Returns cost money, lots of money. Free delivery and no quibble returns are starting to become a strain on online retailers and it seems ASOS has had enough. The British fast-fashion giant recently announced it was cracking down on ‘serial returners’. An extension in its returns policy - items can be returned up to 45 days after purchase with a cash refund up to 28 days and credit thereafter - was also issued with a threat to investigate and ‘take action’ if it notices anything unusual with people returning more items than usual. If it suspects someone is wearing and returning goods, or ordering and returning ‘loads’, it may deactivate the account.
Left - ASOS' returns are costing them dearly
ASOS is one of the world’s largest online retailers, particularly amongst younger demographics, and its ease of ordering and returning is, arguably, part of the their success and growth story.
Becky, 29, says “I think it’s against the whole nature of online shopping. When you go into a shop you can take 10 items into the changing room and not like any of them, e-retailers need to expect the same thing to happen with their sites and customers should be able to return the items they don’t want.
"I buy a lot from ASOS and return a lot simply because it doesn’t fit right or because it doesn’t look how I expected it to when I bought it.” she says. “If it starts impacting how quickly refunds come through – or if I start having refund requests declined – then it definitely would discourage me. I love ASOS though – majority of my wardrobe is from ASOS, now, where they host so many brands – so I’m intrigued to see what happens!”
This issue is experienced by many retailers. Research conducted by resource planning platform Brightpearl, who surveyed 200 retailers across the UK, found more than a third of shops have seen an increase in serial returns over the last year. As a result, 45 per cent of retailers, including ASOS and Harrods, said they were planning to blacklist repeat offenders. It can cost double the amount for a product to be returned into the supply chain as it does to deliver it and in the UK, it can pass through seven pairs of hands before it is listed for resale. This all takes time and money.
Meli, 26, says “I’m glad that this prevents people returning used items as I’ve had something sent to me from ASOS before that was definitely used. However I’d hate to be blacklisted for genuinely returning items that don’t fit/I don’t like!
“I often order in bulk with multiple options and different sizes then do a try on at home to see what I like best, and return the rest. I think the real problem is sizing as ASOS stocks so many different brands, it’s hard to rely on standard sizing to be the same across all.” she says. “If I was blacklisted then it would certainly drive me to other online retailers or just shop directly with the brands that ASOS stocks. For now, it will make me think more carefully about exactly what I’d be likely to keep if it did fit.” says Meli.
Earlier this year, Zalando started a trial in which it would attach very big clothing labels to items to make it more difficult to ‘wear and return’ or post on Instagram. That label reads: “Dear customer, feel free to fit this article and try it, but if this label is removed, it will not to be accepted as a return by Zalando.”
Retailers have somewhat encouraged some of this behaviour with their ‘try-before-you-buy’ options. Consumers can order what they like and then just pay for what they keep. This encourages over ordering and a large number of returns. Amazon currently restricts this service to between 3 and 8 items.
Research from Barclaycard found that almost 1 in 10 UK shoppers have bought clothes online with the intent to wear them for social media and then return them. Surprisingly, it was the older demographic, men and women aged 35 to 44, with 17 per cent, revealing that they are guilty of shopping only for their #OOTD. The research also found that is was men who were more inclined to shop and return as they are more ‘socially self-conscious’ than women - with 12 per cent admitting to posting a clothing or accessory item on social media and returning it to the retailer afterwards.
Right - Zalando taking on the 'Serial Returners'' with their large tags
Lois Spencer-Tracey, fashion blogger, says, “Must confess, I'm a bit annoyed by this. I probably send back 80-100% of an order I receive purely because of their sizing and my body shape. Nothing to do with my Instagram or blog.”
Last year, Next announced it would start to charge customers a £1 fee for returns they make through a courier or through a Hermes Parcel Shop. The collection charge will be applied for each collection, regardless of the number of items collected. Returning items at any of Next’s retail or clearance stores in the UK remains free.
ASOS are playing the fashion police by admitting had resorted to checking people’s social media accounts in a bid to catch out consumers who wear clothes before sending them back, and falsely claim they have not received items bought online.
“I’m a massive online shopper. I find it so much easier to just order clothes in and try them on at home because then you can try on a full outfit, matching with the shoes and accessories you want. It’s so much easier to do in your own home rather than in a squished changing room. And usually returns are easy with things like collect+ which is much better than working out when you’ll next be in town to take clothes back to a store.” says Becky.
