Launched in a London at in 2000, Net- a-Porter heralded a new era in retail and redefined the relationship between luxury and e-commerce. Its President, Alison Loehnis, explains to Alice Franklin how being big can still mean feeling small.
You’d have to cast the net far and wide to find someone who isn’t familiar with online luxury powerhouse, Net-a-Porter. For surely everyone knows a stylish dame or two who has taken receipt of a sleek black box stamped with that white logo, in which the season’s latest must- have dress or lipstick is hiding – hand-delivered and meticulously wrapped, of course.
It is here that the sheer brilliance of Net-a- Porter is exemplified. As a user, you know it’s a business, a big business – Net-a-Porter and Italian e-commerce giant Yoox merged in the autumn of 2015 to unleash one of e-tail’s biggest beasts. And yet, through the entire process of browsing, hitting “buy” on your iPhone and receiving the satisfying “DHL out for delivery” confirmation, it seems as if one person has simply popped into an inexhaustible fashion closet, unearthed your beautiful treasure and lovingly wrapped it for you to enjoy.
As I sit speaking to Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-Porter and its brother, Mr Porter, I ask her how it’s possible to balance exceptional growth while maintaining the highest standards of service that customers know and love. “We’re big behind the scenes to [ensure we] offer the customer an even better experience, but the aim is never to appear big to the consumer,” she explains.
“I always think about the yin and the yang of the business, you know, the black and white of our branding – black with white for Net-a-Porter, white with black for Mr Porter – and this balance of high- tech and analogue. Even if you go to the warehouses and you see this incredible automation and robotic cranes picking products, at the end of the day those amazing cranes and all that technology is delivering a product – super- fast – but to an individual who is taking time to wrap it incredibly beautifully in black or white boxes, with ribbon, for our customer.”
This is the magic of the brand. It certainly is big business, but there remains a personal touch that carries through and impacts the whole shopping experience. Depending on your spend, you might have a named personal shopper always ready to help, with your order history at their fingertips, or otherwise a live chat advisor who can seamlessly help you nd just what you’re looking for.
I’ve seen first-hand the screens ticking over in the pristine Net-a-Porter offices, telling each team that a Balenciaga hoodie has just been sold in France or a pair of Miu Miu booties has hit someone’s basket in Dubai, offering live data to buyers who can see how their selections are performing (they might seem gimmicky, but, trust me, there’s nothing like seeing the numbers tick by to get motivated); I’ve heard the EIP (that’s Extremely Important Person to the uninitiated) customer service team sourcing and sending a couture gown to a frazzled bride who’s suffered a major sartorial disaster with just days until her big day; and I’ve stood in front of Loehnis at an open forum as she decisively cuts down jibes about women shopping online, with a cool determination and fearless intellect that prove exactly why she’s the right person to lead the e-commerce charge. “What we do today versus what we did when we launched, what we set out to do really remains the same: our focus on service, our customer-centricity,” Loehnis says straightforwardly.
“There’s such an element of trust with our brand, and not just from an operational standpoint. [Customers] know that if they order it, they’ll get it, and it’ll arrive quickly. But beyond that, we want customers to feel that when they buy something from us they’ve chosen the right thing. Now, they may choose to keep it, they may choose not to keep it for a variety of reasons, but the very fact that we have selected it for them, because we are curators, means that they know that they have made the right choice.” As to how the brand came to be considered a fashion authority and a curator of style, the answer circles back to three key pillars: content, tech and people. The seamless content integration throughout Net-a- Porter, seen most obviously in The Edit – the site’s online magazine, which is also published in print six times annually – was always at the online retailer’s heart.
“The fundamental premise of Net-a-Porter was a fashion magazine that you could shop from. It has become a bit of a buzzword for companies, [but] for us, we see ‘content’ really as a service. It’s not an appendage, and it’s not an add-on. If my buyers have gone out and bought a beautiful Chloé blouse with amazing lace detail, it’s how can we bring that to life for the customer. Across Net- a-Porter and Mr Porter the art of storytelling is a bit different, but I think across both it’s really about creating the dream.”
And that dream can only be accomplished by the innovative technology that drives the entire Yoox Net-a-Porter Group forward. For Loehnis, and the brand, the essential aspect has always been using tech to deliver the best for the customer. “For me,” Loehnis says, “I’ve an inherent allergy to gimmicks, and I don’t think the customer has time for them. So, it’s how do you use technology and tech development in a way to make the customer’s life easier, frankly.”
Development in the new and the next is paramount. For many years the company gamified the development of ideas, asking all employees to come up with a wish list of new concepts that would push the brand further. With these ideas, teams of programmers and UX and UI developers would work to try and find the technology to bring these ideas to life. While it proved fun, it was also an opportunity to inspire change and encourage every person at the company to take responsibility to push further and dream bigger – all on behalf of the customer.
Loehnis says it is this use of the “super talented teams across all the various disciplines” that allows the brand to maximise its service and ask the simple question: “How can we improve upon what we’re delivering? It all comes back to this touchstone of the customer.”
Many customers, Loehnis tells me, know their drivers well; they’re familiar faces on the delivery circuit and have developed a rapport over time. It’s this connection, in fact, which has helped develop some of Net-a-Porter’s premium services. “The ‘You Try, We Wait’ service that we launched was a hybrid of customer feedback, but also feedback from our van drivers. What we would hear from some of the drivers, particularly in London, who got to know their clients, they’d say, ‘Just so you know, occasionally I might wait, because a client asked me to so they could try some stuff on,’ and then they said, ‘It’d be really great if we could do that more often.’ And we thought, well hang on, why don’t we just develop a service out of this?” There it is again; the Net-a- Porter giant brought down to size, to just two people: the person holding the package and the lucky lady who’s waiting to discover what’s inside.