As the majority of the population have got sizes larger than small or medium. I mean, S and M are hardly the most popular sizes across the country. I remember a story when I purchased some lingerie by the brand HOT. They had a range of items for larger sizes, perhaps, they still do, I don't know. So, we purchased a significant amount, about 15 items of larger size, because they used to be on demand. It took us near three years to sell that range, some items lasted even longer at the warehouse.

So, the larger sizes are demanded, yet not always bought? Can it be explained by the fact people seldom go to such shops?

That's the peculiarity of our shops. From ten to twenty customers-it is a good result! Thus, the average number is ten, successful shops have from twenty to thirty visitors.

Isn't it easier nowadays to have a close look at the item on the website, to read the customers' comments and to order the item without having to go anywhere?

I believe, the retail sales are still viable, as there are people who are unwilling to buy anything without live advice, without touching the item. To order a mobile phone online is one thing, but to buy a vibrator, a lube or a set of lingerie is something different.

Ok, I come to a shop, have a look at the pretty packages with good-looking models demonstrating the lingerie. What happens next? How do I know whether they fit me or not?

On the packages we put some information about the size and the correspondent dimensions. A customer doesn't even need a vendor, he or she can study the package, with knickers, for example. The decoding is stated there, all sizes are indicated. While making our products, we aim to provide our packages with the maximum information so that those people who are unwilling to talk to the vendor could make their choice by themselves. And if I have no idea of my size, I do need the vendor's advice when I come to a shop. By the way, the vendor will not only suggest the right size, but will also make it clear how this particular set of lingerie can change the body shape, through tightening the frame or highlighting the advantages. A good example are the jumpsuits. A frequent question is whether they are meant for tall or shorter girls.

How do you deal with the height, the width and the fit?

It is quite easy. The item has some percentage of elastane which determines the way the item fits when used. The elastane is responsible for avoiding the suit to inflate at the bossom level, and guarantees a good fitting instead. The more elastane the item has, the highest the quality is, the better the item fits. Our products have got high percentage of elastane, so, they fit perfectly.

Please, tell me about some other items, the novelties..

As for the latest experience, we have launched jumpsuits, they were shown at the recent EroExpo. Frankly speaking, by that moment, we hadn't got the delivery yet, so, we arranged the pre-orders. The storage unit for shipping was filled by half with pre-orders. The message was clear to me, it meant we were making what people really need. People won't pay much for mediocre things. This range includes thirty-one models in white, scarlet, black and beige.

What colours are the most demanded ones?

Black items are always on demand. At the same time, bright colours are also needed. There are people who have already bought five things in black, so they seek something new. However, not every brand offers a variety of colours. We do, yet in small amounts, as we can't overload the store with the third-turn items. The stock is based on the mass consumption goods. We sell our own products, but we are also suppliers of other brands. We have got an exclusive contract with such brands as "Demoniq", "Casmir" for Russia and Belarus and another exclusive contract for one collection by "Me seduce".

You are preferably promoting your own brand, aren't you?

It depends on what you mean by saying "promoting". If people were eager to buy other products, you would not stop them just saying they should not. You can't say, 'Hey, this brand is better, don't buy anything else'. People won't join the line. People make their choice consciously, they are free to decide.

There are some categories among our clients. First, there are those who have the most confident relations with us, such partnership has been formed for years. Such clients just take our word. If we say this item is good and it will be sold well, they buy it. Fortunately, by now, we haven't let anybody down. The second group. These clients show less loyalty. They make their decision after visiting the exhibition, for example. Some of them will take a sample to try it on. The deal is made. They buy this item. Despite the fact that the first category can make an order just looking at the picture, we are honest describing the real state of affairs. For example, we say that the jumpsuits are meant for the height from 172 to 175 cm. They are not suitable for each kind of model.

Are you selling only in Russia or also abroad?

To date, we are selling in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine. The shipping to other countries is to begin.

Where is the manufacturing located?

