It was an eye-opening day on Tuesday for the 200 or so delegates that attended our Drapers Digital Forum in London.
Over 18 presentations, panel discussions and streaming sessions, they were given a whistle-stop overview of best practice, successes, failures and new ideas in the realm of retailing fashion online. One independent retailer present emailed me the next day to say: “I found it inspiring and frightening.”
For this year we completely remodelled and renamed the event, which was previously called the Drapers Ecommerce Summit, because we wanted also to cover the use of social media, which is not strictly “retailing” but is a now-essential element in communicating with virtually every consumer target group. One of the interesting points not nailed down for the benefit of online cynics like myself was how to measure the actual effect on sales of social media activity, but there was general agreement that it is a crucial part of the mix. It was amazing to hear just how much resource some brands and retailers put behind Facebook, Twitter, Vine and the rest.
In a lively and pertinent presentation entitled Fashion Retailing in the Digital Age, Mark Newton-Jones, who ran major online player Shop Direct Group for nine years, echoed my thoughts that ecommerce is merely a sexier version of what we used to call mail order, home shopping or distance shopping. But while the fat catalogues of old were popular largely because they offered credit facilities - older readers may remember the phrase “paying on the never-never” - the spur for shopping online today is more because people are short of time, not money.
It was a funny coincidence that as we were holding our forum the mighty Primark was confirming, yet again, that it had no intention of launching a transactional site anytime soon. It clearly still has plenty of other opportunities to exploit, but the overwhelming impression anyone at the forum took away is that online is a place everyone wants to be. One of the most telling of Newton-Jones’ facts was that 28% of four-year-olds in the UK in 2013 can access a tablet device. These are the consumers of tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Truly there is a revolution going on and you ignore it at your peril.
In another thought-provoking talk, Henry Lane Fox, one of the early online selling pioneers with Lastminute.com, explained how he now works with the travel site’s co-founder Brent Hoberman on Founders Forum, which links web start-ups with major firms including Tesco and The Disney Store. Summing up the difference, perhaps, between the traditional bricks-and-clicks mentality and that of today’s digital entrepreneurs, he quoted one of the latter as saying: “It takes our client longer to get change request and work order paperwork filled in than it takes for our development team to deliver and test changes.”
While this was a reference to the mindset and procedures of huge companies, I wonder if it also fits the attitude of small but traditional retailers who maintain that running a fashion business means running a shop only. Several independent retailers present at the forum told me that they knew their digital presence - which might mean just a marketing website and use of social media - was not good enough. Eight hours at our conference left no one in doubt what they were missing.
Finally, I enjoyed the presentation by Kristine Kirby, ecommerce director at Hackett, who has seen online travel from being the department that was stuck metaphorically under the stairs to having a seat on the board at many fashion companies. She called, however, for an end to talk about “the stores channel” or “the online channel”. “The only channel we should all be talking about is the customer channel,” she wisely advised. See pages 8 and 9 for more on the forum.