Online fashion retail: A party without the cool kids


Every week there are reports of new online fashion retailers, but some of the biggest names in the UK are noticeably absent from the space. Selfridges and Harvey Nichols have essentially no online fashion businesses to speak of, while the venerable Harrods is selling a heavily edited mix of its lower-priced collections, with an emphasis on accessories, knitwear and outerwear only.

All of this is even more surprising when you consider that many of the major American department stores, with similarly large profiles, have made heavy (and successful) pushes into the online space. Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, and Barney’s all have online sites with a large fashion assortment for sale. What’s more, many of the world’s best known luxury brands say that their rapidly growing online boutiques are their number one or two retail sales generators, even more than their flagship stores in the world’s fashion capitals.

Then of course there are online pioneers like Net-a-Porter, Yoox, e-Luxury and Just today, Net-a-Porter  shared the early results of its Roland Mouret virtual trunk show in WWD. In the first 4 days alone, more than $500,000 of pre-orders were placed and 250,000 videos were viewed in 22 countries around the world. (I’ve said it before, but this is a brilliant model for all involved. The customer gets to order in advance and participate in the action like a fashion insider, Mouret gets a global platform for his new collection, and Net-a-Porter knows exactly what quantities to order for its customers, but also gets a view on which items will be the best sellers, and can order more of these. And, think of all that working capital for Net-a-Porter to sit on for the next 6 months — they don’t even need to stump up their own money to fund the orders).

If you add to this the upstart retailers like,,, and (and toss in the online boutiques for Matches and Browns), you could say there is a virtual fashion fiesta going on.

SO, why have some of the coolest kids not joined the online party? The likely answer is probably some combination of conservatism, risk aversion, failure to grasp the size of the opportunity, and a legacy of snobbiness about selling luxury online.

Rumour has it that Selfridge’s has an online initiative in the works – so they won’t stay away for long. But, they will have certainly sacrificed a great deal of value in not having seen the opportunity earlier, even though they had such a huge head start in terms of skill and brand recognition.

Photoclip courtesy of Net-a-Porter

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  1. Good point! It is particularly pathetic when you consider that so much of the hard work — warehousing, billing, etc., is already set up at a retail store. It’d be easy to make the switch to online. But I am also wondering why more brands haven’t gone the e-commerce route. Marni says its site earns as much as one of its stores. And until a brand can afford a shop in India, Dubai, Shanghai, what better way to reach far-flung customers?

  2. Some every interesting points made. One of the reasons why decided to launch its online survey of eCommerce, specifically for fashion designers engaged in retailing online. Of course, there is a fundamental difference in the business and order fulfilment models of pure-play e-retailers, high-street retailers, and independent/emerging designers. It is also important to remember that, when it comes to online fashion retailing, one “size” does NOT fit all.

  3. Agreed – there are different models that make sense for businesses of different sizes, with different target markets and different objectives. One size definitely does not fit all. What Net-a-Porter has done with Roland Mouret certainly seems to fit them well. Let’s see what Selfridge’s comes up with.