WWD Digital Forum Recap, Part 1: Heritage Brands Embrace the Digital Age

The WWD Digital Forum, which took place on 10 July 2014, brought together top executives across fashion, beauty and retail industries to address the most pertinent issues businesses face in this ever-evolving digital landscape.

In this first recap, Euromonitor International assesses the differing online strategies of two iconic brands: the grand dame of the British high street, Marks and Spencer’s, and the crème de la crème of French luxury skincare, Clarins.

Marks and Spencer’s: e-boutiques and editor’s picks

According to Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, Executive Director of Marketing and Business Development at Marks and Spencer’s, size can sometimes be a liability. With a fleet the size of Marks & Spencer’s, which counted 798 UK stores and 455 international stores as of July 2014, adopting and rolling out new technologies is no easy feat.

This isn’t to say efforts aren’t being made. As part of its return to the Dutch market, the retailer launched its first e-boutique on Amsterdam’s prestigious Kalverstraat. Alongside a highly edited selection of products, the store features a ‘virtual rail’ which lets customers browse through items on a touchscreen. The goal is two-fold: minimising required store space by providing access to the full inventory online, while strengthening the omnichannel concept by integrating digital aspects into the physical space.

It has become a universally acknowledged fact that a fashion e-commerce site can no longer simply be an online shop, but rather, a shoppable magazine. M&S.com has embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly in the latest iteration of its website. Editorial content is not a simple embellishment, but inextricably linked to the shopping process. Bousquet-Chavanne says its daily publishing strategy gives the retailer a point of differentiation, drives frequency of visits, and makes customers 24% more likely to convert. The edited point of view cuts through the clutter and relieves customers from the paralysis of choice.

Clarins: Overcoming the luxury disdain of digital

For Clarins, an equally well-established brand, the challenge has not been one of size, but of its positioning. Its cohort of blue-blooded brands has long been sceptical of the crowded, democratic world of online retailing, believing it to go against everything ‘luxury’ stands for. According to Laurent Malaveille, CEO of Clarins Group Switzerland, the brand is keen to change this mind-set and become a digital leader. As of July 2014, Clarins operates 24 branded websites worldwide, 14 of which are transactional.

As wholesale partnerships remain an integral part of Clarins’s distribution network, the brand’s online strategy has centred on offering online exclusive advantages to differentiate it from the many multi-brand shops through which it also sells, to prevent cannibalisation. Tactics for Clarins.com have included offering a wide variety of free samples, online beauty consultations, an exclusive rewards programme and special offers.

The online channel is integral for China, one of the brand’s priority markets. Local Chinese B2B site Tmall monopolises the e-commerce landscape. With about 500 million registered users as of 2013, Tmall provides access to a vast customer base, which is particularly useful in raising brand awareness and reaching consumers in lower tier cities, where store-based presence is limited or non-existent.

According to Malaveille, the Clarins Tmall site, which was launched in September 2013, is the brand’s number one store in China. The brand has maintained its premium positioning by selling products at full-price, and offering rich content and branded design very similar to the brand’s own website. An official presence on Tmall has pushed down the presence of discounters in searches. The success of Clarins has encouraged other luxury brands to follow suit, including Burberry and L’Occitane.

Leaders versus followers

With apparel and footwear internet retailing forecast to generate an incremental US$157.5 billion in retail value sales over 2013-2018, and beauty and personal care internet retailing set to generate US$12 billion over the same period, this is a channel that no one can ignore.

Interestingly enough, as highlighted by the strategies of Marks & Spencer’s and Clarins, established players are demonstrating openness to innovation that matches the pace of younger, lither brands.  It is evident that established brands are not only willing to participate in the digital space, but eager to become leaders.