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Amazon ups the ante on fashion

amazon index

John Boumphrey, vice-president of Amazon Fashion Europe, plans to make the ecommerce giant “customers’ most-loved fashion destination” 

There is a thrum of purpose in the air at Amazon’s impressive headquarters on the fringes of London’s Shoreditch. A steady stream of “Amazonians” are pouring into the cavernous entrance of the 15-storey, 60,000 sq ft building when Drapers arrives on a crisp winter morning.

The sprawling size of the online giant’s east London home matches the scale and might of Amazon’s ambition. It is difficult to imagine a more influential force on the global retail industry than the company that was started in 1995 by founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, now one of the world’s richest men.

Almost 90% of all UK shoppers use Amazon, and 40% are members of its Prime subscription service, data published by analyst Mintel earlier this year shows. There are more than 250 million products listed for sale on Amazon UK alone, and it has become many shoppers’ go-to destination for non-fashion goods such as books, video games and electronics.

Fashion is a big priority for our customers, and that means it is a big priority for us

John Boumphrey, Amazon

And now, as John Boumphrey, vice-president of Amazon Fashion Europe, explains, it wants to become synonymous with fashion. It began selling fashion in the UK more than 10 years ago, in 2008, but has yet to compete with specialists such as Asos when it comes to capturing the market. However, it is on a mission to become the one-stop shop for every clothing need. Brands will have to decide whether they want to join the Amazon fashion juggernaut.

“Fashion is a big priority for our customers, and that means it is a big priority for us,” Boumphrey explains from a squashy armchair in his office, which affords views of the City skyline. “We want to be customers’ most-loved fashion destination.”

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The four-day consumer-facing Denim Destination event included workshops, panel talks and performances 

Articulate and friendly – despite a nightmare commute earlier that morning – Boumphrey has been at the helm of Amazon’s European fashion division since September 2018, when he replaced Susan Saideman. He has worked for Amazon for nearly a decade in various roles, including heading its consumables division in Seattle, and leading its home and leisure section in the UK. He was previously trading director at DIY chain Homebase from 2008 to 2011. This role is his first foray into fashion.

Amazon has unveiled a barrage of new initiatives over the past 12 months in its bid to become a true fashion destination. In October last year, it launched “try before you buy” service Prime Wardrobe in the UK. Prime members can select between two and six clothing items for delivery, and then have seven days to try them at home before returning those they do not want, and paying for those they keep.

The Drop is an experience that helps customers connect with global fashion influencers

John Boumphrey, Amazon

In June it released the first in a series of limited edition collections designed by influencers, known as The Drop. This was followed in September by a collaboration with sportswear brand Puma on a 50-piece athleisure collection, Care Of, which is exclusively available on Amazon Fashion. 

In October, Amazon hosted a jeans-themed on- and offline shopping extravaganza, Destination Denim, in Berlin. The same month, it launched its artificial intelligence-powered StyleSnap feature in the UK. It allows users to upload photographs or  screenshots into the Amazon app, which then presents similar items available on the platform.

Market share

In short, it has been a busy initiation for Boumphrey. The appeal of Amazon’s fashion offer for consumers, he argues, comes down to a combination of choice, value and convenience. Amazon does not reveal how many fashion labels it stocks, how large in terms of sales or profitable its European fashion arm is, or uptake of the new initiatives. All it will divulge is that it “offers millions of fashion items and thousands of fashion brands”.

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The Drop worked with influencer Leonie Hanne

Amazon has a 1.3% share of the UK fashion market, Kantar reports. This has grown consistently by 0.1 percentage points year on year since 2015, when it had a 0.9% share. Shoppers browsing Amazon Fashion in the UK will discover a wide selection that includes brands such as Skechers, Superdry, Levi’s and The North Face, and ranges from value retailer New Look to premium brand Michael Kors.

These are complemented by Amazon’s five-strong own-label offer: streetwear-focused Find; lingerie label Iris & Lilly; occasionwear specialist Truth & Fable; “wardrobe essentials” by Meraki; and athleisure brand Aurique.

“We have tens of millions of customers on Amazon and, while none of those two customers are the same, they are all looking for products that match their personal style,” Boumphrey explains.

“When you’ve got all these customers, what you need to do is to carry the essentials, and to carry niche, independent labels such as [Danish womenswear label] Sparkz Copenhagen, as well as well-known names like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, plus higher-end brands such as Love Moschino or Pinko. We need to cover all the bases.”

Amazon has more than 175 fulfilment centres globally totalling more than 150 million sq ft, where staff pick, pack and ship orders. 

There are 21 in the UK, in places such as Tilbury in Essex, Altrincham in Greater Manchester and Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. The scale of operations gives it huge reach.

