LONDON — Sojin Lee is back in entrepreneur mode, looking to supercharge the delivery business with a business-to-business proposition that aims to extend shop-floor and dressing room services to any customer’s home — not just the VIP. Her company, Toshi, is already operating in London and New York, and the plan is to extend it to cities worldwide.
Early in her career Lee worked at Chanel, buying, forecasting and planning for the fragrance, beauty and fashion divisions, and was recruited to Net-a-porter just after it launched. As head of retail and buying there, she oversaw brand partnerships, merchandising, customer service and warehousing. She left Net in 2007, before Compagnie Financière Richemont bought a majority stake, although she remained a shareholder.
In 2009, Lee founded Fashionair, a fashion-as-entertainment site, with the British music impresario Simon Fuller, but it shut the following year after the investor, 19 Entertainment, pulled out following a strategic review.
Having worked over the past decade as a strategic investor and digital consultant on a variety of tech and consumer projects, such as helping Kering Group with its e-commerce strategy, the Korean-born, American-educated Lee launched Toshi’s on-demand services long before people were forced to stay home due to the coronavirus.
In a video interview, Lee said she has long been interested in the “last mile” space, and in companies such as Deliveroo, Grubhub and Glamsquad, which offer a level of convenience and service to customers when, and where, they require it.
She sees Toshi as bridging the gap between online and offline retail, and believes it could become a third sales channel, as well as adding a new service dimension to luxury retail. “What we’re offering is a form of shopping that’s available to anyone who touches the brand,” she said.
Many high-end retailers and brands already offer personal shopping services at home, but they are chiefly for big spenders and VIP customers, not for everyday ones making one-off purchases. Lee said she was also looking to help brands address the expensive issue of returns and make their shop floor stock work harder. She believes her “store-to-door” model, which sees physical retail stores as “mini-warehouses,” will help brands and customers alike.
Fashion wasn’t addressing these supply chain issues directly, she believes. “I wanted to go and try to define them. Traditionally, tech has never been deemed as sexy in this industry, but I wanted to take logistics and make it sexy — and relevant,” said Lee, who’s been spending so much time in front of the computer screen these days that she’s taken to wearing gamer glasses to protect her over-strained eyes.
Toshi appears on a brand or retail site as a delivery service, like DHL, with customers able to request additional sizes or products and pinning and fitting services no matter how much money they happen to be spending. The aim, she said, is to help brands and designers to offer “the luxury of convenience.”
Customers can also ask Toshi’s stylists to wait while they try the clothes on, take back clothes they don’t want to keep, or tap them for styling advice.
Lee said she recalls how important it was to Net-a-porter that online orders be boxed beautifully with a grosgrain ribbon, mimicking the luxury store experience. She said this is simply the next step, offering luxury services to customers at home. The service is free to clients, and Toshi is paid by the brands.
Lee said she chose the name Toshi for the site because it reflects the values she wants to promote. “Toshi” means “city” in Japanese, and it was also the name of a guide she met while on holiday with friends in Kyoto, Japan. She said he was the essence of true customer service, took great pride in his job, always went the extra mile, and had a great attention to detail. Metaphorically speaking, she said, “he was the richest man I ever met.”
Customers interested in the service make their order online or even in-store, type in their zip or post code, and book a 30-minute delivery slot. The trained stylist who makes the delivery can pin or fit the garment as they would in a shop-floor dressing room. Unlike average delivery folk dressed in garish branding and baseball caps, Toshi assistants wear all black outfits with no logos.
At the end of the appointment, the assistant brings unwanted clothing back to the shops, and the customer is only charged for what they keep. Lee said Toshi’s aim is to have any returned merchandise back at the store within 90 minutes of delivery.
At the request of the customer, the stylists can also bring along complementary items, much like a personal shopper would. Lee said that element could potentially create myriad cross-selling and upselling opportunities for brands.
Brands and retailers using Toshi have seen a 30 percent increase in revenues; a 40 percent increase in average order value, and a 30 percent reduction in returns, Lee said.
Josh Richardson, who heads up e-commerce at Roland Mouret, said Toshi has allowed the brand “to meet customer needs at a time when service is paramount. Our clients can choose a delivery time that suits their schedule, whether it is needed at home, the office or another location. Combined with Toshi’s additional services, Roland Mouret can offer a luxury concierge delivery method that reflects the brand values.”
Right now the site delivers in New York City and London. In New York, Toshi makes deliveries up to 115th Street in Manhattan, and in 16 Brooklyn boroughs. In London, it delivers to Zones 1, 2 and 3 where, according to Lee, more than 75 percent of brands’ active customers live. The service has been operating throughout the two and a half months of lockdown, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lee said Toshi’s overarching aim is to leverage resources that are already available: Stock is already sitting in existing stores or warehouses while public transportation is inexpensive and quick. Toshi does not have a gleaming fleet of cars delivering fashion on demand, like Net-a-porter. Rather, its stylists are urged to use City Mapper technology and hop on trains, buses or subways to get to appointments. They take taxis if the order basket is big or very expensive.
However, when lockdown began on both sides of the Atlantic, Toshi revised its protocol to conform with local government guidelines: All stylists wear masks and rubber gloves to appointments and can provide contactless deliveries, if required. The company has temporarily changed its transportation policy, arranging for the stylists to travel in cars when making deliveries rather than on public transportation.
Looking ahead, those local services will be essential for brands that are suffering from a decline in tourism. Indeed, Lee believes the coronavirus has not only accelerated the shift to online, it has also forced brands to engage more with the local consumer and to optimize locally held inventory.
Having founded the company three years ago, Lee is set to close a second round of funding. Investors include Sir Damon Buffini, a founding partner of Permira, and Pierre Lagrange, cofounder of GLG Partners and owner and chairman of Huntsman. The service will move to Los Angeles next, with plans to expand to cities including Paris, Dallas, Toronto, Milan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and São Paulo in the next two to three years.
Earlier this month Toshi hired Paul O’Regan, the former chief executive officer of Galvan London and a veteran of companies including Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Oscar de la Renta, and AllSaints, in the new role of chief commercial officer. He had been acting as strategic adviser to the company for the previous three months, and will join Lee, whose title is ceo, and chief operating officer Alex Henderson Russell on the executive team.