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Net-A-Porter and the start of luxury fashion e-commerce

By FashionUnited

5 Oct 2015

Fashion |IN DEPTH

Buying clothes online has become such common practice today that it is hard to imagine that this was not always the case. The internet, which started to gain popularity in the late nineties, hit rock-bottom in 2000 when the dotcom-bubble burst. The endless optimism for the future of the new medium suddenly changed into distrust, which in turn brought about an economic crisis. It seemed illogical to open a webshop for luxury goods in a time investors had lost all hope for the internet, but that is exactly what Natalie Massenet did. Following her gut turned out to be the right decision, as her company Net-A-Porter has grown out to become one of the most loved online destinations for luxury fashion goods. The company announced its merger with Yoox, an Italian outlet for luxury goods, in July this year and less than two months later Massenet revealed she would be leaving the group. Massenet’s company is still described as a pioneer when it comes to luxury fashion e-tail, but the question remains as to how how Net-A-Porter grew to become one of the most successful luxury e-tailers?

Net-A-Porter: a unique vision

When Massenet first began approaching potential investors and brands for Net-A-Porter, she was often met with reluctance from those she tried to get on board with her idea for the company. “You'd go through a pitch and say: 'And then you can click and buy it from pictures and it's delivered anywhere in the world.' And they'd listen and they'd nod and then afterwards they'd say: 'Just tell me one more thing: where is your store?'", said Massenet in an interview with The Guardian. Designers were convinced at the time that people would not buy luxury goods online because the experience would never match the feeling of visiting a real store. Massenet, on the other hand, believed that women were looking for a unique experience. Also, she felt that the world was lacking a store where people could visit to find special fashion pieces. The entrepreneur envisioned Net-A-Porter as a luxurious store where clothes would be presented in a way that designers and consumers alike would associate with shopping in a physical store.

In addition to changing the luxury industry, Net-A-Porter also transformed online retail. By blending the best of retail with a magazine, Massenet´s website gave women the opportunity to buy clothes that were handpicked by a fashion editor. “People always say to me, 'You've really strived to redefine retail.' But the reality is, I wanted to redefine magazines," admitted Massenet in The Evening Standard. In addition to offering fashion, editorial content also played an important role on the website. Nick Pope, director fashion and luxury at Deloitte UK, praises Massenet´s focus on content. “When buying a luxury product, the transaction itself only constitutes a small part of the experience. It is all about offering more than just a product in this industry,” explains Pope to FashionUnited. Finally, Massenet herself is another unique aspect of the company she founded. “As a mother, mogul and style-setter, she became their aspirational figure, and they shopped on her site because they wanted to be like her; they wanted a slice of her life, and her taste. People buy brands because they buy, in large part, what a brand stands for. The product or, in this case, the site, represents a set of values and an identity,” explains Vanessa Friedman, fashion critic for the New York Times. Thanks to her impeccable sense of style and her unique approach to shopping, Massenet was able to start a business that clearly stood out from all other webstores.

Becoming the world’s number one

“At the time I said ‘we’re only going to do this, if we’re going to be the best in the world’,” recounts Megan Quinn, one of the first investors and employees of Net-A-Porter, about her response to Massenet’s question if she would be willing to become involved in her newly founded business. From the boxes in which orders were dispatched, to the brands that were sold: Quinn believed that the company could only become a success if every aspect of the business would be excellent. The only fashion stores that existed on the internet in 1999 targeted the lower price segment and Quinn was determined to adopt a completely different approach. “Our website had to be for women, designed by women: a replica of a Chanel or Gucci store with champagne and a hatted doorman, but in an online setting.” In order to get rid of the barrier of shipping costs, Net-A-Porter invested in delivering packages to make sure that potential customers would not be put off by this. Lastly, the well-known black box that enclosed all orders also contributed to Net-A-Porter’s luxury image. “Luxury packaging should not be skimped on – customers still want the luxury experience and want to have as much personalisation as possible,” confirms Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at market intelligence firm Euromonitor. “The positioning of their brand name is crucial for online luxury retailers. Since these companies do not have a physical store where they can demonstrate what they stand for, luxury e-tailers often need to distinguish themselves through offering outstanding customer service,” adds Nick Pope.

The fact that Net-A-Porter’s customer service is impressive is no exaggeration. “One of the most exciting aspects of working here comes from the dialogue that exists with our consumers,” clarifies Tess MacLeod Smith, vice president publishing and media at Net-A-Porter. For example, Macleod’s staff carried out research among 10.000 loyal customers of the luxury company to find out how they prefer to stay up to date on the latest fashion.

Net-A-Porter equals innovation

Rather than only listening to their customers´ wishes, Net-A-Porter is also fast to use this information to satisfy customer demands. “So when we thought about our consumer and how she digests fashion content today,” Macleod said to the website Contently, “we launched Porter—the first global, truly shoppable fashion magazine.” All products that are pictured in Porter can immediately be bought via Net-A-Porter, and the Net-A-Porter application can also be used to scan products and receive complementary information. The magazine which was launched in 2014, now has a circulation of 152.000 copies: yet again proving Net-A-Porter´s ongoing success.

With the smartphone´s growing importance in regards to e-commerce, Net-A-Porter was quick to catch on and developed a new social application: The Net Set. Fashionistas who create a profile can add products to their page and see which items celebrities and their friends like. Furthermore, the app can be used to ask style experts for advice or to keep up with the latest news on fashion. The application was first launched as an invite-only but since September onwards it has become available for everyone. “Digital innovation doesn’t stand still and neither do we,” commented Massenet in The Telegraph.

The company, which was built on a vision in which perfectionism and innovation were essential, is now officially part of the new entity Yoox-Net-A-Porter Group as of today. The first designer brands to be sold on Net-A-Porter were designed by friends of Massenet, such as Anya Hindmarch and Tamara Mellon from Jimmy Choo. Currently, the e-tailer has expanded its assortment to include 390 brands. The luxury webstore, which was acquired by Swiss luxury group Richemont in 2010, now attracts 10.7 million unique visitors per month who spend an average of 500 pounds per session. According to Pope, 5 percent of sales in the luxury fashion industry takes place on the internet. “And we expect this percentage to grow to 20 or 25 percent in five years,” he adds. “Internet sales are widely seen as the industry’s key battleground of the next five years. It will only be a matter of time before digital sales catch up with physical sales,” agrees Roberts. It cannot be denied that Net-A-Porter is currently undergoing changes, but the future looks bright for the e-tailer which made its first profit in five years last year.

Photo credits: Net-A-Porter, Instagram en www.white.net