NEW YORK, United States — Today, building a strong online sales channel is often vital to the success of an emerging fashion business. But because the task can seem daunting, many young designers delay developing their own e-commerce sites, and instead outsource their internet sales to online retailers, losing a significant share of full retail margin that can be earned when selling directly to the end consumer.
While it’s almost always cost-prohibitive for a new brand to open a bricks-and-mortar store in the early days of the development of a new fashion business, New York-based menswear label Company of We has proven that setting up a fully owned and operated e-commerce presence from day one can be done — and done well — in a way that’s cost-effective and relatively simple.
Company of We, the brainchild of Jayzel Samonte and Christopher Crawford, began in June 2009 entirely as an e-commerce site. There was no budget for expensive fashion presentations or advertising campaigns. But when the young brand launched its first line online, it sold out — 2,000 units to be exact — in just eight days.
Starting their company online felt like a completely normal and natural move, says Jayzel: “I think it is where things have evolved to. All of our friends shop online at designer sales sites like Gilt Groupe and rarely go to luxury department stores unless it’s sale season.”
So how did they do it?
The partners began by researching off-the-shelf software packages. “If you devote a weekend to it, you can do it on your own. You can build it from the ground up, [adding] shopping cart software to your existing site. Or you can purchase all-inclusive programs like Volusion [that come with] a concise inventory system, shopping cart, ROI Tracking, customer database and easy to use templates.”
Not wanting to limit themselves to a templated look and feel, Company of We ultimately hired web technicians to help them. But, with the bottom line in mind, the pair instructed their developers to create a simple site focused solely on product. “It’s important not to go crazy on sophisticated flash presentations and complicated designs when you can achieve the same level of success by keeping it clean, concise and focused,” advises Jayzel.
“It’s very low overhead to start as an e-commerce store. You’re looking at $2,000-3,000 dollars a month," adds Christopher. Compare that with commercial rents for physical space, which can easily add up to ten times this amount.
Easy online data tracking was another plus. "We were methodical with our ROI tracking and tracked our growth on sites like Alexa and Google Analytics,” Jayzel explains.
And then there’s the added advantage of dealing with the consumer directly, which can be especially important during the early days of a fashion brand. When you operate your own e-commerce channel, “you get a lot of feedback, which is a great way to gauge what the market is before you get into a larger wholesale front,” Christopher added.
Today, building on its online presence, Company of We is found in retail stores around the world, including cult favorites like New York’s Oak and LA's Fred Segal, as well as big name department stores like United Arrow, Holt Renfrew, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Their profit margin is just below 40 percent and their product never goes on sale.
With an accessories line coming soon and a possible expansion into womenswear on the horizon, things are looking bright. But while Company of We now make more money offline than online, they continue to emphasise the importance of e-commerce: “We always want to maintain a strong presence [online]. It was the heart of our company.”
Elizabeth Peng, an M.A. student in Fashion Journalism at Central St Martins, is an editorial intern at The Business of Fashion.