LONDON — As aggressive as Matchesfashion.com may be when it comes to digital innovation, the company also knows when to step back, take a breath and give new ideas time to marinate.
Last year, the London-based retailer delivered 165 tech products aimed at improving the online shopping experience, and it is pushing ahead with innovation in the fields of artificial intelligence and 360-degree technology, aimed at bolstering customer service.
“We’re a business fueled by innovation and we try to really impress the customer with that innovation,” said Ulric Jerome, chief executive officer of Matchesfashion.com. “But each one of us has to be very careful about the time that we have, and the opportunity and impact that [tech innovations] can make with the customer today, tomorrow and in the realistic future,” the 38-year-old said.
Jerome pointed to certain aspects of virtual reality. “If you look at VR, it’s something very interesting because you can potentially enable your customer to live a specific experience. What we have found so far is that the technology is not necessarily at a point that enables the best customer experience and shopability. There are still a lot of technology improvements to be made in VR for it to have a clear impact.”
He said his team is also aware that processors on mobile phones are not yet strong enough to provide a “fluid” VR experience. They tend to freeze.
That nuanced approach appears to be working: In 2016, the company saw its average order value increase by 14 percent to 511 pounds, or $700, while online sales at the retailer, which also operates five brick-and-mortar stores in London, grew 73 percent. Overall sales were up 61 percent to 204 million pounds, or $280 million.
“This is the one industry that has the lowest Internet penetration, so the opportunity is massive. This is why I think it’s an amazing time for our business and for the industry in general,” said Jerome, who began his career with an entrepreneurial bang as a cofounder of the French electricals and general merchandise web site Pixmania.com.
He helped to grow it to a business with revenues of nearly one billion euros, and operations in 26 countries. The founders later sold a majority stake to the U.K.-based electrical retailer Dixons in 2006, six years after they opened.
Jerome pointed out that the personal luxury consumer market had 8 percent penetration in 2016, up from 3 percent in 2012. “I think it will go to 15 percent in 2020-21,” said Jerome, whose philosophy — along with that of the Matchesfashion founders and executive co-chairmen Tom and Ruth Chapman — is to embrace all sales channels and to get them sparking off each other.
Jerome bristles at the word “omnichannel.” He said he and the Chapmans like to refer to what they do as commerce, plain and simple. “For us, the store is as important as the web. It’s as important as mobile. That’s what we call commerce. Commerce is the opportunity to interact in multiple ways with your customer — and stores are completely part of the mix.”
To wit, the company has recently connected its customer relationship management, or CRM, systems across web, mobile and the brand’s five brick-and-mortar stores, allowing the retailer to have a full picture of its customers.
“The minute someone walks into our store, we have their full history, we know exactly what they want. We created internal apps within the store that enable the sales consultant to see [it all], to see their preferences for a brand, to even trigger push notifications to that specific customer for the brands that they like.”
He said some of the stores already do close to 50 percent of their sales on the iPad “because in the store you’re limited by your physical preference. In a store on average, we present 10 to 15 percent of our inventory. The store then becomes a conceptual space where you can understand the DNA of the brand. “On the iPad, we can then expand that DNA and show the entire product offering that we have in our warehouse.”
He added that store merchandising also changes frequently, and in tune with online merchandising “so [the store] becomes a lifestyle and experiential environment. That’s the beauty of working with 420 brands. You have the opportunity to be a lot more flexible and a lot more inspiring than if you were just one brand.”
The company also plans to ramp up its digital trunk shows, where customers watch the designer being interviewed, as models show off pieces from capsule collections made exclusively for Matchesfashion. Customers can shop as they watch. The company hosted 35 such shows last year with brands including J.W. Anderson, Simone Rocha, Roksanda and Zandra Rhodes.
With regard to future innovation, Jerome said Matchesfashion is exploring the possibilities of 360-degree technology. “We’re working toward operating [a system] that will enable the customer to have a completely fluid experience, multiple 360-degree views of one environment. It could be a store interior, or any customer interaction that happens when we physically go to meet our customers internationally,” he said.
The Matchesfashion team is also researching the possibilities of artificial intelligence through its sponsorship of New York Fashion Tech Lab’s Accelerator Program. He said AI will have a big impact on the digital fashion business, although it’s still in its early stages. Jerome said AI will eventually be able to sense what’s out of stock and automatically readapt the head-to-toe looks that are featured on the site to reflect what’s still available — and what’s already sold out.
“We need to have the technology that changes the look with products that are in stock. That’s what we’re working on with the women entrepreneurs at NYFTL,” Jerome said.
“It’s an initiative that we’re very keen about and that we’re very happy to participate in. The message that we always give is that more qualitative visibility you give to brands and products, the more everybody benefits.”
The innovations at Matchesfashion aren’t limited to the in-store or on-screen experience. In December, the company became the first online retailer to offer an on-demand, 90-minute delivery service in London. It also introduced nominated day and hour deliveries.
London-based customers can type in their orders at 6:30 a.m., with the first packages arriving at 8 a.m. and the last at 10 p.m.
“Our customers are super-keen on fast delivery. Most importantly, I really believe that the norm in 18 to 24 months will be one-hour delivery. Why? Because it’s driven by customer behavior. Take Uber, take Deliveroo. It’s all about speed with a very high level of service.”
Jerome said he believes the 90-minute service is as close as can be to a physical store experience, “It’s almost the immediacy of being at the store.”
Because it’s challenging to build market share in the luxury digital space, Jerome said “speed of execution is something very important. We are now working on the back of the very good and scalable platform, which enables us to really tackle the challenge.”