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The Drapers Interview: Sarah Curran & Gareth Jones

Redefining luxury: Shop Direct is steering into uncharted territory with VeryExclusive.co.uk, but Sarah Curran and Gareth Jones are confident about its democratic offering.

Gareth Jones, group retail and strategy director at Shop Direct, and Sarah Curran, managing director of Very Exclusive

Gareth Jones, group retail and strategy director at Shop Direct, and Sarah Curran, managing director of Very Exclusive

When Drapers catches up with VeryExclusive.co.uk managing director Sarah Curran and her partner-in-fashion Gareth Jones - Shop Direct’s group strategy and retail director and deputy CEO, as he is also known - she is in the middle of her spring 15 buy and busy preparing for the launch of the new standalone etail fascia during London Fashion Week, from February 20 to 24 Next year.

“Tying in with LFW made sense because a lot of the brands we’re going to stock show there. LFW is also very innovative and exciting, which is what VeryExclusive will be all about, so the timing is perfect. We’ve had some very exciting conversations with the British Fashion Council about it,” says Curran. This could involve partnering commercially with the event, but nothing is confirmed yet.

Speaking at Shop Direct’s headquarters in Speke, Liverpool - which will also serve as a base for VeryExclusive - Curran reveals fashion brands Rag & Bone, Equipment, M Missoni (“for swimwear and kaftans”), PPQ, Current/Elliot and Pam & Gela (from design duo Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor, who founded Juicy Couture, the label much loved by celebs in the early noughties) have now come on board as suppliers.

They join an impressive roster of brands including Marc by Marc Jacobs, McQ, Red Valentino, Carven, Kenzo, See by Chloé, Vivienne Westwood Anglomania and J Brand in what will be the accessible luxury arm offering diffusion and second lines; and retailers such as Reiss that will sell under VeryExclusive’s high street luxury division. Average price-points for ready-to-wear will be £200.

The site will offer a total look from head to toe under one digital roof and is aimed at women aged 26 to 35. Its branded offer and content will be edited for its customers using the latest in personalisation technology, such as Swogo, which shows users what items other users have selected to complete a look. It will also offer a credit option that includes a store card with a representative APR of 18.9% and stable-mate Very.co.uk’s ‘Take 3’ option, whereby customers can spread payments over three months interest-free.

“We are building something very unique. I hate that feeling sometimes in fashion where it’s dictatorial or people have felt excluded if they are not the right size, or they don’t have the right sort of income. So this is going to be really accessible. That has always been my mission,” says Curran.

Ecommerce expert Kristine Kirby, formerly at Hackett and Monsoon Accessorize, says VeryExclusive is right to focus on personalisation and edited content from inception, which she says is important to the aspirational consumer, but that they should be aiming for a slightly older consumer and questions whether transplanting Very’s credit offer will work. “If you’re buying Marc Jacobs, do you really need to split the payment over three months?” she asks.

However, Tamara Sender, senior fashion analyst at market research firm Mintel, says VeryExclusive’s target customer age range is spot on: “The decision to launch a luxury website targeted at women aged 26 to 35 makes sense as Mintel’s research shows that this growing demographic are the most likelyto own a luxury handbag and show the most commitment towards designer brands.”

The website itself is still being built, with various options and treatments being tested. However, Curran does reveal that content will play a central role. The two big online relaunches this year, Marks & Spencer and Harvey Nichols, saw them focus on content, but subsequent reports suggest the strategy isn’t working. So is content really the right strategy for VeryExclusive?

Curran contends that editorial content has been a proven strategy since she launched the My-Wardrobe website in 2006. “Done well it’s a no-brainer, and I think it’s very easy to find examples of retailers who have done extremely well with a strong content strategy.” She says pureplays such as Asos.com and Net-A-Porter are the best examples of how to get content right. “So, for us, it was about finding the right team who understood our tonality.” For Curran, the VeryExclusive woman is a blend of the Marie Claire and Glamour magazine readers.

Jenny Dyson, creative director at content agency Pencil, agrees that content is important but says: “If VeryExclusive is going to do what it says on the tin, then I’ll be hoping for VeryExclusive content. That means totally unique and exclusive stories with the brands they are going to be stocking. Something you can’t get anywhere else. That would definitely drive interest to what is essentially yet another department store online.”

‘I hate that people can feel excluded if they are not the right size or don’t have the right income. So this will be really accessible’
Sarah Curran

Jones agrees that editorial content isn’t necessarily to blame for the troubles M&S and Harvey Nichols have had online. “Take M&S - they have said themselves that they did two things here. They made every single customer change their password and log in again. That, in ecommerce terms, is like an atomic bomb landing in the middle of your building in terms of conversion rate.” He adds that completely changing the structure of its website with “literally hundreds, if not thousands”, of changes overnight meant a lot of disruptive discontinuation for the consumer. “M&S has been clear that this will take some time to heal,” he says.

The luxury arena is uncharted territory for Shop Direct, which also owns Littlewoods and 50+ womenswear brand Isme, so why decide to enter the sector now?

Jones says that having launched Very in 2009 and steered it towards becoming a £700m business - twice the size of Asos.com in the UK and growing at 25% year on year - they had “exhausted the upper end of what [Very’s] customer wanted to buy and what those brands were willing to let us have. We knew there was an opportunity here [but] we had no idea how to do it. So that led us to thinking about how we were going to engage those brands, and by fluke Sarah Curran arrived like a puff of dust.”

