When was the last time you felt truly inspired by a luxury brand’s website? Regardless of the cute little illustrations or achingly cool ad campaign flipping past, mono-luxury e-tail hasn’t really moved on over the past decade. It’s as though they still feel the brand is enough.
People don’t dress like this, and just to replicate the physical store online is to create a glorified warehouse or catalogue, which doesn’t take into account the element of personality, pampering and leisure which makes physical shopping a pleasure for many and the reason most people desire these brands in the first place. It’s not seductive.
Left - Celine.com - Have mono-luxury sites moved on in the last decade?
During this same time period, multi-brand luxury retailers such as matchesfashion.com, Far Fetch and Net-A-Porter have grown their turnovers into the hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to their ability to tap into people’s desires for newness and vast amounts of choice. These retailers are basically online fashion department stores just minus the fridges and toasters. People like to skip between brands and cherry pick items across them in the most efficient use of their time. Going onto individual, mono-brand websites, especially if you don’t know what you want, feels like a blinkered process and like you’re not getting a full view of the fashion landscape. It also feels, on the majority of sites, as though there isn’t much on there. It is just isn’t very satisfying.
Last week, Farfetch Chief Executive, Jose Neves, predicted that brands would pull out of multi-brand retailers online and operate as e-concessions on marketplaces instead, much as they have done in bricks-and-mortar department stores. And, last year, Kering announced it would take some of its biggest e-commerce websites in house, by the first half of 2020, putting an end to a seven-year joint venture with Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP).
Kering’s online sales made up just 6% - this is against 18% of UK retail as a whole - of its 6.4 billion euro turnover in the first half of 2018, but it did grow by 80 percent in the third quarter, faster than revenue growth in department stores or its own shops. If these brands want to reflect general online retail sales they will need to double or triple the percentage of sales coming from online.
Taking back control of the Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga websites will allow Kering full access to information such as client data.While this is great for the brands and the back-end, tech side, customers will notice little difference unless they have a radical rethink of how they present their brands on the front-end. Consumers are used to scrolling and discount incentives to drive sales which many of these brands, outside of sales season, won’t offer. It can also feel very clinical.
According to a report by Deloitte “Big data may help luxury brands to provide personalized and superior customer service through consumer segmentation, behaviour and sentiment analysis, and predictive analytics. Several luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Dior and Estée Lauder, have already started to take advantage of these technologies, using AI-powered technologies, such as machine learning and analytics, to offer more personalized and timely customer services. They implemented their own AI-powered chatbots and now can sell products using targeted marketing, personalization, and timely automation.”
In November 2018, Kering created a data science team at group level to improve the service and shopping experience of its clients. Kering intends to get real-time 360-degree view of its customers to deliver rich and personalised experiences and meet their specific needs. LVMH, doesn’t break out separate online sales information, but they did reveal that the group's online sales rose by more than 30 percent in 2018. Ian Rogers, the first ever chief digital officer of the LVMH group, told Wired, last year, that he doesn’t like the word "digital" and he has the very tricky job of matching the luxury online customer journey with the pampered, indulgent experience IRL.
“It’s not the case that luxury shopping becomes self-serve on the internet: if I do buy something I expect a high level of service, even if I’m remote.” he said “You can see it's definitely strategic for us to invest in remote customer support, and it's directly downstream of our Internet strategy. There's this nonsense land of digital transformation where people wave their hands and they talk in impractical terms. Keep drilling until you have something practical that works and then rinse and repeat. Lose these nonsense words like "digital", like "data", like "social media". You have to get rid of this digital umbrella because it's just too broad. When somebody says, "We're really behind on digital", my response is, "You're behind in every aspect of your business?” he said.
Right - Spot the difference - YSL.com
According to Kering’s Chief Client & Digital Officer, Grégory Boutté, “Digital can be many different things at once - a distribution channel; a platform for offering seamless omni-channel services to clients; a driver of brand image and visibility; and a tool for engaging with customers in a personalized way. Digital technology, data science and innovation provide a way of offering our customers the best possible experience – on every touchpoint” he said.
Online and off-line isn’t separate, most brands now offer services such as check availability, reserve in-store, make store appointment, pick-up in-store, return in-store, exchange in-store, and buy online in-store. Kering said it will continue to develop partnerships with third-party e-commerce platforms "when relevant", but we’re seeing the beginnings of a power struggle between brands and retailers. They both need each other.
Now these luxury groups are focusing on their websites they need to rethink the entire thing. Their rigid ‘aesthetics’ and branding doesn’t allow for personality. Mono-brand luxury sites are restricted by the volume of product and while it changes, it doesn’t change often enough to the levels today’s customers have become used to.
Brands, such as Prada, Saint Laurent and Celine, also sell a lot of black, which doesn’t shoot well and doesn’t make the most inspiring of online images. Add in ‘collab. fatigue’ and these brands really need to develop a new idea for websites if they want to increase sales and move away from multi-brand sites.
Luxury brands have built themselves a boring digital straight-jacket and need to start thinking differently. They could offer FaceTime with sales associates in people’s local stores, or offer a live view way of browsing in-store and matching to items online. It’s going to be about making the virtual real and vice versa. There are many possibilities, but they need to unthink the “brand”.
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The idea of paying to have something made, passing it on to someone else to sell, who will then pay you in a few month’s time, sounds like the cashflow diagram from hell. Unless the profit margins are huge, and even then it’s not ideal, wholesaling in fashion is difficult. Small brands, especially, need the constant stream of cash, traditionally have tighter margins, and need the crucial feedback of information with regards to successful products that can inform future decisions and where to put their limited resources.
