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Taking the middle way to online sales

As The Counter prepares to join the likes of Miinto, Farfetch.com and London Boutiques when it launches in March, is there room for another indie ecommerce portal?

The UK online fashion market is valued at £5.1bn, so it’s no real surprise that new etail businesses such as indie ecommerce portal The Counter are chasing a slice of an ever-growing pie.

According to figures from Kantar Worldpanel, online fashion sales grew 13.3% in the past year. In 2012, 30.7 million shoppers bought clothes online, a figure that continues to grow.

When it goes live in March, The Counter will join several other platforms in the UK that aim to channel online fashion sales via indies.

The basic premise is relatively simple, although each individual service differs slightly in what it offers and the commission charges it applies to retailers that sell through the site. Such portals - the first of which to launch was Farfetch.com in 2008 - act as an online market, giving indies another channel to sell their wares and, often more importantly, market themselves online.

The Counter aims to initially sign up 10 womenswear and 10 menswear indies. Despite launching into a crowded market, founder Matthew Blanchard believes there is sufficient customer demand - and variation in
the indie sector - to warrant another portal in the market.

“We see ourselves as sitting somewhere in the middle of the different providers that are out there,” he says.

“Farfetch.com is quite high end, while a service like Miinto is aiming to have a lot of boutiques on board.

“We want to offer a very personal service, and in order to do that we want to remain focused and will only aim at between 80 and 100 boutiques in the UK in total. After that we’ll explore other markets such as France.”

Perhaps Blanchard is right to think there is room in the market for another provider. Figures from Miinto, which launched in the UK in April last year on the back of success in Scandinavia, suggest there are 19,000 independent fashion boutiques in the UK, of which between 4,000 and 5,000 are relevant to its market.

The portals are not solely aimed at indies without their own transactional website. Richard Packman, managing director of Miinto, estimates that between 70% and 80% of the 165 retailers signed up to the portal also sell through another online channel - their own site or other portals.

Premium womenswear indie Stanwells, in Lymington, Hampshire, has had an etail site for three years but also plans to sign up with The Counter.

“From an indie point of view, ecommerce portals help to bring in sales that you might not otherwise get,” explains co-owner Jeremy Aitken.

Meanwhile, contemporary womenswear indie Okeefe in Esher, Surrey, has signed up to Miinto and another portal, London Boutiques, despite having its own transactional website since autumn 2009.

Owner Janine O’Keefe believes the main benefit of online portals is the time and money the platforms are willing to invest in search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.

“As a small, one-store independent, I simply don’t have the budget or indeed the time to get involved in SEO and PPC, and so my own website acts more as a window to the store used by existing customers,” she explains. “By using these platforms, people searching the internet for specific brands have the option to buy from your store.”

These portals can also act as a testing ground for retailers that have not yet set up a transactional website, revealing valuable data about shoppers’ buying habits and location.

Rob Welsh, owner of Erj Boutique in Hoole, Cheshire, started selling online via Miinto in November. “Setting up your own website is as much, if not more, work and expense as opening another store, so we thought we’d use Miinto as a bit of an experiment,” he says.

Welsh has been pleased with the results so far, although with takings of about £1,500 in the first six weeks, it is still only a peripheral activity.

But José Neves, founder of established portal Farfetch.com, says: “Once indies join Farfetch.com, their sales rise. On average, we represent 30% of their sales.”

Another benefit cited by many independents is the photography services on offer. Although not all portals will photograph products - Asos Marketplace and The Counter, for example, ask indies to submit their own photography for use on the sites - Miinto and London Boutiques do, and for a fee they allow boutiques to use the photography on their own sites as well.

According to Lisa Mitchell, owner of Escape Boutique in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear: “The photography that Miinto offers makes a massive cost saving for us and we will be using its photography on our site when we launch in the spring.”

Although not everyone was quite so enthusiastic at first, some indies’ concerns about brand adjacencies
and prices being forced down have been allayed.

“I was mainly worried about other retailers selling the same brand at a cheaper price,” says Faith Willis, co-owner of The Women’s Society Boutique in Hertford. “But actually this hasn’t been a problem as we tend
to sell at recommended retail price, or very close to it, and most other boutiques do the same.”

London Boutique

London Boutique

There is still potential for indie ecommerce portals to gain further traction, as most are still relatively new in the UK market. London Boutiques now has 30,000 visitors to its site every month, while visits to Miinto have increased 450%, and transactions by 615% from July to December, 2012.

At present, Farfetch.com has 250 boutiques globally selling through its site, and aims to have increased its reach to 1,000 boutiques by this summer, while Miinto hopes to have 600 boutiques selling through its site
by the end of this year.

The eventual aim, says Miinto’s Packman, is for the portal to become a destination in its own right - enabling indies to compete with the likes of Asos by selling product to customers who have never set foot inside their shop.

Indie ecommerce portals - The cost

Miinto Package A Initial subscription fee of £1,500 and 12% commission
Package B Initial subscription fee of £1,000 and 15% commission
Package C Initial subscription fee of £500 and 20% commission
Asos Marketplace £20 a month rent and 20% commission on everything sold
London Boutiques No sign-up fee; 20% commission on everything sold

Story in Numbers

20 Boutiques The Counter will launch with in March
165 Boutiques signed up to Miinto
30,000 Visitors to London Boutiques each month
250 Number of boutiques signed up to Farfetch.com
3.8m Site visits per month on Farfetch.com
£417 Average order value on Farfetch.com

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