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Andrew Robb

Private members’ Sale website Cocosa was set up by the owners of Grazia, and delivers the sense of exclusiveness the magazine’s readers crave, says its managing director

In recent months a raft of etailers offering discounted designer fashion have emerged hoping to tap into the time-poor, cash-strapped British consumer’s desire for premium products at knock-down prices. A number of different models have been employed, such as the freely accessible outlets from the likes of Koodos and Net-a-Porter’s The Outnet, as well as private Sale sites where discounted product is made available for a limited period to an exclusive group of invited customers, as favoured by Vente-privee and Brand Alley.

The latter model emerged in France to circumvent the strict laws surrounding Sale periods. But one of the most recent entries to the UK market, Cocosa, is employing the model because it creates a sense of exclusivity for its member customers and it offers designer brands a fast, discreet way of selling discounted stock that won’t compromise their wholesale or retail sales.

What also stands Cocosa apart from the pack is that it was established not by a retailer but by media giant Bauer Media, which publishes a number of household-name consumer magazines such as men’s monthly FHM and women’s style weekly Grazia. The site was launched following a research project carried out with the readers of Grazia, which boasts a circulation of about 230,000 copies per week. “They loved the idea of a private members’ club that gave exclusive offers or early access to Sale or discounted products,” explains managing director Andrew Robb, who joined Bauer from online auction business eBay in 2007 and was charged with developing a new digital business for the media group.

On the surface a move into etail might seem like a logical move for a publisher, especially one with a dedicated target audience and a wealth of experience in editorialising fashion in print and online. Indeed, plenty of etailers have taken the idea of presenting fashion online in an editorial context, and in the case of Asos even launching its own fashion magazine on the back of an etail site.

So why, you might ask, have media companies allowed them to steal a march? “The thing that’s fundamentally tricky for a media company going into retail is that media is a very high-margin business and retail isn’t. In retail, if you don’t get it right you will never make any money,” explains Robb. “10% to 20% is a classic retail margin; if you did that in media they would shut you down.”

This, and the complex logistics involved too, might explain why other media companies who wish to dabble in the retail market have chosen to go down the route of partnering or affiliating with an established etailer, like News International’s joint venture with Brand Alley. Cocosa has a warehouse in Kent and logistics is outsourced to Amethyst Group. Unlike some online discounters, Cocosa takes delivery of all its products to its warehouse before it puts them on sale, which Robb feels is crucial if it is to offer customers the service levels associated with buying luxury goods, albeit at lower prices. Cocosa’s sale or return agreement with its brands means that it may have to send back unsold product at the end of the Sale, but it is a potential hassle Robb feels is necessary.

“We have to do it because we deliver [to customers] in two days. Selling the product and then taking delivery of it might be easier for the brand but it is terrible for the consumer and it doesn’t work in high end. A premium brand doesn’t want to be associated with bad customer service,” he says. “On eBay the standard delivery time is two to three weeks, but if the price is right you can trade off service against that.”

All Cocosa’s Sales run for 48 hours, starting at midday, and are open to members only. It runs five Sales a week and had clocked up 100 by the end of May. Until now it focused solely on premium womenswear and accessories from brands including Jonathan Saunders, Matthew Williamson, Vera Wang and John Smedley. The benefits of the 48-hour Sale, says Robb, are speed and discretion. Brands can quietly and quickly shift stock.

Robb says he is considering other formats for the Sales. “We’re always looking at it but at the moment there are no concrete plans. Mixed-brand Sales are an interesting idea and we’re thinking about shorter and longer times, but we will never have a fully stocked store. Should we have a few products available all the time just so customers can experience the site? Maybe.” Adding new categories, such as beauty, home and menswear is also under consideration, he adds.

When it comes to recruiting brands, having the contacts and backing of a magazine like Grazia is helpful for opening doors for the site’s buyers, who include Sandy Bontout, formerly of Dubai designer indie Boutique 1, but it does not close the deal, says Robb. “It helps where it [Grazia] has a strong relationship with a fashion brand, but Cocosa has to sell itself.”

Fashion consultant Frances Card, a former director of iconic London department store Liberty, was instrumental in launching the site and for establishing its quirky tone. “Frances did a fantastic job and was critical in getting us off the ground. There is an infusion of Frances in a lot of what we do,” Robb adds. Card’s consultancy ended in May and Robb is looking for a new brand director.

That brand director will “come from the buying side” and will be charged with getting more brands on board. But it is not just about volume, Robb says. “It’s got to be the right brands. It’s all about the brands.”

CV

2008 Managing director, Cocosa
2007 Digital director, lifestyle, Bauer Media
2006 Completes MBA at Insead business school, France
2003 Head of motors and category development, eBay
2000 Business development director, Peoplesound
1997 Strategy consultant, Gemini Consulting
1994 BA Law, Oxford University

Q&A

Who do you consider to be your mentor? Meg Whitman [former chief executive of eBay] is an unbelievable businesswoman. She created a US$50 billion (£30.5bn) business in eight years.

What is your favourite store? I love what Sir Philip Green [arcadia“>Arcadia Group owner] has done at Topshopand I really admire Richard Bradbury [chief executive] at River Island. I also think Net-a-Porter is fantastic.

What is the best-selling product you have worked on? The Vera Wang Lavender collection. It was all ready-to-wear and Cocosa’s customers loved it; it completely disappeared. It’s a big name and price-point wise it was reasonable, so it was a nice balance. We have two types of customer: the first is the real fashionista who will follow trends and buy more creative brands, and the other is the professional 30-something woman, where big labels are more important.

What has been your greatest achievement? Launching Cocosa. Mainly because to get a start-up off the ground is hard at the best of times, and in this climate it’s very tricky. Also, launching a retail business is a departure for a media company.

What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)? As a kid I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but I’m too tall and my eyesight isn’t good enough. My dream job would be to play centre forward for the Scottish football team and in business I would love to run Arsenal FC.

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