“The stars were aligned,” Curran adds with a laugh. “For me, what was really interesting is that when I started to talk to Gareth and Alex [Baldock, group chief executive] about Shop Direct’s transformation [from catalogue business to ecommerce giant], and the fact that the growth in Very was coming from this C1+ [lower middle class upwards] woman who was buying into Apple’s lux-tech proposition, common sense indicated that she was going to have that aspiration towards luxury in other parts of her lifestyle as well.”

She adds: “We did some customer research at the beginning of the year where we identified and ringfenced about 300,000 within the group database, which is circa five million customers, that we felt fitted the profile of the Exclusive woman. Within this research, we asked what type of brands she buys into within the accessible luxury and luxury high street, and we were able to get some really strong insights.

“We know she gets that lux-tech product from us, but she doesn’t buy into the fashion proposition because it isn’t in line with her style of aspiration. So we knew that this was a huge opportunity for us.”

The strategy will involve targeting these customers, as well as working with Google and Facebook to identify new customers that fit the profile of the VeryExclusive woman and reach out to them via advertising.

It’s now been nearly a year since Shop Direct announced it had hired Curran to spearhead its charge into the luxury arena. She brings with her a luxury pedigree that includes having launched My-Wardrobe with ex-husband Andrew. She stepped back from her role as chief executive at the business in 2011 to focus on its more creative elements and then departed completely in July of 2013 before it ran into its recent troubles. Her services to the fashion industry have even been recognised by the Queen, who last year bestowed her with an MBE.

Curran says that, despite its credentials, having the might of the Shop Direct machine behind her wasn’t what got brands on board.

“And this is nothing against Shop Direct. I think there was a requirement to show another creative aesthetic and treatment and direction, because we are moving into a world where treatment and image is essential and editorial is key,” she says. “And there is no doubt that people have phenomenal respect for Shop Direct as a beast. You can’t not have. But I think they just wanted the reassurance that creatively it was going to be a standalone site and how that was going to work.”

Curran and her team created a presentation deck with a mock shoot to take to brands to show the site’s direction, and she says when they saw it they were immediately more comfortable with the proposition. Then, the benefits of Shop Direct’s backing, such as its customer database, analytics capabilities and fulfilment services, came to the fore. “I’m not going to say it’s been an easy nine months, but it has become easier,” she explains.

Jones echoes this and asserts, “Actually, when you start speaking to them in detail the light bulb just goes on,” clicking his fingers as he does so.

Being allowed the freedom by Jones and the Shop Direct board to take her time, conduct meetings with brands and build the website as a start-up has been invaluable, Curran says. “Quite naturally, it would have been an easy thing to make me part of a structure, which might have slowed things down. When you are almost a £2bn retailer [Shop Direct saw its sales rise 1% to £1.69bn for the 12 months to June 30 last year, reporting its first profit in 10 years] there are the governances and the procedures you have to follow, even in terms of supplier on-boarding and how long that normally takes. So I have really been allowed the freedom and a lot of trust from Gareth and the executive board to deliver what I said I was going to deliver.”

This has involved putting together the right team, which was less about finding people who had been at “the right places” and more about recruiting people with the right personality and fit for VeryExclusive. They include head of buying Vikki Kavanagh, who joined in July from her buyer role at Harvey Nichols; Hugh Longland, who has held a number of roles at Shop Direct and will oversee strategic brand partnerships and marketing; Emily London, who will join in the next few weeks as head of content from her role as editor of US style website Refinery29; Natalie Bulmer, who will join as features editor from My-Wardrobe; style blogger Simon Glazin, who will become social media editor in the coming weeks; and Lauren Stevenson, formerly of My-Wardrobe and Harrods, who will oversee PR and communications.

Buying, content and PR will be based in Shop Direct’s London office, while trading, marketing, ecommerce, web development, fulfilment and customer service will be based in Speke. Curran will divide her time between the two.

Since Shop Direct announced the launch, some have criticised it as being My-Wardrobe under a different guise. “VeryExclusive really is a head-to-toe styling experience and one-stop destination underpinned by the credit proposition. I’ve not seen anything like it in the UK retail market online. I think it is too easy to say it is Wardrobe under a different guise, because that is just not correct.”

‘VeryExclusive is a head-to-toe styling experience and one-stop destination.
I’ve not seen anything like it in the UK’
Sarah Curran

Looking ahead, Curran has no plans to use a celebrity face to market the site as done by Very or Littlewoods, but says branching out into menswear or kidswear could be an option. “I think the focus for the first two seasons is to bed down womenswear and that in itself is a mountain to climb.”

However, she adds: “I think the great thing about the proposition and the sector we are in is that there are other categories we can go into, such as men’s, such as kids’, such as lifestyle. So once we’ve got traction on womenswear, I think it would be the obvious thing to branch out. It would be 2016 onwards and I would imagine that we would probably do men’s next.”

And that will be here before we know it, so watch this space.

Unique offering: VeryExclusive aims to provide accessible yet aspirational fashion

Unique offering: VeryExclusive aims to provide accessible yet aspirational fashion

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