Journalists get a lot of press releases claiming company X is “reinventing” something and company Y is doing something equally groundbreaking. For that reason, it’s easy to look at the latest Valentino/Yoox-Net-A-Porter announcement with the usual degree of scepticism.
But to the be fair, if you sweep aside all the hyperbole, the two luxury-focused firms do seem to be trying to push fashion retail forward and it sounds like they’re going to offer some pretty cool features to the teeny weeny percentage of the global population that can afford to buy Valentino.
Particularly interesting – and illustrative of just how important m-commerce and all-things-tech have become – is the fact that they plan to a offer a “mobile-centric interface, a new look and feel and new functionality powered by artificial intelligence.”
Now, given that it’s not too many years ago that luxury brands sneered at the idea of selling their products on the internet, then taking a mobile-first approach is pretty revolutionary. And as for AI, Valentino embracing that is really interesting. As any of us who’ve ever set foot in a designer store know, the process of looking-down-on or sucking-up-to potential customers is a very face-to-face one for luxury brands so handing that relationship over to an algorithm or a chatbot is pretty impressive too.
So, what exactly is happening? Valentino, one of the most luxe of luxury brands and one whose fantasy creations seem about as far removed from the world of technology as it’s possible to get, is taking a huge leap into the ultra-tech world of modern digital retail as it it seeks to satisfy an ever-more-demanding, ever-more-global and smartphone-obsessed customer.
The company has quietly been running its online store through Yoox since 2008. Now Yoox, (or YNAP since it merged with Net-A-Porter), knows a lot about e-tail. It specialises in selling off-price merchandise – from leftover Eastpak bags or Vero Moda jeans at £18 to Dolce & Gabbana red carpet dresses and Jil Sander crocodile bags at £5k-plus. But it also handles the in-season boutiques for labels like Dolce, Marni, Valentino and more.
Now its Valentino link is morphing into “a new omnichannel business model – Next Era – to elevate the customer experience by reinventing the relationship between luxury brands and online retailers.”
The next generation model will enable Valentino customers to have “unprecedented online access to its products by leveraging the inventory from the brand’s boutiques and logistic centres as well as YNAP’s global network of eight fulfilment centres, stretching from New York and Dubai to Milan and Shanghai.” And it will “capitalise on YNAP’s unique distribution channels, specifically designed for the luxury industry.”
What does it all mean?
OK, that’s the hyperbole. Some explanation please… It should all mean a more extensive product assortment, mobile features added to the physical store experience, and faster delivery, with an enhanced service available in major cities where orders can be fulfilled from Valentino boutiques.
There’s “state-of-the-art” tech with a “leading-edge Order Management System in partnership with IBM that offers the brand a single view of its inventory and a comprehensive profile of its customer base.”
There will also be a fully revamped valentino.com with that mobile-centric interface and the addition of AI enabling on-site personalisation and contextual search, so customers can use natural language to interact with the digital store.
Those mobile features that are being added in-store “will smooth the checkout flow by carrying out full payment via mobile to avoid the friction and discomfort created by transacting with in-store staff,” YNAP said.
If customers want to shop undisturbed, or the sales staff are occupied, mobile could also help customers find the items they’re looking for in the sizes they want and suggest items that might work for them. Or it could “direct customers or sales staff to one another to maintain the personal touch associated with luxury”.
The big picture
YNAP also said that the scope of the initiative is broad-reaching and beyond the apparent benefits to Valentino customers, the model “unlocks enormous service improvements to customers of both Net-A-Porter and Mr Porter.”
How so? Apparently, by integrating the Valentino online store inventory with the one allocated to NaP and Mr P, the roughly 10m unique visitors to the sites will have access to an unrivalled assortment of Valentino product with enhanced express delivery options around the world.
In fact, getting a good view of inventory is key to the whole project. YNAP said its new system means brands (not just Valentino) will have a unified view of their inventory across stores and warehouses, allowing them to manage the inventory more efficiently. And it also allows customers to see what is available in-store and online, from wherever they are browsing.
In the future, brand-owned and YNAP-purchased inventory could even be viewed across the same system, increasing the opportunities to sell full-price by selling inventory from either the brand or YNAP across each other’s stores.
And when does all this happen? Well, not yet. Next Era will launch in early 2018. But it can’t come soon enough. The whole luxury retail-to-e-tail sector is heating up but the luxury sector is often less of an influencer than it is on the style front. However, operations like YNAP, Farfetch and the frankly disappointing style.com are certainly pushing the boundaries. The big question is: will Next Era feel quite as groundbreaking this time next year?