As Shop Direct’s Very marks its 10th anniversary, managing director of retail Sam Perkins and fashion director Emma Alexander reflect on the changing retail landscape and outline their plans for the next 10 years.
A decade is a long time in the fast-paced world of retail. Rewind back to 5 July 2009 and Liverpool-based retail group Shop Direct was gearing up to launch its latest offer – Very, a multi-brand website and catalogue designed to appeal to a generation of shoppers that was just beginning to embrace the internet.
Today, Very is a fully digital player that receives more than a million hits to its website every day and is home to 1,800 brands that span everything from dresses to toys, beauty, home and electricals. The past 10 years have been tough on much of the high street, but Very appears to be bucking the trend – revenue increased by 10% to £1.4bn in the year to 30 June 2018. Shop Direct, which also operates Littlewoods, will rebrand to The Very Group later this year in recognition of the brand, which is its largest and best-performing fascia.
“The big changes we’ve seen in the industry over the past ten years have been the demand for newness,” explains Sam Perkins, managing director of retail at Shop Direct. “The size of our assortment and the number of lines we carry has increased dramatically.”
Very argues that its fashion offer has been at the core of its success over the past ten years. It sells more than 500 brands, including Ted Baker, River Island, Adidas and Barbour, as well as its own brand, V by Very, which launched in 2016. It also works with celebrities such as actress Michelle Keegan and former The Only Way Is Essex star Kate Wright, who launched a beachwear collection with V by Very last month. Emma Alexander, former chief product retailer at Jack Wills, joined Shop Direct as fashion director in June last year
Alexander’s focus is getting new brands and products in front of customers, as well as elevating the quality of the assortment, she tells Drapers: “We need to constantly give shoppers something they haven’t seen before in order to be a credible player in fashion – the industry has moved away from the days when clothing was delivered four times a year. We’re also doing a lot of work on V by Very, which now accounts for more than a third of total fashion sales, to make the offer as strong as possible. We’re concentrating on better fabrics and working hard on fit.”
Shop Direct transitioned its luxury fashion proposition Very Exclusive, home to brands such as Marc Jacobs and Vivienne Westwood, to its main Very website in May this year. Some industry experts questioned whether premium brands would be happy sitting alongside value ranges at the time of the move and whether a combined platform could work.
Perkins counters: “The change means we’ve been able to create more visibility for customers for the premium brands. It has been a positive conversation between us and these labels.”
Alexander adds: “We were able to take some amazing luxury brands to Very, allowing a much larger customer base to access them. And we’ve got plans to attract even more premium fashion labels.”
As well as adjusting its offer, Very has adapted to one of the biggest shifts in consumer behaviour over the past 10 years – the growing role of technology within shopping. Very now prides itself on a mobile-first approach – in 2018, three-quarters of total sales were made on a mobile device. The brand also launched a chatbot in 2016, and, two years later, bolstered the function with artificial intelligence that allows customers to ask questions in their own words, rather than selecting from a list of phrases.
“Yes, customers are using their mobiles to shop but also to interact more broadly with retailers,” Perkins explains. “What we’re finding is that customers are becoming more comfortable using technology such as chatbots when it is intuitive, and it helps them. People are living busier lives and they want to interact with us on their own terms.”
Shop Direct has outlined plans to recruit hundreds of roles in data and technology to help it weather the next 10 years in retail. It is also building a 850,000 sq ft distribution centre in the East Midlands, which is expected to be operational for the 2021 peak season. The new site will allow Shop Direct to process more orders and use new technology to make the business more responsive, reducing the time it takes to get products to customers.
Reflecting on what the next 10 years in business will bring for Very, Perkins concludes: “Any consumer-facing business needs to have a clear idea of the role it plays and what it brings to customers. Shoppers will only continue to want more choice and two-way communication and a proper dialogue with retailers.”