The Interview: Colin Saunders, CEO and co-founder, Open for Vintage
Former head of international e-commerce at House of Fraser, Colin Saunders, set up vintage online platform Open for Vintage in 2015 with old school friend, CCO and co-founder, James Loftus, to provide a fresh selling point for high-end vintage boutiques globally after seeing an increased focus on sustainability and buying of investment pieces – with clothing and handbags from the likes of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel at the core of the business model.
Despite the coronavirus crisis, sales performance for 2020 - with its "sustainable luxury shopping" strapline - has so far been booming, and Saunders remains optimistic about further growth ahead.
Who came up with the idea?
I came up with the idea as I saw an increased global focus on sustainability. I also saw the benefit of bringing customers and boutiques together online, both helping to give customers the best possible range of merchandise and also providing boutiques with a channel to sell globally. As Open for Vintage has grown beyond just myself and James, it’s a much broader partnership across our shareholders and team.
Our head office is in London with operations in Dublin.
What are the criteria for boutiques to be on Open for Vintage?
We only sell products from businesses, particularly boutiques and websites that specialise in pre-owned luxury. We do not buy goods from individual sellers. Our team works to research and source potential boutique partners that meet our requirements in terms of a boutique’s authentication processes, stock quality, pricing and photography. Once a boutique has been shortlisted, they are interviewed and background checked, before beginning our onboarding process. We now have over 70 boutique partners – located from Notting Hill to Tokyo. The boutiques include Modes and More in London, Qoo Vintage in Tokyo, L’Etoile de Saint Honoré in Amsterdam, Wonderland in Capri and The Brand Collector in Paris. We also have jewellery from Dawson Jeweller in Dublin and Jennifer Gibson Jewellery in London.
What is the business model?
Put simply, Open for Vintage is a luxury marketplace that connects customers with vintage fashion and accessories from pre-selected independent boutiques located around the world. Using AI and automation, a boutique’s products are synchronised with the Open for Vintage platform where they become discoverable to consumers globally. When a sale is made, the boutique receives a notification to pack and ship the item, and Open for Vintage take a commission. Our stock numbers have doubled since 2019 and we currently offer more than 30,000 products from boutiques in 11 different countries.
When did Open for Vintage launch?
Open for Vintage was founded in 2015, and the BETA site launched in 2016. Until 2019, the focus was very much on building supply and automation. Our focus on customer growth began in early 2019, and our number of orders from January-May 2020 are up 500% versus January-May 2019.
How are individual pieces cleaned, photographed and shipped right now?
Each boutique is responsible for cleaning, preparing and shipping the product in the condition it has been sold as. By pre-screening boutiques before coming onto Open for Vintage, we can ensure that we only sell items of a high quality that are not damaged or overly worn. Boutiques are responsible for product photography, however, Open for Vintage has a criteria that all product is to be shot on a white background to ensure a consistent customer experience. If boutiques are unable to shoot on white backgrounds, Open for Vintage has integrated image post-production technology in the platform, to ensure the customer can browse a consistent catalogue of product.
What brands and products are the best sellers right now and what sort of prices?
Across fashion, handbags and accessories, our most popular brands are consistently Chanel and Louis Vuitton - brands with a timeless, instantly recognisable aesthetic. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a Louis Vuitton Noe bag from the 1980’s or 2018 – it’s just as aspirational. Our most popular Louis Vuitton bags sell anywhere between £300 - £700, and we see Chanel ‘Classic Flap’ bags sell between £1,800 and £2,500 – a significantly lower cost than Chanel’s current retail price.
The prices still seem high, how are they determined?
We work hard to ensure the site offers a range of prices across our product categories, from jewellery for £80 to rare Hermes bags for £100,000. With vintage, prices of the same piece, such as a black Chanel ‘Classic Flap’, may vary based on condition, availability in the market, country of shipment, and whether the goods come with dust-bags, authenticity cards and original packaging. The beauty of offering customers a variety of merchandise from boutiques around the world is that we are able to provide a broad range of products and prices. We’ve seen a positive response to this variety, with year-on-year growth across demand and sales.
What is the current interest level in buying second hand designer goods given the hygiene aspects right now?
We’ve been hugely encouraged to see customers embracing vintage shopping despite COVID-19. Our 2020 sales year-to-date are already ahead of our total sales of 2019. The Open for Vintage platform addresses a number of hygiene concerns that customers have, as products are dispatched directly from the boutiques, instead of having to pass through many hands and go through a busy warehouse. During this period, while our boutique partner’s retail spaces have been forced to close, we’ve been delighted to be able to support them with a valuable revenue channel through this challenging time.
Are there plans to also introduce menswear?
We have stocked menswear across all categories on the site in the past, however there was a clear overwhelming interest in men’s watches and bags more than anything else. We made the business decision last year to focus more on our womenswear offering across all categories, and just focus on watches and bags for men. We are constantly evaluating demand in the market, and aim to make the most of our agile business model so that we can adjust our offering as and when this demand changes.
Do you think the Open for Vintage platform is the way a lot more people will start to explore and buy premium one-off vintage pieces?
Absolutely. We are working towards bringing vintage shopping to the mainstream as a sustainable, financially savvy alternative to buying new. Where vintage shopping has previously been a fragmented experience for customer, requiring a lot of browsing, we aim to redefine this, consolidating the best pre-owned luxury merchandise in the world onto a premium website offering customers a seamless shopping experience.
Are you finding there is more of a demand for investment pieces as more people look to up their sustainability credentials?
We see people buy investment pieces for a variation of reasons. For some, it is a way of shopping more sustainably, buying luxury brands in a way that supports the circular fashion economy. For others, investing in vintage is a financially savvy decision, to either obtain luxury brands at a more accessible price, or purchase a rare and hard to come by product that is likely to increase in re-sale value. There’s also an emotive side to purchasing vintage pieces for customers, as shoppers seek to discover certain models or designs, for example the Chanel 2.55 bag, from specific eras that particularly resonate with them.
How would you best describe vintage?
By definition, vintage is a piece that belongs to a period of time, that could be 1990’s vintage. However, our view is ultimately the customer defines what vintage is. We see customers searching and requesting specific “vintage Chanel” which may actually only be last season. From a merchandising perspective, we cater for both pre-owned luxury and vintage, so you can discover last season’s Gucci belt or a 1980’s vintage Hermès ‘Birkin’ bag.
Do the boutiques measure every single item of clothing and accessories individually so as to minimise returns?
Yes. As part of our onboarding requirements, product descriptions must include sizing information. Across certain categories, sizing is more of a challenge than others. For example, with clothing, sizing varies from designer to designer, so this is something we are constantly working to develop and improve.
What is the currently returns policy during the coronavirus crisis?
All year round we offer 14-day complimentary returns, and this has remained during the COVID-19 period. We of course have not penalised customers should their order be delayed, but thankfully DHL has continued to offer a reliable service through the crisis.
How would you best describe your real target market and current customer base?
Our target market is females between the age of 25-45 who want to shop style more consciously. That being said, we see consumers of all ages. We see everything from male customers adding to their watch collections, vintage collectors making special one-off investments and aspirational 18-25 year-olds buying their first designer bag. We’re excited to see that our proposition is appealing to an incredibly broad group of consumers.
What other plans do have to grow the business in 2020 and beyond into 2021?
For now, our focus is on the UK and European markets as we accelerate branding and engaging with customers. Next year, we see the US as a big opportunity, and hope to look to Asia after that.