As UK boss of Vente-privee, Sally Scott aims to build a buzz among British shoppers for the flash Sales site
Since its launch in 2001, French flash Sales website Vente-privee has earned a reputation as an innovative fashion business. Now, with the website available in eight European countries including the UK, where it went live in 2008, Vente-privee is renewing its focus on the British market. The aim: to elevate Vente-privee to the status it enjoys in its homeland, where the French have voted it their preferred overall fashion retailer for the last five years successively.
To make inroads again into the notoriously competitive UK fashion retail market, Vente-privee needed someone who understands the UK customer and British brands. Step forward Sally Scott, who was appointed UK managing director in January. Formerly the marketing director at Selfridges and shopping outlet village group Value Retail, Scott was judged by Vente-privee chief executive Jacques-Antoine Granjon and his seven co-founders to be the best person for the job. “Sally has a wonderful depth and breadth of knowledge in many areas of retail that I know will greatly enhance our UK strategy,” explains Granjon. “She has an abundance of enthusiasm for ecommerce and convinced me from day one that not having her as part of our UK team would be a missed opportunity.”
For Scott, the job at Vente-privee represented the ideal next step. “I knew exactly what I wanted from my next role. I wanted the business to have an international outlook, I wanted it to be digital, and I wanted it to be very different from my previous positions so I could learn something new. Vente-privee checked all three boxes,” she says. The newly created role also represented a challenge. “Vente-privee had been in the UK for a few years but there hadn’t been anyone really driving it. It needed a big push, someone who could get behind it with a vision of how it could grow,” says Scott. “I was lucky enough to get the job.”
She is reluctant to discuss what Vente-privee’s UK strategy will involve, but says: “As this is a new position, my focus is all about spearheading the brand and activity to the forefront of the UK’s business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets.”
Scott faces the issue of reassuring brands that the company will stay around in the UK longer than it did last time. Having soft-launched here in 2008, Ventee-privee in mid-2009 hired the vastly experienced “discount queen” Bunty Stokes (ex-TK Maxx and Brand Alley) to lead a team of 10, including seven buyers. Brand engagement was good, but disappointing consumer acquisition caused the French to pull the plug in 2011. Acquisition marketing at that time was handled from France and, given Scott’s marketing background, it could be that a more local approach will be followed this time.
Despite Vente-privee’s ubiquity on the continent, Scott admits that until recently many of her friends were unaware of the business. “I tell them quite simply it is a members-only flash Sales site and our ambition is to help you, the customer, shop the brands you love at a great price. I want Vente-privee to be the destination in the UK for flash Sales. I want people to get up in the morning, grab a coffee and think to themselves, ‘I wonder what’s on Vente-privee today?’”
To achieve this, Scott is working to build and edit Vente-privee’s brand mix. “You can have an all-singing, all-dancing website and the best marketing campaign in the world, but if you don’t have the best brand offer, you don’t have a business,” she explains.
For shoppers, the concept behind Vente-privee appears very simple. They sign up for free, as requiring customers to log in means Google cannot access any of the site’s data, thus providing privacy for brands who may not want the whole world to know they are selling off overstock. They are then free to browse whichever Sales are underway - there are usually around 20 on site at any one time, covering womenswear, menswear, kidswear and homewares. Each lasts between five to 10 days and discounts range from 50% to 70%. Sales tend to start early in the morning and the sooner shoppers log on, the more products they will have to choose from. Brands range from lower-end retailers, such as Switzerland-based shoe supplier Bata, to mid-level brands such as Sandro and Claudie Pierlot, and designer labels such as Dolce & Gabbana and DKNY.
Yet while Vente-privee undoubtedly offers shoppers a great deal, both Granjon and Scott place greater emphasis on the services Vente-privee provides to brands. “We describe Vente-privee as a B2B B2C company,” Scott explains. “We started out providing a solution for brands, but it has transformed into so much more than that.”
Though Vente-privee’s capacity to help companies shift overstock is the obvious selling point, there are other benefits to working with the ecommerce platform. “We get a lot of brands that are exploring the possibility of entering a certain market,” Scott explains. “They might be selling across Europe, but not in the UK. We can host a Sale for them in the UK that allows them to test the waters. After every Sale we provide the brand with a summary of how it went. We tell them what sold well, what didn’t, what sold out the fastest - so we can improve next time. We’re always looking to build long-term relationships.”
Building and maintaining these relationships is one of the main aspects of Scott’s role, as Vente-privee looks to expand its UK customer base and add to its stable of British brands. Though Scott is unable to mention any businesses she is currently working with, recent sales have included French Connection, Stella McCartney lingerie and kids’ footwear brand Start-rite.
