The queen of the discount market is carving out a ‘unique position’ for eBay’s Fashion Outlet via the adoption of mobile technology and adding higher-end brands to its offer.
I love a bargain. I’ve never paid full price for anything,” says Miriam Lahage, European general manager of fashion at eBay. “When I was a kid my dad would negotiate for discount at stores - and would invariably get it. I was mortified at the time. The fact I do this for a living is shocking to me. My dad’s so proud.”
Discount retailing is clearly in Lahage’s blood, as she has spent her career in discount fashion. After 20 years at US value retail giant TJX Companies - the parent company of UK value retailer TK Maxx - where she rose from store manager to merchandising director, she launched the UK’s first designer discount etailer, Koodos. She sold that to E-Trader, the owner of wholesale clearance business www.stockshifters.com, which is backed by Jaeger and Aquascutum owner Harold Tillman, in 2009. The following year, luxury etailer Net-a-Porter acquired the trademark, assets, domain name and customer database of Koodos to increase the member numbers of its spin-off discount site, The Outnet.
In her latest role, the US-born Lahage is again offering bargains to the masses. Earlier this year she moved from heading up eBay’s US fashion business to take the same position in its European division, including the UK. Unlike eBay’s auction model, the Fashion Outlet is a straightforward discount site, offering up to 75% off menswear, womenswear and kidswear.
Fashion at eBay has changed dramatically in the space of a few years.
As recently as 2007, some of the high street’s biggest names were lobbying the government to stop allegedly stolen goods being sold on eBay. The business has also been involved in high-profile court battles with brands, such as jeweller Tiffany (which eBay won) and luxury group LVMH (which eBay lost), over counterfeit goods found on the site. But now they are all friends again.
About 100 retailers and brands including Superdry, Karen Millen and House of Fraser sell on eBay’s Fashion Outlet. And with 96 million users worldwide and global fashion sales topping $6bn (£3.7bn), it’s a no-brainer for brands and retailers looking to shift old stock. But it’s more sophisticated than that. When users click on, say, House of Fraser, they are directed to a site that is branded just like the department store’s website.
Word of mouth
In the UK, fashion is eBay’s biggest category, with four million unique visitors. The number of items sold soared 30% in the last year. And by adding more brands and retailers to the site, Lahage believes she can grow sales further. She says: “I think of the good things we’re doing with 100 brands and what we could do with 200 or 300. Fashion customers want choice, they want to find what’s right for them.”
Lahage says there are around 600 businesses that she could target and is looking to grow the site by adding 40 to 60 mid-market to premium brands and retailers each year. She explains: “Adding brands can push word of mouth about our site. Our site grows as friends talk to each other. You don’t get that through an ad campaign.”
The majority of brands and retailers use eBay as an outlet store and sell items at a fixed discounted price rather than by auctioning them. Lahage insists eBay introduces new customers to brands who would simply not buy the item at full price. “We’re the place where you find the item that might have got away or the brands you aspire to have but can’t pay full price for,” she says. “We give brands reach and an international audience without them having to make a huge investment. It’s complicated to a retailer to move overseas, but we make it easy for them. We’ve already invested in things like PayPal and mobile so they don’t have to. They can trial things with us which will take them into the ecommerce future.”
Inside the minds of others
Unsurprisingly, Lahage sees eBay as a “vital matchmaker” between fashion-conscious bargain hunters and brands and retailers. One of the greatest weapons in making the vital match is to understand the eBay customer, she says. She adds that eBay’s fashion customer is someone who shops in John Lewis or Debenhams and, despite loving a deal, the most important factor is finding the right brands.
She says: “People are more interested than ever in brands. For them, it signifies quality. If you’re looking for jeans, the brand definitely comes first. You may browse others, but you know that 7 For All Mankind is your brand.”
Lahage has no limits when it comes to getting inside the mindset of her customer. She and her team carry out home visits to watch people shop on the site and she spends Friday afternoons calling eBay shoppers. “I’m a student of how people shop for fashion,” she says. “I try to identify real-world problems, then identify how eBay can solve them.”
The eBay marketplace used to be somewhere people went with a definitive product in mind, according to Lahage. She has tasked herself with making the site a place to go to browse and make impulsive buys. She says: “We’re finding ways to get people to spend a little more time with us or consider us more often.” Lahage cites US management consultancy McKinsey, which says consumers will only consider shopping on five to seven websites when making a purchase. “If we can be considered, we can hold a unique position in this fragmented industry,” she says. She believes that you can have too much choice and that it is eBay’s role to help the shopper find what is right for them.
“I’m a student of how people shop for fashion. I try to identify real-world problems, then identify how eBay can solve them”
Virtual changing rooms
As a result, Lahage is creating “tools to curate the collection so it becomes a more meaningful choice”. These tools include allowing users to create profiles in which they can save favourite brands, alerting eBay to items they want to see.
Earlier this year, eBay launched an augmented reality feature to its fashion mobile app, which allowed shoppers with an iPhone 4 to virtually try on sunglasses before buying. The team is trying to advance this feature so more items can be tried on. “You want to see where a jacket cuts you and where the rise in a pair of jeans sits,” explains Lahage, a self-confessed technology geek.
eBay is also working on a function to allow users to store images of clothes in their real wardrobes in a virtual closet on the site, so they can see how potential purchases will fit into their existing wardrobe. Both apps will launch next year.
But eBay’s reach doesn’t end with the high street and premium brands; it now has its sights set on high-end fashion. Last month, US designer Derek Lam launched a crowd-sourced collection on eBay’s US site. The designer created five dresses for his Derek Lam + eBay range, all of which were picked out by the website’s shoppers from an initial collection of 16 pieces.
Lahage says eBay’s UK site is currently in discussions with a UK brand to launch a similar exclusive collection.
With Lahage forming partnerships with both the high street and designer sectors for eBay Fashion Outlet, her father will have even more reason to be proud.
2011 General manager of fashion, eBay Europe
2010 General manager of fashion, eBay US
2010 Consultant, Net-a-Porter
2006 Chief executive, Koodos
2001 Vice president, TJX Companies
1996 Vice president, general merchandise manager, TJX Companies