The fashion wholesale model is broken and, now, even the big boys are deciding to step back. Luxury brands are also realising, finally, that the true value of selling directly to consumers is growing a database of customers and understanding exactly what they want in a shorter amount of time and being more reactive to those needs. Realising something is or isn’t selling in 3 to 6 month’s time is pointless and is what will suffocate even the biggest of brands.
Many luxury brands sat back and twiddled their thumbs over the past two decades while huge fashion corporations like YOOX/Net-A-Porter and MatchesFashion.com have grown with enviable customer lists and used huge amounts of information to improve their offer and grow further.
Now, the wholesale middle man is being pushed back to a point where brands want more control, know they will make more money directly and won’t be at the whims of a fashion buyer every season as to whether they’ve made the cut or not.
Prada announced last month that is would reduce its wholesale network in Italy and Europe in a push to have uniform prices for its products across different outlets and reduce markdowns. Before that, in March, the Milan-based company said it also would stop offering end-of-season promotions at its own shops in a bid to boost margins and protect its brand. They’ve obviously been watching the success of Gucci’s no-sale model and product that continues over seasons and doesn’t seem to quickly date.
In a short filing with the Hong Kong stock exchange, where the company is listed, the company's chairman Carlo Mazzi stated, “The Prada Group considers it essential to ensure greater consistency in pricing policies across retail and digital channels. This strategic review is intended to further strengthen the Prada Group brands with the aim of supporting sustainable long-term growth.”
Prada said it would end relations with some Italian and European wholesale partners and gradually replace them with new digital and e-commerce players.
While they’ve tried to improve their website, added a broader selection and launched onto sites like Mr Porter, Prada is doing it at a time when the brand has lost momentum and isn’t quite as in demand as it once was. It said the leather goods category will be the most impacted with the changes and this is their biggest segment with the greatest margins.
This DTC (Direct To Consumer) approach is something born from the internet and social media. The brand owns the customer and has a direct relationship. It knows their e-mail and address. It also knows what they have bought before and, most likely, things that may interest them in the future. As personalisation increasingly becomes more sophisticated, this will also help to offer more choices and brands can follow their customers through their actions.
Physical retail third party wholesale accounts allow you less control and inject potential disruption in your cherished luxury supply chain to the customer and, as Prada says, you can keep the prices constant and consistent (probably higher) throughout one geographical region.
Kering, owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, has announced it will take back control of its e-commerce operations, focusing on own branded sites where it can control its image and client data. Excluding Gucci, the YOOX/Net-A-Porter group operated e-commerce websites for most of the brands within the Kering group. The joint venture will now end in the second quarter of 2020. While not completely cutting off their nose to spite their face, Kering wants to turn more of its collaborations with third-party, multi-brand retailers such as Farfetch or Matchesfashion.com into what it calls ‘online concessions’, where it controls everything from the product assortment to their presentation. "Each time we move from wholesale to a concession we see our top line increase in a material way,” said Grégory Boutté, Kering’s Chief Client & Digital Officer, and former vice President of eBay. Kering has stated it was ‘not against wholesale,’ and did not plan to end its relationships with third parties altogether.
This is will be a play of power and something that I think will be difficult especially with the complexities of something like FarFetch coming from multiple retailers in different locations. This sounds like wanting your cake and eating it; we want your database, but in our own way. I’m not sure that many retailers will relinquish that amount of control, especially when you consider how many brands they sell and also the loyalty they now instil in these hard won customers.
Kering's total online sales — when including the business done through third party platforms, calculated at retail and not at lower wholesale prices — came to 9.4 percent of the group's 2018 revenue. Web sales through its own brand websites and online concessions made up 4.7 percent of revenue. This has huge room to grow.
Boutté has built up his digital team from 4 people upon his arrival at Kering in 2017 to over 80 people, today. He has realised the power of data. “The more data we have, the more precise our algorithm is and the better the experience is. The other thing is that it should lead us to excellence in terms of our operations.” he said.
Across the luxury goods industry as a whole, e-commerce accounts for around 10 percent of business today and should reach 25 percent of sales by 2025, consultancy Bain estimates.
This is about information and control. Controlling discount, controlling points of sale and controlling presentation. You can control more online, even with third parties. You can see it from anywhere. It's those pockets of physical wholesale boutiques or department stores in small towns that are harder to police and often unsold stock disappears into the grey market and ends up on discount sites and with other retailers.
Where once luxury retailers didn’t want to get their hands dirty, they are now rolling up their sleeves and have their eyes on the online prize; higher prices, more full price sell-throughs and control of that all important ‘data’. This will get more ferocious as the market becomes more saturated, growth slows and customers get increasingly more expensive to acquire.
I predict many brands will try to be exclusive to their mono-brand websites if they don’t get what they want with their third party partners, or possibly try the LVMH 24 Sèvres, now rebranded as 24S, route, but it will be hard. And expensive.
Retailers like FarFetch and MatchesFashion.com are decades ahead and thrive on new and small designers adding that colour and point of difference online. Luxury mono-brand websites often look boring, sterile and empty. People don’t shop in single brands, particularly when they are browsing. While the idea is logical and makes sense to reduce wholesale and take back more control, it will be far more complicated than that and add multiple costs to their business models.