The knickers are made in Russia, the jumpsuits, the sets are all from China. Well, I see it this way: it is necessary to distinguish between the two things. Look, the company Apple has no manufacturing of their own, has no factories. Their specialization is not about the technical side of the matter but about making up things which people are willing to pay for, and they really pay much more for Apple's items than for other brands. So is our task. We aim to create a product which is better and more interesting than the other ones on market, we prefer to have it sewed than to sew it ourselves. We place orders, make contracts and the factories make our products for us. It allows us to be more flexible. Nowadays, the best price is in China, so we have our items sewed in China. Tomorrow the best price could be in Indonesia, so, we'll move our manufacturing to Indonesia. Our clients won't even feel the changes. If we had our own factory, we would have restrictions, so we would have to change the price in case a problem occurs. We have many factories actually. If one of them is coming through troubles of any sort, we can place our order at another manufacturing point, thus, the delivery is not interrupted. Our target is to guarantee the goods' availability for our customers at the moment they need them. We don't always succeed, but we are trying to.

How big is your warehouse?

It's about 300 square metres. The ceilings are 4-5 metres high. We will have a look at it later.

Tell me about your plans, please. It must be the most exciting part of the interview.

At the moment, we are working on a collection of stockings, as we really need them in our range. The whole market needs to fill this niche, actually. There are some stockings on sale, but we'd like to make something fantastic.

Now your range includes knickers, bras, play suits, baby-dolls, shirts, negligee. Anything else?

Nightgowns, stockings, knickers... I mean, the stockings are present, but they are few. The majority of suits have a pair of ordinary stockings included. But, the suit will probably last longer than the stockings, so, it is worth buying an extra pair. A perfect solution would be to provide the shops with items meant to be sold together, with the maximum variation. Think that the stockings are usually sold in addition, it actually raises the average bill of a shop. We've got other accessories, apart from those within the set. They are the caps, for example. And we've drafted a plan of novelties for the current year, but I prefer to save this information for later. The plans are huge. The task is to grow more than we usually do. In general, we are growing well. For the current year, the task is to double the sales, apart from the exporting. To double the growth, it is necessary to give the market such goods that will make people pay you more than ever for them. It is not enough to provide some items, it is crucial to provide something people really need, so that the sellers could get the maximum profit out of it.

With the crisis on the background, the demand for your goods hasn't dropped, has it? You are selling entertainment goods, things for joy, not for everyday needs.

Let's mark a line. On the one hand, there are sales of our company. On the other hand, there are sales at our clients' shops. The latters are more than 400. Some clients prove to have contradictory opinions under the same conditions, some watch their sales going down, so, they have their puchases frozen for a while, some companies report a good sales dynamics this month and continue buying this or that. It depends on a particular region. We sell in almost 70 regions. Some of them are powerful, we have a close partnership, the sales are sustainably high there. There are also regions where we are present, but in fact the situation is not clear. The clients exist, but they hardly buy anything. It is not even clear whether they refuse to buy our products or this is their working style in general.

How big is your company? Is your staff big outside the factories?

Our company has more than 20 employees, perhaps, more than this, at the moment. This year we have grown significantly but we are going through a transitional period. Have you heard of the theory of seven-year life cycles? Judging by our company, the theory is valid. We've got a difficult year, a transitional period, we can really feel it: we've got plenty of tasks, not everyone is ready to work under such pressure, some people leave, naturally, some people join us, some people come and are dismissed in brief. So, it is a serious staff turnover that we are going through, the permanent staff includes only two employees. There are two girls that have been working for more than three years, the rest -for more than a year, others-for slightly less than a year. At first, I felt awkward about it, then I realised that some people were likely to choose a quiet, peaceful life. I am not. I've got another view. Naturally, if the company has got a leader like me, it can't run half asleep. We are growing, it requires great efficiency from every employee. So, those who make efforts, stay.

