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06.11.2020

THE PEOPLE BEHIND ESSENTIEL ANTWERP

CAROLINE & MARIJKE
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Meet the People Behind our Essentiel Antwerp stores: as district sales managers of our Belgian stores, Caroline Van Tongel and Marijke Hellinx talk about their jobs, teamwork and about the impact of the current situation on their stores.
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Can you tell us more about your job?

Caroline — We are responsible for managing all the stores and making sure they all offer the same brand experience. This includes everything from recruiting and training store staff to day-to-day management and making sure targets are reached. We're also the link between the headquarters and the shops and implement all new ideas.
Every day is different.

Marijke — To be able to our job well, it's important to be in the field to really get the feeling of what's going on in the stores. Every city has a different vibe, so we've worked in all of our stores to gain that specific knowledge and are able to address the clientele and any issues most efficiently.


How did you end up in this position?

Caroline — I've been working at Essentiel Antwerp for 20 years now. By now I am part of the furniture. (laughs) I knew Inge (co-founder and creative director) from my former life as a model and that's how I ended up here.
I started as a salesperson in the first store in Antwerp. As we were quickly opening more stores - and I received more and more questions from colleagues - I saw the potential of managing them. I pitched it to Esfan (co-founder) and he gave me carte blanche. At that time we only had 3 stores and I managed them on my own until store number 15: Hasselt.
And that's where Marijke entered the world of Essentiel Antwerp. We hit it off immediately.

Marijke — I saw an Essentiel Antwerp store was opening in my hometown. I instantly fell for the brand and also the store. A while after I saw the vacancy for store manager and that made me decide on a career switch. After two years of working as a store manager there, I switched to assist Caroline in managing the Belgian stores.

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"I always get a kick out of opening a new store. It's really satisfying to see that every time we open a store, it's always spot on and it booms immediately."
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How do you work together and strengthen each other?

Marijke — We're in daily contact and consult each other a lot, sometimes even several times a day. I love working with Caroline and couldn't imagine a better colleague. I learned a lot from her, she shared her experience and all her tips and tricks.

Caroline — We can really rely on each other and we often share thoughts to come up with solutions together.

Marijke — We have an automated reaction to always stand strong for our store managers and their teams but we're lucky to be able to go to each other when we're dealing with any kind of issues.

Caroline — And sometimes you just have to go grab a drink and have a laugh!

Marijke — Work hard, party harder. (*wink)


What is your most memorable moment while working at Essentiel Antwerp?

Together — Paris? Paris! Yes, Paris.

Marijke — About 8 years ago, we opened two new stores in Paris. At that time, it was fashion week, all hotels were already occupied so we rented a small apartment with some colleagues. Some passed by for a couple of days, some stayed longer, there was a point in time we even slept with ten of us.
It was a really exciting time. We gave it our all and we were able to open those stores in an impossibly short time. The joint effort really created an exceptional bond between colleagues. Everything just came together there.

Caroline — I always get a kick out of opening a new store. It's really satisfying to see that every time we open a store, it's always spot on and it booms immediately.

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"It's important to be in the field to really get the feeling of what's going on in the stores."
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You said your job also consists of recruiting the right people for your store. Can you tell us what you're looking for when hiring people?

Caroline — Over the years, we've really built close relationships with our customers. We want our salespeople to very strong in communication and be able to empathize with the customer and feel their needs and personality.

Marijke — Yes and by doing that, they'll be able to gain trust of the customer and be able to give them the right advice. It's really about looking for the right outfit that matches with the personality of the customer and bringing out the best in them. That gives true satisfaction, for the customer but also for our salespeople.

Caroline — But for us it's mostly all about passion. That's contagious, isn't it? Someone who's passionate about his or her job and about the brand and our collections, really sparks the interest of the customer.

Marijke — And those values rule throughout the whole company, we're all very dedicated and passionate. And that is, now more than ever, important with the current situation. We see who really puts their heart and soul into it. You must have those Essentiel Antwerp values in you naturally. Those cannot be taught.


The current situation must have brought some challenges for your stores. How did you tackle this?

Marijke — We immediately felt a lot of uncertainty in our stores and they had a lot of questions to which we nor the government had the answers to at the time. What will happen? How are we going to get out of this?
But not only did we have to handle the uncertainty of our stores, we were also looking for ways to stay in touch with our customers as a company, and on a more personal level, for ways for our salespeople to stay in touch with their customers, whom they know so well. We believe it is important to keep that going, even in challenging times.

Caroline — And that's where the idea of finding a way to make ourselves available to our customers came to mind. I wanted to create something to still be able to reach out to our customers, even though it is not in person but by phone. It was the basis of the free WhatsApp styling sessions we launched in the first lockdown, and that we've immediately relaunched now. The possibility to be able to see people and give tailored advice is invaluable and our customers really appreciate it.

Marijke — We constantly try to stay positive and challenge ourselves and our colleagues to think out of the box, try to come up with alternatives to stay close to the customer. The first time we didn't know what happened to us, as it was a new an sudden situation, but now we're working on launching even more alternatives to shopping in store. You can't call this a 9 to 5 job, and certainly not now, but as long as everyone is on-board to do everything we can together, we're going to overcome this. I believe in that.

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"I wanted to create something to still be able to reach out to our customers, even though it is not in person but by phone. It's the basis of the free WhatsApp styling sessions we offer now."
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How do you see the future with current circumstances and the enormous growth of the digital?

Marijke — We're lucky that our e-shop exists. It's the future but we think digital and physical stores go hand in hand. The lockdown gave a lot of our customers a push towards online, but I do believe the step towards the online world was smaller because of the trust we've built in store. The best of both worlds is the future, by constantly seeking how we can reinforce each other.

Caroline — The customer is also way more informed when entering our stores thanks to our online store. They've already done their research so it's also up to our store staff to follow that trend. We can say that we all learn from each other. The people more my age, shall I say (*chuckle), learn digitally more from the younger ones, while the somewhat older generation shares their experience with the younger ones.


Enough about the work, let's talk about your personal style. How would you best describe it and how do you see the match with Essentiel Antwerp Antwerp?

Caroline — I love colors and wear a lot of Essentiel Antwerp, but I also love to mix it with other brands. I like to put my personality in my clothes, but I don't dress myself up.

Marijke — I am also usually dressed in Essentiel Antwerp and I am still in love with the brand, just like before I came to work at Essentiel Antwerp. I prefer to dress feminine yet tough. I often wear pants, but maybe that's also because we have fantastic pants.

Caroline — We often wear the same items, yet we style it differently. You are the tougher one and I'm often a bit more frivolous, with a bow and all.

Marijke — Just like Caroline said, you have to be able to wear a piece in a way that suits you and that you don't feel dressed up. Actually, exactly like those values of Essentiel Antwerp. Dress your emotions.

Caroline — Well, we ARE Essentiel Antwerp.

Marijke — Yes, we are Essentiel Antwerp.

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