E-commerce is growing at a vigorous rate in Italy, and although it has a way to go to catch up with some other countries, online retailers and site managers are making big strides.
A study by Human Highway for Netcomm showed that over the past three years, the number of Italian e-shoppers has increased to 16 million from 9 million, and there are 10 million monthly deliveries of products bought online in Italy.
Considering the fashion segment only, the research noted that between April 2013 and April 2014, online clothing customers have increased 42 percent, to 3.3 million.
The growth is encouraging, but other data provided by U.K.-based Centre for Retail Research pointed out, for example, that this year in the U.K., online retail sales generated about $73.04 billion at current exchange, while in Italy e-commerce was about $8.65 billion.
Despite the late start, a number of Italian companies have demonstrated a pioneering approach to the Web, imposing their presence on the international markets.
Yoox Group, the online retail giant founded by Italian entrepreneur Federico Marchetti, is a leader in the segment. Marchetti launched Yoox.com in 2000 and publicly listed it in 2009. The site pioneered the concept of offering online overstocked and unsold items from international designers’ collections at discounted prices.
Yoox.com was followed in 2008 by Thecorner.com, a luxury men’s and women’s multibrand e-tailer, and in 2012 by footwear-focused Shoescribe.com. These differ from Yoox.com in that they sell full-price products. In addition, Yoox Group manages the e-commerce Web sites of a range of fashion and design labels, such as Marni (which opened first, in 2006), Giorgio Armani and Emporio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, Alexander Wang and the brands under the Kering umbrella, among others.
Other smaller entities are also emerging on the Italian scene. Among them is The Level Group, a Milan-based company launched three years ago that operates the online companies of about 15 fashion brands including Casadei, Stuart Weitzman, Aspesi, Woolrich, Geox and Galliano. In February, The Level Group also bought London-based fashion retailer LN-CC, which was founded by former buyer John Skelton and had been under administration before the acquisition.
“We launched The Level Group based on the firm belief that sooner or later, a brand-oriented perspective would have emerged on the online scene,” said Andrea Ciccoli, explaining the core strategy of the company he cofounded. “People keep talking about the importance of going online, but most of them don’t consider the fact that the luxury industry follows different rules from the mass market. Consequently, it’s important to manage fashion labels online with a particular approach.”
According to Ciccoli, this approach should consider not only operations and technical aspects, but there should also be a strong focus on marketing and on the creation of a tight interaction between a brand’s online and off-line presence.
Working with Italian as well as international companies, he also cited differences in the approach to online business in different markets. In particular, Ciccoli noticed that American brands are generally a step ahead in the management of the interaction with their customers, and also have better skills in integrating the various communication channels.
“Also, in Italy, there are some companies that look at the online [channel] as the fastest way to increase revenues, forgetting the need to invest based on a long-term strategy, which includes a constant attention to all the elements, including the quality of the images available on the site.”
Quality was one of the main ingredients that Andrea Panconesi, chief executive officer of Florence-based Luisa Via Roma, cited as triggering the success of his luxury e-tailer.
Launched in 1999 as an extension of the brick-and-mortar store, luisaviaroma.com, which sells about 500 fashion brands in categories from women’s wear and men’s wear to activewear, is now managed separately from the boutique and employs a dedicated team of 120 people. The logistics headquarters are located in Florence and all operations are handled in-house.
“The luisaviaroma.com project was born from an intuition I got,” Panconesi explained. “We felt the need to reach our foreign clients, who used to come to Florence twice a year. [Before the site launched] we would keep in touch with them by sending catalogues made specifically for foreign markets. Then, that unknown beast called the Web arrived, and we had the opportunity to give our international clients access to our offering.”
Now luisaviaroma.com accounts for 90 percent of Luisa Via Roma’s total sales, with the U.S. and Canada accounting for the lion’s share of the business.
This doesn’t mean that the e-commerce casts a shadow on the Florence store.
“The online and the actual store perfectly coexist,” said Panconesi. “Actually, the online store boosted the growth of the brick-and-mortar store, which is constantly visited by international customers who heard about us for the first time online.”
Retailers are not the only fashion players interested in growing a business online.
In 2011, Florence-based trade show organizer Pitti Uomo launched e-Pitti, a portal developed in collaboration with Fiera Digitale, to boost interaction between buyers and exhibitors at fairs Pitti Uomo, Pitti W, Pitti Filati and Pitti Bimbo. E-Pitti includes an extensive array of images — during the last edition of Pitti Uomo, Fiera Digitale’s photo crew shot about 60,000 images — and videos taken at the fairs, prolonging visibility for exhibitors.
“Nowadays, the Web is the most important source of information about commercial products for personal as well as professional uses, and is also the most relevant place to learn about trends,” said Fiera Digitale Chief Executive Officer Francesco Bottigliero. “We thought that a digital fair could reinforce the strength of the physical trade show. Considering the fact that the average buyer attending Pitti Uomo, for example, stays in Florence for a couple of days and has time to visit only about 50 of the 1,000 booths, the digital trade show could allow him to check out more brands when he gets back home. And at the same time, this can allow exhibitors to get in touch with more buyers.”
Bottigliero noted that e-Pitti also gives those who were not able to attend the show access to the collections.
In June, Fiera Digitale revamped e-Pitti’s look to better accommodate the needs of its users. In particular, the Web site was made more user-friendly for viewing on mobile devices, in consideration that in certain countries 40 percent of users have access to the online fairs from tablets and smartphones.