Recently, we have moved to a new office. A fortnight ago. Here, we look really mature. We've got a conference room. The warehouse is also here, by the office. The office is a hundred metres away, the warehouse has additional three hundred metres. We are to visit it soon. Meanwhile, we arranged the working places more effectively, it allows us to build and hold an integrated working environment.

What's your approach for selecting your team members?

The question is whether people want to do what they are doing. This is essential. My task, as the director, is to build an environment people want to work in. They shouldn't work here through obligation, or being afraid of a punishment. They should work here because they want to. Another important point is that people must understand what contribution they make to the common cause with their part of work. It is essential for people to feel they are actually team players, aimed to reach the results. It is important. If we succeed with this, we'll succeed with the rest. Of course, this is not a matter of few days, there are moments of success and failure.

I can see the girls filming here. By the way, do you make your nice videos here at the office or you rent a studio?

The girls are filming the instruction to be used at the warehouse, including the assemblage, the wrapping. We are having our warehouse regulations registered nowadays. As for the sessions with models, this is a complete event, with a studio, a screenplay. It is worth making an independent interview. Back to the video the employees are making. We have a training system. All candidates go through the training course and are tested before joining the company. The newcomers start working here after having acquired a notion of what sort of company we are and what is customary while working here. At the warehouse, the staff has been fully refreshed. The former warehouse's manager used to tell me stories about the lack of time or of anything else. After they were all dismissed, a number of measures were taken, and we managed to immediately offload the warehouse by half.

Is the process at your warehouse automatic?

Yes, it is. The order is assembled and is passed through a scanner before wrapping. The automatic check is made. The employees are unable to pass the order to further stages without all the items having been previously scanned. If they make a mistake by having scanned the wrong code, a mismatch takes place, no goods distribution is possible. Such way of control allows us to exclude the possibility of an error by 100%.

This method has been introduced recently and is meant to avoid human factor-related errors.

In the nearest future, what exhibitions are you planning to take part in? Or, perhaps, you have been recently exhibited anywhere?

This year, we plan to show the products of Le Frivole for the first time at the international exhibition, EroFame, in Hannover, Germany. We have already made up a few "hooks" to step ahead among the other companies. I invite everybody to join EroFame. We will be very pleased if our Russian clients come to encourage us (our stand is number 168). I have a dream of coming to every big city of the world, going to a shop and seeing the products of our brand Le Frivole there. This dream is gradually coming true. We have already managed to sell our items to a number of clients in Italy. So, a start has been made. To develop the international unit, we have hired a manager with good command of English. He spent the major part of his life in Great Britain and now he has moved to Russia.

What are your leisure activities?

I read a lot of books. The majority are on business (how to set up a business, how to manage it, how to provide incentives, etc.). I also read fiction. I consider books and trainings to be very useful for business development. As a matter of fact, within our industry, there is no company with billions in turnover. Not even half-billion. The best ones have 200-300 millions in their annual turnover. And I am interested in creating a business worth several billions. This is really fascinating.

However, to do so, it is not enough to do what others do. To understand what exactly you need to change, it is necessary to study the examples of those who has already succeeded. For this sake, there are books. People tell true stories. Another idea proves very interesting to me, yet it is not completely shaped buy now. I'd like to convene a small society of entrepreneurs from our environment, those who are eager to develop, who never stop getting new ideas that are briefly fulfilled and incorporated into the business. Such people live in the capital, as well as in the regions. They are those who look for more than simply covering their major needs. My idea includes holding the type of events different from the traditional round tables. They should be the meetings for mutual learning, exchange of experience, not at the level of 'we are all so nice', but at the level of 'I've done it, this is how it works, come and see it working, perhaps, you will find it useful'.

Are people ready to share such kind of experience? What about the competition?

No problem about it. This is an old wives' tale. Any kind of information is available nowadays. Just because you know your rival's way of acting, nothing changes, because it is a very difficult task to copy it and to fulfill it. So, I don't see any problem of sharing one's knowledge. People won't tell you the company's top secret, of course. Still, as for some interesting things, some specific crucial points, I would hear and share them with pleasure.