In his first-ever interview, Asos director James Hart explains why he wants the etailer to be one big community.
We don’t see ourselves as a retailer, we see ourselves as a community. Ultimately we want to create a personalised, seamless, connected experience for anyone, anywhere in the world.”
This is what drives Asos director James Hart. Having spent nearly two hours with him at the newly refurbished Asos headquarters in Camden, the one word he repeatedly uses is ‘customer’. Working in the creative sector of ecommerce (and with the backing of a large organisation to fund new projects), it would be easy for Hart to get carried away trialling fancy innovations. And in a way, he does. However, what Hart also does is centre every single idea, change and update around the customer. They are his core focus and it is arguably what makes him (and Asos) one of the most successful ecommerce businesses in the world.
Launched from humble beginnings in 2000 with the name As Seen On Screen, Asos as it is known today has become an industry giant with a turnover of £495m for 2012, representing a 46% increase on the year before.
However, Hart acknowledges the business has suffered growing pains along the way, but today, he says, it is fixated on connecting with its audience, or community, and is investing in new technologies on its website and across social platforms to do so.
Asked what being a community actually means, Hart explains: “A fashion community includes us in the office, our suppliers, the brands, the designers, independents and the customers. It’s everything from gaining inspiration about what you should be wearing to discovering it and then buying it, to having a great service proposition to then owning it and managing your whole wardrobe, asking friends if they like it, deciding to wear it, deciding
what to wear it with, then going out to party and seeing what others are wearing, then coming home, updating your wardrobe and deciding to sell some bits off. It’s the whole fashion life cycle.”
It’s a huge challenge to build this kind of interactive community but one you can be confident Hart is ready to take head on. He says Asos has spent recent years building all of the tools - the site, the magazine, the marketplace - but suddenly realised two years ago that it hadn’t really looked through the customers’ eyes - it had all the platforms but each was a different website with different log-ins and different baskets. “What customers want is all those tools in one place and they want it integrated. What we’re currently doing is rearchitecting all the platforms to make this possible.”
That’s not all Hart is working on. He tells me it’s not always the biggest changes that can make the biggest impact, but that what you have to do is measure everything.
And not all of Asos’s trials have been successful - I remind him of a sunglasses try-on feature on the website that Asos trialled but later dropped, and question whether he sees this type of initiative as a mistake. However, he says: “I actually think that’s still a great idea and we are about to try another similar solution. With the original sunglasses try-on solution we just put it live, didn’t measure it, couldn’t prove a case for it, so couldn’t get funding to roll it out.”
One new tool that has proved successful and will be rolled out across the entire site (it is currently across 75%) by July 2013 is ‘Buy the Look’, a tool that allows customers to buy a whole outfit in one click. However, even this wasn’t an immediate success. “We split test the tool and it showed an uplift so we put it live and then it didn’t really get used. We had put the ‘Buy the Look’ button on the right-hand side with ‘Complete the Look’. We then moved it next to ‘Add to Bag’ and click-through went up by more than 1,000%. Those small details can make all the difference.”
Another obvious part of building a community is social. “I’ve been conscious that fashion is an emotive topic and a social activity ever since we had a message board on the site back in 2002; the amount of chat on there
took us by surprise even back then and we weren’t equipped to manage it, so we shut it down,” says Hart.
However, he adds that when newer forms of social networking came around such as Facebook and Twitter, Asos spotted an opportunity to open up the conversation with its customers again. “I think what we’ve learned overall is that in social places, be social, and in fashion places, do fashion, but allow it to be shared because fashion is a social activity. Our Facebook shop didn’t work because people just want to be social there and have fun; our Asos Life community didn’t work because it was a separate place to go to on our site. The Asos experience needs to be shareable and a conversation throughout and in context.”
Asos is also investing in new innovation and ideas from outside of the business and a recent example of this is WhosGoing. Hart says: “WhosGoing was an idea a couple of guys came to us with, which we really liked. It is simply an app to connect people around events; to find out where is popular and where their friends are going. We think it could be really useful and anything that makes the lives of 20-somethings easier is important to us.”
But where did it all begin for Asos? In a pub, of course, where a chance meeting with Asos founder Nick Robertsonled to Hart joining him and business partner Quentin Griffiths as their first employee at fledgling product placement agency Entertainment Marketing.
It wasn’t until three years later that the origins of Asos were formed. Hart was working his notice having realised marketing wasn’t for him, when Quentin read an article in a trade magazine about a lamp that had been featured on an episode of Friends, which generated more than 20,000 enquiries. “He realised we had the studio contacts, we could find out quite easily about the non-branded product used and could set up a portal telling people how to find what they’ve seen on TV. My ears pricked up as Nick said, ‘James, you got yourself a job yet?’.” As Seen On Screen was launched in March 2000 with just 30 products on the site.
What strikes me most about Hart is how humble he is about his own role in building Asos into what it is today. Of the ecommerce experts Drapers spoke to before the interview, few have actually met Hart, with some viewing his lack of industry interaction as arrogance, but I believe Hart when he explains: “I just come to work and I do my job.”
From a team of three, the business has now grown to more than 1,200 employees, but Hart admits it hasn’t always been a smooth journey. Over recent years, the business has seen a number of high-profile exits and industry insiders questioned whether the business had changed from a young, creative start-up into a corporate machine. Hart acknowledges there was a period when there was a danger of that being the case.
“I looked around and thought we are not thinking about who we are and what we do - and eventually the customer will notice that. It was OK as sales were still strong but I could see on the horizon that it was something we needed to address. We had to figure out how to keep our personality in a big company.”
With so much going on it’s hard to imagine how Hart can keep up, but his response is simple: “I work with the customers, the business and the tech guys and bridge the gap between all three to create something that really works. I do the same today as I did at the start, just on a much bigger scale.”