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Multichannel: The indie way

Thanks to their compact and agile structure, fashion independents are able to compete with even the largest multiples when it comes to wooing customers.

Big budgets, whole teams dedicated to individual sales channels and national - if not international - brand awareness means competing with a high street giant’s multichannel proposition can seem like an impossible task for an independent. But it doesn’t have to be. They can compete, and many are doing just that.

Dan Mortimer, chief executive of digital strategy agency Red Ant, says indies should not be put off by the scale of multiples’ multichannel operations. Those channels often act in isolation, whereas a compact business structure allows for a more agile and cohesive operation. “Independents can circumvent traditional business processes to converge all areas and deliver a seamless experience for both retailer and customer,” he says.

Designer retailer Jules B, which has eight stores in northern England and a website that accounts for 65% of its overall sales, has done just that. For PR and marketing manager Adam Mooney it’s all about prioritisation. “Being an independent retailer certainly doesn’t hinder our operation as our resources are quantifiable to our size,” he says.

“We aim to provide everything that the larger retailers out there offer. However, as with any business, we do have limitations. If we try to strain our resources too hard, it is only logical that there will be a break in the chain somewhere else and this can’t happen.”

He says Jules B tries to focus on order fulfilment, customer service and delivering new product both on and offline, as well as continually developing the site to keep customers happy.

Womenswear retailer The Dressing Room in St Albans was peer-voted number one in Drapers’ Inspiring Independents for 2013, and owner Deryane Tadd says the website, which accounts for 30% of overall sales, has been imperative to its success. Tadd launched the site in 2008 with a couple of thousand pounds, but then realised she needed to “throw a lot more money at it” in order to compete, so invested in a £100,000 relaunch 18 months later. This included money for paid search, Google AdWords, product photography and staff.

In October this year, will relaunch again as a fully responsive website - with automatically adapting versions of the site depending on which device the consumer is using - along with new branding, a new
loyalty function, a wish-list option and better search facilities. “It should be a much better user experience. Rather than having a mobile-optimised site or an app, it’s a site that is designed specifically for each platform,” says Tadd.

Of course, not everyone has the budget for that, so selling through an affiliate site might be a less costly and less risky path to take.

Andrew Robb, chief operating officer of retail portal Farfetch, says there are three main advantages to the marketplace model. “The first is reach. Many of our boutiques have their own web operations but they typically haven’t worked that well - though not in all cases - because they’ve struggled to drive demand to it, and online marketing is expensive and can be risky.

“The second is operational support [Farfetch provides photography, inventory management systems and marketing support]. And third, it is based on success - we only take a commission on things that sell. There is no upfront fee or minimum commitment.”

This rings true for Giulio Cinque, owner of Cambridge designer store Giulio, which draws 30% of overall sales via Farfetch. “Nowadays, to have your own website is a proper investment. The online world has come on so much in the past five years. The competition is so strong, and you’d really need to invest a lot of money to compete.”

He adds: “Farfetch has built this cool website with some cool stores on it and it’s great to be among the competition.

And if you’re on your own, things such as search engine optimisation cost a lot of money. Farfetch does all that for
you but on a much bigger scale.”

Young fashion indie Chocolate Clothing in Derry draws 34% of its sales from its own website, but has also taken the affiliate route.

It began selling through eBay in March 2012 and will begin selling on Amazon next month [October]. “It is a logical step to start selling on these channels to compete online, as having a standalone website is no longer enough,” says co-owner David Conaghan.

Designer womenswear indie Bernard Boutique in Esher, Surrey sells through its own website and on Farfetch. Co-owner Barrie Rapaport says the two routes account for 35% to 40% of total sales. “The two combined give us the online reach required to tap into the international market,” he says, adding that without the portal “this could prove incredibly difficult for independents that do not have the funds to support an effective strategy”.

The online channel provides a rich source of customer data, and Bernard Boutique uses this to communicate with customers via email and SMS marketing, as well as through social media platforms, based on their preferences and purchase history.The Dressing Room also utilises social media, and Tadd previews new collections for customers via YouTube, with increased footfall in store as a result.

Chocolate Clothing used Facebook to promote its Face of Chocolate modelling competition earlier this year, which in turn helped drive customers in store. “Social media channels are very important because this is an area where an independent can really compete with larger retailers at a low cost, as opposed to competing in terms of investing in search engine optimisation,” Conaghan says.

The retailer has also invested in an iPad so customers can shop the online store for items not in store. Jamus Driscoll, senior vice-president and EMEA of digital commerce provider Demandware, says web-enabled devices are relatively inexpensive and worth the money.

“The idea is even if it’s a smaller store, a store associate with an iPad can have a very productive conversation with a consumer,” he says.

So it may not be easy, but indies can carve out a competitive multichannel proposition. Tadd concludes: “I’ve learnt as I’ve gone along that I can’t be the biggest website in the world because I don’t have the budget and I don’t have the infrastructure, but I can be the best boutique website out there and I can keep striving to better what we do - providing niche and interesting brands for the consumer.”


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