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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Alison Loehnis on why her luxury e-tailers love the GCC

The president of Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, speaks with The National about the evolution of online shopping
Alison Loehnis, left, of Net-a-Porter, which is to open a distribution centre in the UAE to enable same-day delivery and launch Arabic versions of its site Net-a-Porter

Cliches come thick and fast in the world of fashion, but it is probably no exaggeration to say that Net-a-Porter – the online luxury portal that launched out of a London kitchen in the year 2000 – has revolutionised the way we shop. It offered a new and convenient way to browse and buy high-end luxury goods that, at the click of a mouse, could be acquired from the privacy of your home or office, and would promptly be delivered to your doorstep, beautifully packaged.

Today, e-commerce is experiencing exponential growth. Online retail was valued at US$2.3 billion (Dh8.4bn) in 2017, up from $1.3bn in 2014. In the United States, approximately 15 per cent of all clothing is purchased online, and in China that figure rises to 50 per cent. If predictions are accurate, by 2021, online shopping will be worth an astonishing $4.9bn.

As one would expect from the originator of such a fast-moving business, things have shifted within Net-a-­Porter, too. For a start, ownership has changed hands (the brand is now part of the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group) and the brand lost its founding chief executive when Natalie Massenet was replaced by Yoox founder Federico Marchetti in 2015.

Alison Loehnis has been pivotal to the company since Massenet appointed her as vice president of sales and marketing in 2007. Loehnis went on to oversee the 2009 launch of TheOutnet.com (Net-a-Porter’s sister site that carries past-season luxury fashion), the launch of the dedicated menswear site MrPorter.com in 2011 and the launch of print magazine Porter. In February 2016, Loehnis was made president in-season of the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group.

When we meet at an upscale hotel in Dubai, Loehnis looks absolutely immaculate – in spite of the sandstorm raging outside. Speaking in a machine-gun staccato that echoes her New York heritage, she still has that habit of truncating sentences to emphasise a point, despite having lived in the United Kingsom for many years. Blessed with an eye that spots gaps where others do not, she still seems engaged and energised by the challenges that e-tail presents.

“It is a matter of always thinking about the customer, and his or her needs. What are they looking for and how can we make their lives easier? A good example is from five years ago; we were looking to the UAE and we found that our Net-a-Porter customer is into trends, and is travelling and going to parties, but we noticed a dearth of what we call ‘high-summer’ dresses. We could offer lots of autumn dresses, but she was going to Portofino or Capri and she needed stuff for there. So we were looking for the perfect brand to partner with [to create a collection], and it had to be Dolce & Gabbana, right? So with Dolce, we put together a high-summer capsule of dresses. And it worked.”

The uptake of e-commerce and smartphones is, of course, inextricably linked, and the Mena region has proven particularly quick to embrace the new technology. “In terms of the GCC, what is interesting is that here, the customer is younger, aware of trends, very fashion-savvy, a really early adopter of e-com and trends, and super-mobile – both on the move, and using mobile for e-com purposes. With my global customer, over half of the business is coming through mobile and here, in this region, it is 71 per cent. My customer here spends more and shops more frequently. We call our most engaged customer an EIP [extremely important person], and around the world, EIPs represents about 3 per cent of the base, and about 40 per cent of the revenue. But in this region, EIPs represent 12 per cent of the customers, so the concentration is much higher.”

Net a porter

With this in mind, it is no surprise to hear that by the end of 2019, Net-a-Porter and MrPorter will have opened a regional distribution centre here – to enable same-day delivery – and will have launched Arabic versions of both sites, with regional currency options. In addition, they will offer the “You Try. We Wait” service, as part of which the delivery driver will wait while clients try their new purchases on. Realising that customers were ordering multiple sizes to ensure the best fit, the service was first rolled out in London last year.

“One of the things about the region, for example, is knowing that the Emirati woman loves dressing up and eveningwear, while a Kuwaiti customer is super-trendy and the Saudi woman loves body con, gold jewellery and diamonds. Men across the region are much more casual than anywhere else, and although they are buying very elegant brands such as Brunello Cucinelli and Tom Ford, they are buying jeans, casual trousers and trainers. Lots and lots of trainers.”

That thinking extends to recognising how customers want to interact. “The preferred method of communication in this region is messaging. WhatsApp specifically.” Loehnis explains. “Here, also, there is a big thing about social shopping. I might be on WhatsApp with my personal shopper and my friend, and we are all talking about a particular piece together. That is a conversation that historically could only have ­happened on a shop floor, with a mother, a daughter, a shop assistant and friends. Now technology is enabling this fashion discussion to happen anywhere in the world. It’s really interesting.”

Anyone who has bought anything on the Porter websites will already be familiar with its distinctive packaging. “We get feedback from customers telling us they love getting a delivery from us, because when it arrives, they feel like they are getting a present, which I love.”

Of course, the beautiful wrapping also acts on a secondary and often ­unspoken level, serving as ­reassurance that customers are receiving the same level of service offered at a high-end store. “Our core customer loves fashion and appreciates our curation.

I describe it as doing the heavy lifting, so we go into all the best showrooms, see all the best brands, discover all the best, newest and most exciting brands, and choose the best stuff. So if you are looking for cropped denim, you know you can come to us and we have already looked everywhere for you, and have the best assortment out there.

As the conversation turns to sustainability, Loehnis gently reminds me that luxury shopping is, by its very nature, the anthethesis of fast fashion. “I don’t think it’s our place to tell customers what to do with our product, but I would like to think that having invested in beautiful pieces that a team of people have carefully selected, then they aren’t going to throw them away. And we never suggest to customers: ‘Oh, your old wardrobe? Get rid of it.’ Instead, here are pieces you can wear again and again. Perhaps your beautiful dress might work in a hot climate, but if you go to London and it’s chilly, here’s how to throw a sweater over it and add boots. That’s important to customers, but it’s also important to us.

“I love meeting customers and getting ideas and feedback,” Loehnis tells me. “I am a beacon of feedback, so even if people are sorry to talk to me about work over dinner, I always say: ‘Just tell me.’ I am so curious.”

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