Consolidating luxury? What’s next for the multi-brand online retail sector in 2022?
From the beginning of this century the fruit was hanging very low for the online luxury multi-brand pure play retailers. From a zero start, the race to prove that people would buy £1,000 handbags online almost seems like ancient history. The appetite was there.
For the last two decades, online retail giants have emerged to fulfil and propel the growth of not only online luxury retail, but the luxury fashion business as a whole. But, with growth slowing and many luxury brands going direct to consumers, it leaves some investors asking, is the market saturated, are they simply fighting over the same customer and how can they differentiate themselves? Will 2022 be the year many of these multi-brand online retailers merge and consolidate stripping out some of the costs of selling online?
“In a multi-brand marketplace, there is currently not the same opportunity to tell a brand's story and build a loyal and engaged community,” says Luther Spicer, Creative Director at e-commerce agency Cake. “In such a crowded space, it’s hard for brands to be heard. Luxury online multi-brand retailers are relying on the product to sell itself. They have no way to stand out from the sameness so risk becoming forgettable,” he says.
“The power of brand storytelling has never been more important,” adds Spicer. “With the rise of Gen Z and its collective buying power, the importance of creating unique and authentic content can't be overestimated.”
“It's hard because they're all competing for the same customer. It's also really hard to differentiate among businesses as most multi-brand retailers stock similar brands,” says Petah Marian, founder of Future Narrative, a retail, culture and consumer trends expert.
The pandemic was a boon for online retail, but it did depend on what you were selling. Luxury fashion saw a dip in sales, both offline and online, no doubt because people didn’t require as many different items of expensive clothing, and while some multi-brand online retailers have done well and bounced back, some haven’t, and the pandemic just highlighted how most of the growth in this market was behind it.
Matchesfashion.com reported a loss of £36.6 million ($50 million) for the year ending January 31, 2021, deepening from a loss of £5.9 million in the previous year. Revenue also declined for the first time since launching e-commerce in 2007, falling nearly 10% to £392 million. Net-A-Porter too was losing money even before the pandemic.
The current winners in the sector are Farfetch reporting $485 million in revenue for Q1 2021, representing a huge 46% year-on-year increase. Farfetch's quarterly gross merchandise value (GMV) grew 50% year-over-year to $916 million, while Mytheresa, the German luxury e-commerce retailer and small in comparison, said net sales rose 24.9% year-over-year to €157.8 million ($180.6 million), and gross merchandise value increased 29.7% for the first quarter ended 30 September 2021.
Using the pandemic as a catalyst, many luxury brands, slow to online selling initially, pivoted to online, using their luxury stores as expensive fulfilment centres to sell directly to consumers.
Even pre-pandemic, some luxury brands were trying to reduce their reliance on wholesale and move to a more profitable direct channel while reducing the grey market in unsold goods which they saw as devaluing their brands.
Swiss group, Richemont, owner of the giant YOOX NET-A-PORTER group, has opted for an “if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them” mentality by announcing in November 2021 that “further progress” was made in talks with Farfetch to create “a neutral, industry-wide platform”.
The idea is for Farfetch to invest directly in YOOX NET-A-PORTER as a minority shareholder with Richemont brands, such as Cartier, Alaia, Van Cleef & Arpels, Chloe, Baume & Mercier, and Piaget joining the Farfetch marketplace.
The previous year, in November 2020, Farfetch, China’s Alibaba Group and Richemont formed a global partnership to accelerate the digitisation of the luxury industry. Alibaba and Richemont invested $600 million ($300 million each) in private convertible notes issued by Farfetch Limited. Alibaba and Richemont also invested $500 million ($250 million each) in Farfetch China, taking a combined 25% stake in a new joint venture that includes Farfetch’s marketplace operations in the China region.
“My concern is that unless they solve the underlying issues of connecting with a new audience in a relevant and memorable way, they are just compounding the problem,” says Cake’s Spicer. “It will be interesting to see how the two platforms would work as one – without shared values and a new approach it could get very messy and very confusing for the consumer.”
