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Analysis: Style.com – a costly gamble

As the greatly hyped online platform Style.com ceases trading after just nine months, Drapers investigates why it failed and how the new partnership with Farfetch is likely to fare.

Condé Nast’s ecommerce platform Style.com has shut up shop and been absorbed by Farfetch, in a partnership the companies say will create “a seamless luxury shopping journey from world authority fashion inspiration to purchase gratification”.

It marks the end of a very short chapter for Condé Nast, in which the publisher of Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair sought to diversify its revenue sources in the face of declining print advertising spend. Style.com, originally the home of all Condé Nast’s catwalk coverage, relaunched as an ecommerce site in September 2016 after a year of delays, but it failed to make an impression on consumers.

“I don’t believe their original model was sustainable, primarily because it was really a glorified affiliate programme,” Martin Newman, chairman at retail consultancy Practicology, told Drapers. “They never really owned the customer, as all orders were dispatched directly by the brands.”

This led to a shopping experience that was less sleek than its competitors, says Newman. Different products ordered from different brands would all arrive separately – a far cry from the “seamless luxury shopping journey” now being promised.

“That’s a pretty inconvenient proposition,” he added. “It wouldn’t have helped to establish and define the Style.com brand.”

Newman also pointed to the limited range of designers available on the site. When it first launched, Style.com was notably missing products from big names such as Burberry, Chloé and Maison Margiela. The seemingly limitless imagination of Condé Nast’s creative content failed to translate across to its sales platform.

The new plan is for Condé Nast brands such as Vogue to monetise their content through a partnership with Farfetch. Products that appear in the magazine or on its website will be directly shoppable from Farfetch, and the magzine will take a cut of each sale.

Farfetch june 2017

Farfetch june 2017

It indicates a realisation on the part of Condé Nast that its strength is, and always has been, content rather than retail. Many observers have concluded that, ultimately, the commercial skills needed were missing at Style.com.

“I think the execution was disappointing,” one luxury expert told Drapers. “Turning a magazine into a retailer is very promising on paper, but very difficult in practice.”

Industry commentators have generally agreed that the new tie-up is a good solution for both companies, as it combines skills in commerce and content to create what one observer called “a Net-a-Porter on steroids”.

Indeed, it puts the Farfetch rivalry with Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP) under the spotlight once again, following Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet’s appointment as Farfetch’s non-executive co-chairman earlier this year.

Sofie Willmott, etail analyst at retail research firm GlobalData, says it would be a blow for YNAP that Farfetch now has a special relationship with Conde Nast: “Consumers go to trusted brands like Vogue for guidance, and this will enable that content to be shoppable.”

She explains that the instant gratification of online shopping is also a perfect match for the creation of engaging content: “People don’t want to look through a magazine or their Instagram feed and then not be able to buy the product. They want to see it and buy it now. It’s that urgency that consumers are used to.”

With several of the best-known fashion magazines in the world in its portfolio, it was inevitable that Condé Nast would look to capitalise on those brands once print advertising revenue dried up. The question was only how to do it, and it turns out that Style.com was a costly gamble – one with a reported $100m (£78.5m) pricetag – on doing it themselves that failed to pay off. The partnership with Farfetch however, looks less like admitting defeat and more like snatching a last-minute victory, creating a content-commerce powerhouse that could very well change the models of both luxury ecommerce and the publishing industry.

Readers' comments (2)

  • A 'glorified affiliate programme' still sounds like absolutely the right model. Maybe they didn't 'glorify' the programme enough — with logistical innovations to create an end-to-end customer experience.

    Given the absence of stock risk, and the unique access to advertising capital, it would be truly bewildering if the project burned $100m, and had no operational innovation to show for it.

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  • Didn't they take two years to set it up as well?

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