This is a difficult line for online brands to tread. On the one hand they don’t want to discourage consumers from ordering or being frightened to return things, and, on the other hand, they need to let excessive returners or people who are wearing things and returning them, know they are being monitored. It's definitely easier to return something into a faceless plastic bag than been quizzed by a sales assistant. This is probably an empty threat from ASOS, but does illustrate how serious this issue is becoming for fashion e-tailers. Rather than look at the volume of returns, maybe look at the conversion percentages of sales from shoppers. You don’t want to alienate active and engaged consumers, but neither do you want to service those costing the company dearly.
Read more ChicGeek expert comments - here
As luxury online marketplace, Farfetch, debuts on the New York Stock Exchange, I ask, is it a worthy investment?
This isn’t particularly scientific, but, recently, I was looking for a particular AW18 Dries Van Noten jacket I’d seen, in store, in Selfridges. It wasn’t on their website, so I tried Mr Porter. Nothing. So, then I thought I’d search FarFetch. With over 600 boutiques said to be affiliated to their network, and 375 luxury brands, you’d expect a decent selection to come up. Nothing again.
Left - Is Farfetch high on the list of your luxury searches?
Dries Van Noten isn’t the most ubiquitous of fashion brands, but without a large network of own brand shops, it is usually sold wholesale to designer boutiques and is found in the majority of luxury department stores. It’s big enough. It felt strange nothing was on Farfetch. This isn’t the first time this has happened and the reason why it wasn’t my first place to search.
Farfetch just had its valuation lifted and is set to be valued at between $4.9bn and $5.5bn in its initial public offering in response to investor interest in technology stocks. The shares have a price range of $17 to $19, according to an updated regulatory filing published this week. The original range was $15 to $17.
Joseph Wong, an investor in luxury fashion stocks such as Burberry, ASOS, Bvlgari and Mulberry, says “Farfetch assimilates some of the best independent boutiques into a common platform. What’s valuable is the technology and the list of stores they represent. For that diehard enthusiast, he/she can do a quick search for that elusive Off-White piece or vintage Chanel piece, with a click to buy option.”
The majority of IPOs are often overpriced. They are filled with hot air to give healthy profits to the founders and early investors. Not to mention the fees to the money men to maximise the price and get the listing on its way. Farfetch, established in 2007, is being marketed as more of a tech company, where the prices are higher, rather than a retail marketplace model which takes a percentage from each transaction sold through its website.
The most recent Farfetch results show revenues of $267.5m in the six months to June 30, 2018, and losses before tax of $68.4m. Farfetch had total revenues of $910 million last year.
To put this in the context of the market, Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP), which was acquired by luxury conglomerate Richemont recently, valuing the business at €5.3 billion, and matchesfashion.com was sold to private equity firm Apax for over $1 billion last September. In the 12 months ending Dec. 31, YNAP saw year-end preliminary sales reach 2.1 billion euros ($2.5 billion). Matchesfashion.com recorded group revenue of £293 million ($393 million) to 31st Jan 2018.
“From our research of the luxury fashion market, FarFetch led in terms of traffic capture between 2015 and 2017, and maintains a good reputation. It has a sound business model, good commercials and no flagged operational or customer issues.” says Fleur Hicks, Managing Director of onefourzero, a data analytics and digital research agency based in London.
“It is an ambitious listing price, but in the context of the growing luxury fashion market, this could see returns within the next months and years, depending on how ambitious your investment strategy.” she says.
The global fashion industry is, according to a 2017 McKinsey report, valued at $2.4 trillion. If it were ranked, alongside individual countries’ GDP, it would represent the world’s second largest economy. From 2014 to 2018, the luxury fashion industry was expected to grow from 3% to 17% of the total fashion market. Annual online sales growth was expected to be 17% in the US, 18% in the UK, 12% in Germany and a whopping 70% in China, according to the report.
“It’s a good business model within a growing marketplace.” says Hicks. “The return risks of minimised stock and holding outlays look to outweigh the risks associated with reliance upon 3rd party operations, such as delivery. It averages a 30% mark up and thus a 50-odd% margin on operations. Incredible for the fashion industry. Also, the growth rate - 60% this year - is impressive.” she says.