We need to work with them as they have such a huge reach, but we don’t bow down to them

Brand stocked by Amazon

“What brands tells us about working with Amazon is that they get access to a very large, engaged customer base and they like fulfilment by Amazon,” says Boumphrey. “If I’m a brand, I can get access to all these customers without the need to make big infrastructure investments.”

“You’re better off working with Amazon than not,” says the managing director of one brand it stocks. “It is a necessary part of the business and the future. We need to work with them as they have such a huge reach, but we don’t bow down to them. 

“Amazon is a big part of our industry now, and will become an even bigger part over time as the obvious slide in retail will drive more sales through them.”

Double-edged sword

Not all brands, however, are convinced of the benefits of selling on Amazon. Sportswear giant Nike announced last month that it would stop using the platform to focus on selling directly to consumer, ending a pilot programme it began in 2017. Footwear brand Birkenstock cut ties with the etailer in 2016, amid concerns about counterfeiting.

Consumers are definitely open to shopping for fashion on Amazon, but it isn’t the ‘go-to’ place yet

Neil Saunders, managing director of analyst GlobalData

Neil Saunders, managing director of analyst GlobalData, says the volume of product on Amazon can be a double-edged sword: “Consumers are definitely open to shopping for fashion on Amazon, but it isn’t the ‘go-to’ place yet. 

“There is loads of choice, which is great, but it can also be confusing for consumers. There isn’t a lot of curation. Asos also has a lot of choice, but you can identify the type of customer who shops there. Amazon offers something for everyone. The danger is that by chasing everyone, you appeal to no one.”

Daniel Bobroff, founder of fashion technology agency Coded Futures, agrees: “It goes without saying that Amazon has set the bar when it comes to logistical expertise. Amazon has and continues to be the driving force around customers’ fulfilment expectations. [But] I don’t think one can say it’s cracked its fashion DNA. Fashion is about experience, emotion and storytelling, which are hard to achieve within the traditional Amazon customer experience.”

In October, Amazon hosted a jeans-themed on- and offline shopping extravaganza, Destination Denim, in Berlin

In October, Amazon hosted a jeans-themed on- and offline shopping extravaganza, Destination Denim, in Berlin

Boumphrey counters that Amazon is finding new ways to excite its fashion customer via initiatives such as The Drop and Destination Denim. Collections from The Drop, which has included partnerships with influencers Patricia Bright (1.1 million Instagram followers) and Leonie Hanne (2 million), have offered customers on-trend pieces via an innovative short-availability model.

“The Drop is an experience that helps customers connect with global fashion influencers,” Boumphrey explains. “Collections are only available for 30 hours and they are made to order – we don’t make a single product until an order has been placed. 

“Customers have been delighted [about] discovering products in this way, and it is also very interactive. There’s a lot of polling throughout the design process via Instagram ahead of products being released, through which we ask customers what they think. We want to find ways to incorporate [customers’] feedback into the design process.”

Prime audience

With Destination Denim, Amazon stepped beyond its online home to dial up its experiential offer. It says “thousands” of people attended the four-day consumer-facing event, which included workshops, panel talks and performances from stars such as singers Liam Payne and Jorja Smith. 

Customers in attendance could choose from 1,700 pairs of jeans available at the event from brands such as Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Wrangler, and 7 For All Mankind.

“Jeans are a universal product: I wear them, my kids wear them, my parents wear them – but finding the perfect pair can be tricky,” says Boumphrey. “The whole concept was about how we could bring together technology, brands and content to help customers find the right pair.”

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Destination Denim

Technology at the Berlin event included a styling experience via Amazon’s voice-activated digital assistant Alexa, as well as a digital catwalk with virtual models that gave customers a 3D view of what products looked like when worn.

He adds: “The marriage between content and technology is changing the way customers are shopping for fashion and their expectations. They want convenience, but they also want inspiration.”

Amazon has deep pockets, and retailers need to be aware of it as a potential threat

Mark Pilkington, retail analyst

Boumphrey says he cannot talk about what Amazon has planned for the future, although he discloses that he believes the fusion between content, entertainment and shopping will be key.

The etailer already commands impressive swathes of the US fashion market – data from consulting firm McKinsey & Co suggests it is on course to become the largest clothing retailer in the country.

Retail analyst Mark Pilkington says: “It has a huge potential advantage over physical retailers in terms of its mastery of data and artificial intelligence. Amazon is serious about fashion – it has deep pockets, and retailers need to be aware of it as a potential threat. Its growing portfolio of private-label brands is of particular concern to other brands. It has only launched five in Europe, but 108 globally, and undoubtedly will launch more in the UK.”

The sheer scale and reach of Amazon means its fashion ambitions must be taken seriously. It already has big brands on board and is ramping up its contemporary credentials through The Drop. However, it needs to manage its relationships with brands, and sharpen its focus on experience and emotion, if it is to reach its goal of becoming shoppers’ most-loved destination for fashion.

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