What once seemed fresh and exciting has become the online version of a fashion department store, says Spicer. “Multi-brand retailers must focus on the experience itself. It can no longer merely replicate the traditional department store setting online. They must reach new audiences in a relevant and convenient way.”
“Potentially the biggest nemeses of all are the brands themselves,” says Spicer. “They have gone on their own expedited journey into digital reliance, and they also hold all the cards when it comes to RRP and product access.”
Designer Christopher Shannon who says he has stopped wholesaling his collections to multi-brand retailers, spoke to 1Granary magazine in December 2021, saying: “I think multi-buy online stores have never ever looked dryer or less interesting to me.
“Why would you like to look at the same stuff across eight platforms? Maybe if you buy a jacket to just go to work in, it doesn’t matter, but that’s not fashion. I don’t want to visit fifteen different multi-brand stores online and see the same eight brands. What’s the point in the stores being different, might as well just be one giant store with one algorithm-based buyer,” he said.
There are now so many luxury online retailers selling the same things. It is also worth noting the difference in prices on different websites. Last season, the same Prada men’s sweater was £2,500 on selfridges.com while it was £1,900 on Matchesfashion. That’s a difference of £600 for the same item. Prada HQ would not want to see these pricing inconsistencies.
Publisher Hearst has announced the forthcoming launch of "The Tower” an integrated, contextual e-commerce marketplace made up of four individual stores with one cart, one platform, and shared back-end technology from media brands - ELLE, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town & Country. The first store will debut in Spring 2022 with the remaining three stores launching before the end of 2022. No doubt an affiliate model, it is worth remembering how much time and money Condé Nast wasted on style.com and how LVMH has struggled with its multi brand site 24S.com, which was previously called 24 Sèvres.
“Experiential, tailored services, and human experience are no longer nice-to-haves - successful retailers are quickly making it central to both their in-store and digital experience - merging the gaps between the two,” says Spicer.
“Threads Styling for example, has embraced new ways of doing things - no online store, everything handled through DMs via social media. It’s a virtual concierge service that offers an easy, personalised service in the place where their audience hangs out, and in a way they feel comfortable. Something older customers would never dream of seems perfectly normal to Gen Z,” he says.
Spicer believes if e-commerce platforms are to thrive, they need also to be thinking about consumer experience and added-value – especially if they are asking people to part ways with luxury price tag prices.
Marian agrees: “Focusing on differentiation, as everyone has moved online, this sector has become even more competitive. Retailers need to focus on the things that the consumers love them for - be it a specifically curated edit, experiences, exclusive products or incredible customer service.”
“As Millennials and Gen Z have grown up on streetwear drops they should continue to bring this kind of thinking into luxury business models, with product drops that create a sense of exclusivity,” adds Marian. “Also, ensure that you understand what luxury looks and feels like to younger consumers, ensure that you're building ease of resale into the initial sale process, products that reflect their more casual lifestyles and ensure that you're visible and present in the spaces that your target consumer is spending their time in,” she says.
YOOX has said it is transitioning to a more hybrid operating model with its introduction of Marketplace, giving YOOX customers access to over 700 more brands and 150,000 new items across jewellery, ready-to-wear, accessories and footwear. Many of these retailers will want to increase their product range without increasing inventory. This is a way of doing it. Net-A-Porter introduced a drop shipping agreement with Prada in February 2021, limiting expensive inventory.
Multi-brand luxury pure play retailers are being squeezed on all sides by lower growth, increased competition, increased costs of customer acquisition, the emergence of resale and luxury giants turning away from wholesale and moving direct to consumer. Their stellar growth has slowed and unless they can differentiate themselves, consumers will buy the same things elsewhere.
If they can no longer grow, they will need to cut costs. Looking to merge sites, head offices and distribution will have enormous cost savings and be very tempting during 2022 for many of these retailers and their investors.