MILAN — “If fashion shopping is religion, monotheism does not exist.”
Francesco Tombolini, chairman of Camera Buyer Italia, the association that groups 106 Italian fashion retailers — a number that is expected to become 120 by yearend — peppers his conversation with such spirited sound bites, discussing monobrand, multibrand and online distribution. Into his second year as the head of the chamber, Tombolini is the first person in the role who has a background in management positions with companies including Yoox Net-a-porter, Vilebrequin, Emporio Armani, Gucci and Emanuel Ungaro. He began his career as head of Asian sales and retail for Genny and Byblos in the mid-Eighties.
Tombolini admitted retailers are feeling the pinch of online distribution, but at the same time he touted their resilience. Digital sales are “generating new consumer clusters.”
“Logoed merchandise, sneakers and gadgets sell well online, but tailoring and bags are still strong in brick-and-mortar,” he contended. Tombolini said 2019 has been challenging, marked by a good first quarter, but followed by a “complex” second quarter, with 3 percent year-over-year growth. Things picked up in July and August, two “very interesting” months, he said.
Beautiful stores in Italian resort towns and the best cities immersed in art and culture continue to draw consumers looking for the holy grail of experience, especially Chinese and American tourists, he pointed out. “Shopping in such locations is a souvenir for them,” said Tombolini. Milan is also seeing a flurry of openings during fashion week, from the new Tod’s, MSGM and Philipp Plein units to L’Autre Chose and Frankie Morello stores, which follow the recent unveiling of the sprawling Bally and Uniqlo flagships.
“We have endured the competition of fake monobrands, the arrival of 1,200 fast-fashion stores, outlets (4,400 in Italy) and stock houses. We resisted and we will resist the [power of the] online channel, too, by adapting,” he said.
Actually, Tombolini sees online sales as “a great opportunity that protect us from the outlets.” To be sure, 38 percent of retailers that are associated with the Camera are already online and 50 percent of their online business comes from the U.S., China and elsewhere in Europe, he said. But Tombolini avoids “standardizing the customer, especially the Chinese customer.” The latter, he believes, is especially attracted to the multibrand model because they are used to seeing mainly monobrand stores in China.
Fashion brands have increasingly been streamlining their wholesale channels, touting a strategy that helps better control distribution, positioning and pricing. This is also seen as a way to cut back on parallel, gray market sales, although executives rarely explore this topic on the record. Tombolini disagrees with this view.
“A wholesale partner is not one for all seasons, it must be cultivated as someone who can really help you understand the customer and too often, multibrand accounts are blamed to cover a slow performance of a brand’s own stores. If retail suffers, multibrands suffer, too,” he said.
About 80 members of the association work with Farfetch, with a business of around $600 million. “When a small partner that started with you grows, you always worry that they will forget about you. We’ve seen this before, but with Farfetch there is a desire to collaborate and make it even more approachable. At the same time, we ask [founder] José Neves for even more engagement and to have ongoing conversations,” he observed.
Tombolini said he saw many brands move away from multibrand specialty retailers to department stores in the Nineties, but he argued that he was “certain they will come back because the editing and the ability of a multibrand to respond is super fast and constructive.”
Asked about the gray market, he said “if there is someone that buys, there’s someone that sells. It’s a mistake to call it a gray market.”
He waved away any “romantic ideas of basement bazaars that open at night,” but rather pointed to “thinking of catering to the taste of Asian customers. There are almost 10 million Chinese tourists who spend an average of four nights per year in Italy, between Rome and Milan, and they come from tier-two or tier-three cities, attracted by our multibrands. To buy in a beautiful place is the same as eating well in a good restaurant, it gives more satisfaction. Fashion is about dreams, when it’s down to an algorithm [or only a business], it’s consumer goods.”
Tombolini trumpeted the Italian family-owned, self-financed multibrand model, which is increasingly leveraging exclusive service, as it cannot afford steep discounts. “Each year we renovate 12 percent of our surfaces [store area] with a yearly investment of around 56 million euros; we invest in salespeople, with more than 75 percent of our employees speaking English. We invest in research, as our stores carry an average of 340 brands, with an overlapping of labels standing at 44 percent.”
Tombolini’s goal is to create a consortium, and to next year build a brick-and-mortar store for unsold goods called The Best Shop. He plans to increase the number of members of the association, opening up to additional categories including eyewear, watches and furniture, launching the hashtag #cometogether. He is also setting up a new app, with the goal of connecting up to 700,000 consumers.
“With us shopping is therapy, not compulsiveness,” said Tombolini.
CAMERA BUYER ITALIA LIST
Points of sale: 405
Turnover of its members: 2.2. billion euros
Top brands: 340
Average square feet per store: 400
Total Instagram followers of members: 2.7 million
Total Facebook followers of members: 2.3 million