From its first branch in London that opened in 1981, to more than 140 stores in the UK and an online network that delivers to over fifty countries, Hobbs has certainly come a long way. The British women's retailer recently reported a rise in sales and profit as a result of their refresh efforts; according to chief executive Nicky Dulieu, over 90 per cent of the company's clothing and footwear have been updated. At the same time, the brand is stepping up on its store improvement programme, along with a carefully planned worldwide expansion. The director of ecommerce, Gracia Amico, talked to Fashion We Like about the company's new plans, the importance of physical stores in an ever-growing digital world, and the rise of the omnichannel consumers.
Hobbs is working on an overseas web expansion. Could you tell us about your plans and goals?
We would like to take Hobbs internationally, and we will start from our online presence. At the moment, we are working on a localised German website which will launch in August, plus a U.S. and Australian website launching in September. We will also look for partners in those countries, so we are attacking it on both fronts, both online and offline.
According to American entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen, âRetail guys are going to go out of business, and ecommerce will become the place everyone buys. You are not going to have a choice.â Do you agree with this statement and if so, why?
Not at all, however, this might be different for other industries such as music. In order to be a very good retailer you need to have both stores and a strong online presence, accompanied by an optimised mobile website. Basically, you should be able to offer anything to anyone at any time. Also, there will always be people who love going to stores, which will eventually become even more interactive (having for example fantastic digital walls). So physical stores are very important. It’s also difficult to take a brand outside your own country if you don’t have a presence on the high streets. A company wishing to conquer the U.S. only through online would have to invest a lot of money online. If you look at the pure online player’s success stories such as Net-a-Porter, they are selling brands that already exist in those countries. Even though it is a new company, it still sells established and recognisable brands. So in order to launch a completely new brand abroad, you will need a presence both on and offline to make it work — unless you want to do it very slowly and organically. If you want to be faster, you need physical stores, as they are a gateway to international markets.
How does social media influence the way people interact when it comes to shopping? Do you believe that Facebook or Pinterest could offer a satisfactory integrated shopping experience?
Not really. I’ve tried that in a previous job where we had a shopping platform on Facebook, and I can't say that it worked. The same has happened with other companies that attempted it — we don’t think it delivers. Although people on Facebook are not there to buy directly, I really believe in the importance of social media and how it eventually influences sales. For example, at Hobbs we have an incredibly engaged customer base, despite that fact that the numbers are not big yet (we are currently working on that). Therefore, we facilitate that engagement further and make them feel they belong to a group or to a brand. There is definitely a connection between engagement, then eventually sales online.
Currently, quite a few online fashion retailers are focusing on quality content. How important is content to you, and how is it affecting the world of fashion ecommerce in your view?
Content is really important and it definitely helps regarding a stronger engagement with the customer. In our case, the women that shop at Hobbs look toward us to advise them on what looks good together and what to wear on different occasions. So we show this through different content on the site. Content is both informative and fun. The amount and quality of information you can deliver to a willing reader is powerful. Compare this to a busy adviser in a store. This is definitely an advantage of a website. In addition, it underlines the brand’s strength and what we aspire to. Content is definitely important.
Collaborative consumption, personalised recommendations, social shopping. Are there any online trends that have the potential to disrupt fashion retail right now? Where would you choose to invest if you had to?
I would say that personalisation is very important. When people visit a website and it shows them what products they might like based on their browser behaviour or send them emails with products that like-minded people have bought already, that is something that helps conversion rates go up. Apart from that, I think that interactive television is really going to be very big; people will just buy anything they see on TV whilst watching something else. For example, you’re watching a program and you say “this guy is wearing a lovely cardigan,” and if that cardigan belongs to let's say Prada, then a note will come up saying that you can purchase said item right away. Also, the Google Glasses are definitely going to make waves. People could be browsing online for more information whilst not even interrupting their current in store shopping. Diane von Furstenberg used these in her show last year. Very cool.
What are the opportunities and the challenges of mobile commerce?
I see it as one big opportunity. As said before, people are always on the move. The challenge is that mobile devices are very small, so how are you going to make it both interesting and easy to shop from at the same time? Conversion on mobile is lower than on desktop, but traffic is growing phenomenally. Browsing on an iPad is a very different experience with conversion even exceeding the desktop at times. As for Hobbs, we recently relaunched our mobile website. We concentrated on a much better search facility using filters to get to the products quicker and more accurately. Responsive design is the next big thing for all of us, making one design work for different size screens such as mobile, desktop, and tablet.
Do you see people purchasing expensive items through their mobile phone?
Yes, absolutely. We are seeing a higher average of orders on the mobile but especially on the iPad. Women in our target age group are heavy iPad users. When they go to bed at night they often start browsing and shopping on their tablet, as they’ve been busy all day working or looking after their family.
Are there any fashion start-ups that have caught your attention or that you follow closely?
Interestingly enough, I enjoy flash sales sites, as I think it’s a super clever concept. Every day they have new sales on well-known brands, and because they constantly offer different items, they get my attention daily. I don't just visit them to purchase something necessary; rather they show me what’s considered hot and what’s not. I am quite intrigued by that sales model, and I am trying to understand how we could eventually integrate something like this into our business.
What is fashion shopping going to be like in the future?
I think we are all trying to make online shopping as seamless as possible, such as helping customers understand how things look on them. I don’t think anyone has cracked it yet, but I am hoping that we can at least come up with better size guides that could really help people get an idea of what would be right for them in terms of fit. I also think there’s a lot of exciting things happening in regard to combining what both online and offline shopping has to offer. Stores will be inspirational places, and of course they will be the places where you can also buy online and pick up your orders.
Regarding in-store experiences, do you see any new trends?
A little bit. There are these big screens, which as you walk closer to them will recognise whether you are a man or woman, estimate your height, and give you suggestions. However, I don’t think any of it is quite good enough at the present time. In Japan, they have done some really fun stuff in recognising their customer's location. You could text the store from your mobile, reserve a pair of trainers, and they could see where you were in the store from following a moving red dot on a big screen. By the time you walk through the door, there is someone there with a shoebox in his or her hands waiting for you! [laughs]
Isn't that a little creepy?
It is amazing — especially if you are busy and there are a lot of people that want that pair of collectible trainers. That’s just awesome. Hopefully, that kind of stuff will become more available.