Right - Is the value in Farfetch in its tech?
“Of the competitor set we analysed, Farfetch represented 3.8% of the captured online traffic market, representing the market lead. This competitor set only represented 17% of the potential traffic available (based on digital demand and traffic) and therefore the headroom for brand and revenue growth is huge.” says Hicks.
Farfetch’s future growth is potentially going to come from its ‘White Label’ service supporting brands such as Manolo Blahnik, Christopher Kane, DKNY and Thom Browne in their e-commerce offerings.
Farfetch have announced many strategic partnerships recently to further enhance the value of the company. These include Chanel, Chalhoub Group, one of the biggest distributors of fashion and luxury goods in the Middle East and the modesty luxury retailer, The Modist. They have also partnered with brands such as Harvey Nichols and Burberry. This is spreading their risk and also leveraging their technical expertise. It’s what Ocado has done in food.
Wong says, “You also need to consider what they will be using the cash raised from the flotation for. When Prada was listed, it was to relieve the billion Euro debt, open more stores and provide an exit plan for the founders.”
Farfetch are investing heavily in technology and this does explain some of the losses. They hope they will be able to charge other brands handsomely for this and the ever important 'big data'.
Are there any potential waves on the horizon? “Digital commercial disruptors are most likely to threaten large behemoths like Farfetch.” says Hicks. “This would most likely come from Amazon or AliExpress fashion lines and/or new ways to purchase fashion in a more interactive way. It’s unlikely that this will be a quick transition, so if FarFetch remain on pulse with technological change and consumer movements then they should be agile enough to move with the technical and operational trends as well as fashion trends.” she says.
Wong says, “Businesses are keen to connect directly to consumers, and cut the middlemen: think Kylie Cosmetics, Pat McGrath. This is happening to media industry too: Netflix originals instead of via Sky or Virgin Media. Not sure if Farfetch have addressed such concerns before.”
“There is also the downside for retailers: I once noted a £1500 price difference on a stunning new season McQueen coat: the result of a weak sterling and import taxes levied by a store from the Far East.” he says.
According to Bain & Company, the luxury goods market reached a record high of €262 billion in 2017. Online sales jumped by 24%, reaching an overall market share of 9%. Bain & Company predicts the market will be worth $446 billion market by 2025. Online’s share is expected to be its fastest-growing segment, rising from about 9% to 25% by 2025.
I think you need to look at Farfetch in the context of being a major player in a fast growing market. The valuation seems to be based upon its potential and the appetite for this type of technology stock.
I don’t think the name ‘Farfetch’ is particularly well known with general consumers. They need to work on the parent brand and getting its name into the luxury consumer’s head for that initial search. They also need to feel like the Amazon of luxury: all the choice on one site, which takes me back to my disappointing Dries Van Noten search. They could do better with packaging and more Instagrammable things to raise awareness of the consumer side of the brand.
There also have a lot of variables. They have different stores buying different things in different currencies and it loses something of that personal touch that other retailers seem to nurture and one of the reasons you go to a retailer.
Left - The online market is growing massively and is set to grow from 9% to 25% of the luxury market
As for selling the tech. to other brands, I think this is where the long-term value is, but they need to be careful not to overstretch themselves and have too many fingers in too many pies. It’s better to do fewer things well. It feels like they are still working out the direction they are going in. They could easily focus on either sides of this business and quietly reduce the other. They need to grow revenues while keeping the costs constant or reduced. They just don't want to lose the momentum.
The price seems, initially, far fetched, (soz), but the long term prospects for luxury online is looking good.
It’s subjective, I know, but if you’ve bought something from a ‘luxury’ brand, recently, you will probably notice the quality isn’t quite what it once was. On the unstoppable growth trajectory of higher prices and sales, the quality hasn’t stayed consistent: no doubt increasing already inflated margins.
I’m not naive, I understand you pay a premium for a designer name or brand, but there was always a minimum quality to the product, leaving you, the customer, satisfied and at least without the feeling of being ripped off.
I’ll give you an example. I bought one of those new GG buckle Gucci belts online, 18 months ago. I hadn’t felt it, or seen it, I just ordered it online. It was a simple black belt after all. You think you know what will arrive.
