Net-a-Porter is taking tech to the catwalk
When Natalie Massenet (not pictured) decided to launch an online fashion magazine in 2000, allowing the reader to buy clothes straight off the catwalk, people thought she was mad.
They don’t think she’s mad anymore.
The Net-a-Porter business she set up – now part of the Yoox Net-A-Porter Group after a merger with the Italian online retailer Yoox – received 7.1m orders in 2015 at a rate of one every four seconds. Last year alone they boasted 27.1m unique monthly visitors.
That growth is set to rise further following a ground-breaking partnership with internet software company IBM, allowing genuine omni-channel capabilities and creating a greater connection between bricks and mortar and online shopping.
The objective is to give the customer every fulfilment option they want while maintaining the standard of service expected of a luxury retailer.
Customers need the flexibility to order wherever they are and have the option of delivering or picking up the items at a place and time of their choosing.
This increased flexibility requires a new approach to technology and is why Yoox Net-a-Porter has partnered with IBM.
The development of a single shared platform has been the catalyst for the company’s growth and allowed Yoox Net-A-Porter’s technology team to focus on innovation that puts the customer at the heart of the business.
Although the focus is on the future, it’s worth recapping some of the highlights of the company’s past.
It was only 16 years ago that American-born Massenet identified a gap in the market whereby the public wanted to buy the latest fashions but didn’t know how.
Her solution was eCommerce business Net-a-Porter. The premise was simple. She created an online magazine which allowed the public to buy outfits straight from the photo shoot directly to their closet on the same day.
Whether it’s the VIP launch of Karl Lagerfield’s new collection or the limited edition unveiling of the latest Manolo Blahnik’s, Yoox Net-A-Porter make it possible to wear designer labels in an instant – and that’s thanks to technology.
Although the fashion grabs the headlines it’s the company’s 300-strong in-house technology team that turns people’s dreams into reality in more than 180 countries around the world.
With nine offices from as far afield as Italy, the UK, USA, Japan and China, the average order value across the group is around €324.
Sarah Watson is Net-a-Porter's vice president of social commerce and says technology is as central as the fashion.
“At the beginning it proved quite a challenge because we had to find the right people and invest money in resources; however in the long term it’s proved extremely beneficial,” said Watson.
“It’s been fantastic, we have that sought-after in-house expertise allowing us the ability to remain flexible and nimble – we have the brains and people to create exactly what our customers want and need.”
Watson says the beauty of Net-A-Porter is the customer is only looking at the product and the bespoke wrapped signature matte-black boxes it arrives in rather than thinking about the technology that makes it possible.
“The whole premise of Net-A-Porter is you could be flicking through all these amazing magazines seeing these beautifully inspirational outfits and if you wanted to buy them you’d [otherwise] have to physically go to a store or maybe even book an appointment,” she says.
“Our customers love keeping up with what’s new, whether that’s in the fashion space or tech space.
“It really comes back to them being incredibly busy as generally they are juggling their career and family, so anything that can make their lives easier will be of interest.
“I think that’s why their engagement with mobile has been so high because it’s that perfect medium for when you are on the go.”
However Watson says in the world of tech there’s no time for navel-gazing.
“As the company grows, we continue to invest in the best talent and technical infrastructure available to ensure we offer the very best experience for our customers worldwide,” she says.
“We are always looking for new ways to make our service even more convenient and exceed expectations when it comes to delivery - wherever they are in the world, 365 days a year.
“The team is highly agile, and respond incredibly quickly to any challenge set.”
Huge footwear brand Hotter recently appointed a new omni-channel director as part of an expansion plan while Shop Direct announced its third data-focused senior appointment in under a month.
Experimenting with technology is also a key driver for Net-a-Porter going forward.
“We’ve been tinkering with augmented reality for a long time,” she says. “The first time we used it was at Vogue’s Fashion Night Out in New York where we created virtual physical stores.
“We set up a big image on the outside of a store so it looked like a shop window. It was a dreamy shop window with beautiful clothes where people could scan it with their phones which then brought the window to life. The models would walk around and people could win items from the window.
“This first experiment went so well and we really saw this connection between physical and digital that we hadn’t seen before. It was really interesting seeing people doing something in a physical space but giving it that digital connection too.”
The experimentation with technology never stops. Watson, a self-confessed cat lover and chic tech geek, is the driver behind one of the company’s latest innovations, a fashion app called The Net Set.
“The thing about working here is there are always about a gazillion different projects going on. Our own social network... The Net Set was launched in May 2015 for Apple devices, including Apple Watch, giving users a platform that merges social media, fashion and shopping in a single app.
"Through The Net Set app, Net-A-Porter’s consumers are linked to fashion personalities, curators, designers and brands in real-time while labels can actively manage a social dialogue and relationship with users.
“We are incredibly proud of The Net Set; the world’s first luxury shoppable social network where fashionable digital women all over the world can connect and enjoy a unique and seamless shopping experience.
"The functionality of the app has transformed since launching in May 2015: we’ve developed our existing features based on our members’ feedback and created new ones so that it’s the best and most intuitive product possible.
“So far we currently have over 130,000 members, over 1.2 million items have been loved, hundreds of inspirational photos have been uploaded every day and we’ve seen products ‘trend’, sell out and re-ordered by our buyers.”
The Net Set now has a function called ‘Net Set Nearby’. Since the company is solely an online retailer, its use of geolocation technology serves to enhance an individual consumer’s in-app experience, rather than drive foot traffic to a store.
Watson adds: “We are constantly innovating and using technology to stand out as thought-leaders in the market. The figures are impressive, yes, but there is still so much more to come. Watch this space.”
The original interview with Sarah Watson took place in September 2015, before Net-a-Porter's merger with Italian online retailer Yoox. Additional quotes were supplied in July 2016 following the merger.