Nicola Carr, commercial director at womenswear chain Karen Millen, which recently began working with Vente-privee, tells Drapers: “Vente-privee complements our omnichannel trading strategy. Furthermore, the international shipping mirrors the Karen Millen client reach. The collaborative approach is equally beneficial to both the brand and the client.”
Maurizio Grasselli, retail director at contemporary label Joseph, another UK business that sells through Vente-privee, says: “Flash Sales are a clever way of disposing of stock without damaging our brand. The combination of Vente-privee’s experience and the UK market potential will deliver a guaranteed success.”
Scott’s personal experience is expected to be a huge part of this success. However, while she has enjoyed a long career in the fashion industry, she started her working life in the Old Masters department of auction house Sotheby’s, cataloguing artworks from the 13th to 17th century. “I graduated from the University of Toronto in 1987 with a BA in Art History and Italian, then in 1988 I came to London to take a course at Sotheby’s. At the end of the course, I was offered an internship.”
After a year there, she began exploring the idea of a career in fashion. “I grew up in a boys’ boarding school in Port Hope, a small town in Ontario, Canada, where my father Angus Scott was the headmaster. It was a very different upbringing to your average retail girl but I always had an interest in fashion.”
She began applying for positions at magazines and joined the London office of US publication W in 1992. From 1995-99 she worked as promotions director at both Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, owned by Hearst. “I sat between editorial and sales, which for me was perfect,” she says of the role. “I am a salesperson but I really love the creative process. This allowed me to add to the bottom line, but in a creative way.”
After 11 years in London, she moved back to Toronto in 1999. “While working in magazines, I had done quite a lot of retail work with the likes of Harrods and Harvey Nichols, and I was interested in how the retail world worked. In Toronto at that time, the best retailer was [luxury department store] Holt Renfrew, so I told them what I could offer and I was offered a great job. I would work with brands to come up with marketing solutions to work within the stores.
“In 2003, Galen Weston, the owner of Holt Renfrew, bought Selfridges. They asked if I’d be the marketing director, so in 2005 I went back to London. I was at Selfridges until 2011, when I joined Value Retail.”
Scott has learnt a lot from her previous positions. “Every role has exposed me to new markets and customers,” she says. “I’ve learnt that you’ve got to be focused, you have to be brave, and you have to stand out, but the most important thing is that you must do everything for the benefit of the customer. In this company that is an interesting challenge because I have the traditional customer, but then I also have the brands. I think as long as we at Vente-privee have honest and strong relationships with our brands, the rest should follow.”
Vente-privee now works with more than 2,600 brands. It has 24 million-plus members in Europe and 3.5 million unique visitors per day. About 2,100 staff work in its stylish headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, with further offices in Spain, Italy and Germany. Though the company does not release figures specifically for the UK, the business as a whole turned over €1.7bn (£1.25bn) last year, up 8% on 2013’s figure of €1.6bn (£1.17bn).
But it wasn’t always plain sailing. After launching in the US as a joint venture with American Express in 2012, the decision was made to close that arm of the firm in 2014, with the company stating “an exponential amount of time, resources and financial investment would be required to achieve significant growth in the US with the current model”.
Though critics suggested that the flash Sales model had become passé in the US, where competing sites such as Gilt Groupe and Amazon’s MyHabit had already enjoyed huge success, Scott believes UK shoppers are eager to explore what Vente-privee has to offer. “It [flash Sales] is something that is still yet to be discovered by the UK consumer and we are the best in class. So we might as well be the best in class in the UK where the opportunity is the biggest.”
The main UK rivals are BrandAlley, Secretsales and designer auction site Runway Bidder. Anusha Couttigane, senior fashion consultant at retail analyst Conlumino, believes that despite Vente-privee being a pioneer of the flash Sale model, it has some catching up to do. “It isn’t a big name in the UK and its established competitors are way ahead of the game. Aside from the fashion-exclusive players, Vente-privee is up against the likes of Groupon and Living Social, which have branched out into consumer goods and fashion.”
That said, Couttigane believes Scott is well placed to lead it. “Her background with Value Retail will give her a keen understanding of the affordable luxury consumer, as well as her experience at Selfridges.”
Scott is tight-lipped when it comes to Vente-privee’s plans, but it is clear that bringing in more British brands is a focus. Whether the UK business can replicate the success in France and avoid the unhappy fate of the US site remains to be seen, but in Scott it has a confident and experienced leader, who believes in the brand wholeheartedly.