What turned up felt like a free pleather school belt. I’m not being facetious, but there was no quality there. When you’re charging £250 and you can’t even offer a decent strip of leather to take the strain of holding your trousers up, there’s clearly something wrong.
Why didn’t I send it back? When it arrived at home, in insolation, seduced by the packaging, and Gucci was so-hot-right-now, you just shrug your shoulders and think, "okay, so it’s not the best, but it’s what I wanted and it’s cool ATM". (Damn you hype!)
It’s when I look back, and think about that belt, I feel, that if I’d handled and seen it in the shop, I probably wouldn’t have bought it in the first place. I would have felt the quality and moved on.
And, so to my theory - the growth of online is allowing mainstream luxury brands to get away with lower quality products. Consumers are more accepting in their own homes, they have nothing to compare it to at the time and the thought and hassle of sending something back is making people keep things they wouldn’t have necessarily bought in a physical store.
“Shopping is very much a human multi-sensory experience so it follows that we want to use as many of our senses. Emotion plays the dominant role in our buying decisions so the in-store experience will always be far superior to the online experience. As Boxpark MD Roger Wade put it ‘Shopping online is like watching fireworks on TV’ says Andrew Busby, Founder & CEO of Retail Reflections.
There’s no doubt online has contributed to the massive growth of these brands, whether on their own websites or third parties. Last year Gucci’s online sales posted triple-digit growth on their branded website and that’s without all the other online retailers. Gucci didn’t hit €6.2 billion turnover in 2017 on physical stores alone.
“This all depends on your definition of ‘Mainstream Luxury’. The word ‘Luxury’ is banded around all too often. True luxury is confined, generally, to bricks and mortar shopping, hence the resistance of major houses to enter the online market. When I consider ‘Luxury’ I think of brands such as LV, Chanel, Loewe etc,” says Darren Skey, Founder/Director of Nieuway Limited, and former Head of Menswear at Harvey Nichols.
“I wouldn’t class brands such as Off White, Amiri, Vetements as ‘Luxury’. What we are seeing is the luxury brands such as Loewe and LV seeing the growth potential of hype products and as such are designing products with this in mind. This leads to more quantity produced and a lower quality, compared to their main ranges, Fashion details are hard to produce on a large scale. Unfortunately, there is no correlation in price reductions, as you would expect with economies of scale,” says Skey.
It’s hard to prove this point, but it’s an interesting factor to think about. Net-a-Porter group recently introduced a new service for their “Extremely Important People”, where the delivery person waits to see whether you want the item or not, after they deliver it. It’s an instant reaction to the item(s) and it would be interesting to know whether this has increased or decreased returns. Obviously, they want the latter.
Quality is subjective and brands vary. But I think we’re seeing an overarching trend towards higher margins and lower quality from brands trying to still offer ‘luxury’ and compete with other brands’ stratospheric growth in turnovers.
There’s also a generational shift to think about. Since 2016, the global luxury market has grown by 5%, with 85% of this growth generated by Millennials according to a report by A LINE, a global branding & design studio. These younger consumers don't have as much experience and product to compare the quality to and brands are taking advantage of this.
“The expectation of the younger consumer is also changing and I think this is an interesting observation. For the younger consumers it is more important to have the latest hype piece regardless of the quality. And, as we know, the majority of the Millennials shop online,” says Skey.
Brands have made it easier to return products, but unless it’s the wrong size or nothing like pictured, I think people are more accepting in terms of quality.
“I don't think that shoppers are unwilling to send things back once purchased online. Fashion is not cheap and I don't believe we are in an economy where this can be an option. I also think retailers are making the process of sending product back easier,” says Skey.
‘I am predicting a backlash to the returns culture we are currently witnessing - both from retailers and environmentalists. The average returned purchase in the UK passes through seven pairs of hands before it is listed for resale. According to Iain Prince, supply chain director at KPMG, "It can cost double the amount for a product to be returned into the supply chain as it does to deliver it”.’ says Busby.
What brands have to remember: when you’re not cool or hot anymore, the thing that will keep consumers returning is quality. This lowering of quality is short-termism and greedy and will ultimately be a big factor is diminishing future sales and brand loyalty.
I’ve also written about brands which offer great value, like Fiorucci. here