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Web of opportunity

It may have been fashionably late to the etail party, but thanks to head of online Zia Zareem-Slade, Selfridges.com is quickly making up for lost time.

Since taking up the reins as head of online at Selfridges.com, Zia Zareem-Slade has brought with her a wealth of expertise in delivering a first-class online customer experience, ironing out the usability flaws that plagued its launch and delivering the kind of site that makes you want to shop.

“I’ll probably regret saying this, but I think the days of big-bang websites where you design it all, you spend a lot of time in a dark room with lots of pieces of paper, wire frames and functional specs – they’re long gone,” Zareem-Slade tells Drapers as we sit down in the minimalist setting of the London department store’s offices. “Now it’s much more about being intuitive, agile and adapting. Consumers’ needs, moods and wants change frequently.”

Zareem-Slade’s pragmatic stance reflects the wealth of experience she brought to Selfridges.com when she took up the reins in March 2011, and the key learnings the retailer has made since the transactional website’s somewhat late arrival to market via a soft launch in February 2010, and a full launch the following month.

Critics argue that Selfridges.com’s late transactional launch enabled rivals such as Net-A-Porter and Asos to steal a march on the sector, a notion Zareem-Slade rejects. At the time she says the business was simply more focused on delivering the best in-store experience possible, and that following the crowd and rushing an ecommerce operation to offer a “me too” experience was just “not the way we do things”.

“I wasn’t at the business then but I don’t look at those retailers and go ‘Oh, we should have launched earlier’, because we did what was right for Selfridges at the time,” she says. Instead, she puts a more positive spin on things. “It’s about leaping rather than spending 12 years figuring out the same challenges that everyone else has already. We come to an ecommerce marketplace that’s more mature, and therefore that should mean we’re in a position to take full advantage of it,” she says.

However, few launches are seamless, and that of Selfridges’ transactional website was no exception. At launch the site drew criticism for its design and usability flaws – in particular, its use of Flash graphics which slowed down page-loading times.

Unflinching at the suggestion that it has been a work in progress, Zareem-Slade is refreshingly honest about the site’s initial teething problems. “In the time I’ve been here we’ve taken out functionality that wasn’t getting used and wasn’t adding value to the customer experience. We’ve focused on improving usability and site performance,” she says. “As much as people love putting in loading graphics that take forever, actually that’s not what most shoppers want. They want to be able to browse content that looks beautiful,” she says.

Having just celebrated its second birthday, Selfridges.com’s more user-friendly approach is paying off. While Zareem-Slade declines to reveal the exact percentage of the entire business’s sales that come from Selfridges.com, she does say the site now attracts 1.4 million customers every month and that since launch, revenues have grown by more than 100% year on year, with 2012/13 expected to follow suit. Over the past year, unique visitors have increased 60% and conversion has risen 30%.

Women’s accessories and fashion remain the biggest categories, but menswear is picking up and has seen significant growth over the past few months, suggesting that men are switching on to the channel too.

Paul Bidder, commercial director of digital strategy agency Red Ant, which counts Topshop, New Look and Gant among its clients, tells Drapers he likes the site and that there aren’t any big issues with it, suggesting only minor usability improvements. “Other than that, it looks OK on the iPhone and iPad. For a brand such as Selfridges, it seems to have realised that function is better than form alone,” he says.

Where Selfridges’ transactional website might have been late to the party, its mobile-enabled site launched ahead of schedule, just in time to catch the Christmas rush last year. As it turns out, Christmas Day was its busiest day, and Zareem-Slade reveals that 15% of Selfridges.com’s traffic now comes via mobile phones.

So could 2012 be the year of m-commerce? Zareem-Slade seems to think so. “All of the stats that you see getting floated around about mobile being the next big thing, given the amount of our traffic that comes via mobiles, I would say they are probably true,” she says.

Having recognised the influence of social media, Selfridges is present on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, with about 205,000 followers, fans and consumers, and Zareem-Slade says it is currently considering Google+ and Pinterest.

However, Selfridges has no plans to invest in a transactional Facebook store. “We’re not a market stall that we want Facebook to control, thank you,” she says, defiantly. “So that’s what we’d need to consider. How do you make Selfridges deliver a better experience through that medium, rather than just using it as another way of pumping product out to people, which we wouldn’t want to do.”

Despite its success, Selfridges.com still faces challenges. Martin Newman, chief executive of ecommerce consultancy Practicology, says that while the website has improved under Zareem-Slade’s tenure, it still lacks the product depth that is available in-store: “The range proposition is a bit disappointing, although it has deepened recently. The online store also doesn’t have the same feel as the store; it isn’t as vibrant or dynamic.”

However, these are issues that face most multichannel retailers, and Selfridges.com is addressing them. The product range available online has doubled since 2010/11 and in order to achieve brand consistency across channels, Selfridges shoots the site’s header graphics in-store – Zareem-Slade describes the store itself as being the “big heartbeat in the middle of all of it”.

Providing a seamless end-to-end proposition, from order to delivery, is another challenge high on Zareem-Slade’s agenda.

“It’s not just about when we make the sale.

You see so many yellow bags in the vicinity of Oxford Street and that’s such an important part of buying with us. We need to create that same moment where a customer feels proud of their purchase on delivery,” she says.

Despite the pressures of running a high-profile transactional website resting on her well-dressed shoulders, Zareem-Slade says she wouldn’t change it for the world. “I’m in my dream job,” she says. “Sad but true. I love fashion, I love technology and I love delivering amazing customer experiences.”

Career highlights

2011 Head of online, Selfridges.com

2010 Customer experience strategy director, SapientNitro

2005 Head of experience planning, EMC Consulting

2000 Ecommerce manager, MFI

Q&A

What other etailers do you admire?

Net-a-Porter and the portfolio of sites it has including The Outnet and Mr Porter. You can’t work in this industry and not be impressed with what they do. The same with Asos; what a phenomenal business that has grown into. But also hats off to the independents like Coggles and [online marketplace] Farfetch – really innovative, sleek, well-considered brands doing a great job in the fashion market.

Who has been your mentor?

A couple of key people that have played quite demonstrable roles in my career. Mike Altendorf, the chief executive of EMC Consulting and EMC Conchango, an agency that I worked for, is one of them. I’ve known him for years and he’s been hugely influential. Equally, I’ve been privileged enough to work alongside Laura Wade-Gery [currently executive director of multichannel at Marks & Spencer], and what a powerhouse she is.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Sometimes you have to let things fall over to work out what needs fixing. 

What is your typical outfit?

A Helmut Lang jacket with an Acne dress and skirt. And I also love Stella McCartney.

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