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The Business of Fashion

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With Fashion Strategy, Can EBay Boost Emerging Designers and Itself?

By
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — For all but the most well capitalised young brands, opening physical retail stores is cost-prohibitive. With online sales of apparel and accessories growing faster than any other product category except consumer electronics, e-commerce offers emerging fashion labels a more attainable path to a lucrative direct-to-consumer retail channel. But building a standalone online store can also be a cost-intensive and technically daunting undertaking. Then, there's the challenge of getting customers to actually visit.

Could EBay, with its marketplace model, low barriers to entry and large built-in audience, offer a solution, unlocking value for young labels and EBay alike?

EBay attracts over 149 million active shoppers and sells billions of dollars worth of fashion and accessories each year. It is also highly popular with a dedicated vintage hunters and industry insiders seeking rare pieces. "From EBay's perspective, fashion is an incredibly important part of what we do," said Melanie Smallwood, head of curation and merchandising at EBay. "To give you an idea of how important fashion is to EBay, a pair of shoes is sold every 5 seconds and in Q4 2013 we sold over $4.4 billion worth of fashion inventory."

Due to its history in online auctions, EBay has long been associated with second-hand goods. The tech giant has also struggled to offer an aesthetically compelling front-end experience suited to browsing fashion and has faced persistent problems with eliminating counterfeits from its sites. But in recent years, the company has gone to great lengths to recast itself as an attractive shopping destination for genuine, in-season fashion merchandise, available for immediate purchase.

“The category has always been a priority vertical, but it was in 2010 when EBay really increased its focus on fashion, transforming the online marketplace into an engaging, elevated shopping experience,” said Marcelle Parrish, general manager of EBay Fashion. “Since then, EBay has been investing in fashion, placing the category at the forefront of technologies and innovations.”

In 2010, the site launched fashion.ebay.com, creating a dedicated homepage for its fashion offering. Then, in 2012, EBay launched The Designer Collective, a destination for full-price designer goods, as well as a designer exclusives programme. Over the years, the company has collaborated with Narciso Rodriguez, Derek Lam, Rebecca Minkoff, Richard Chai, Donna Karan, Alexander Wang and others.

“Previously, if I am honest, I don’t think we necessarily had the right destination for fashion in terms of look and feel,” said Smallwood. “From a utility perspective, we have always been pretty strong. But what we needed to do was to marry utility with engagement. The logical next step was to think about how we can support and mentor new and up-coming designers in terms of being a marketplace.”

In 2012, ebay.co.uk launched a programme called Fashion Forward, which has seen London-based designers Henry Holland, Holly Fulton and Michael van der Ham create pop-up shops and exclusive merchandise for the site. And, in July of this year, the British Fashion Council, working with EBay, launched BFC Contemporary, an initiative aimed at supporting select emerging designers operating in the contemporary market, each of whom contributed merchandise to a shared online storefront, hosted by EBay and dubbed the Contemporary Store.

“All of the components that we are putting into the business to make it more retail-like are incredibly important in building that commercial relationship between the customer and the brand,” said Smallwood. “With over 70 percent of our business being new and fixed-priced, we have evolved significantly from our original starting point in 1995 [with online auctions for second-hand items],” added Parrish.

For young brands, EBay can be a powerful incubator offering several advantages. (Sophia Amoruso's fashion e-tailer Nasty Gal, which now generates over $100 million in annual revenue, first launched on EBay). First of all, the barriers to entry are incredibly low. Then, there is the sheer scale of the site's built-in customer base. "It is just a huge new audience to try and engage with. The scale is unbelievable and something that we wouldn't be able to do ourselves at this stage," said London based designer Zoe Jordan, who took part in the BFC Contemporary initiative.

"EBay has a lot of power and a lot of reach, so when we started they would put our banners on the home page. [Just imagine] the number of unique users that see these banners. It's an amazing place for emerging designers to get their work out there and get it seen," said Henry Holland. "It was a great channel for us to sell product through in addition to our own e-commerce platform," he added. "We already used Shopify, but there are a lot of people who use EBay in the same way and have stores on there fully skinned to look like their own stores. If we hadn't invested as much money in Shopify then maybe we would have done it." A range of fashion brands, including Calvin Klein, Badgley Mischka, Halston Heritage and True Religion operate stores on EBay.

EBay is also optimised for mobile commerce. “EBay gives designers that omni-channel experience, which many of them probably wouldn’t have had at this early stage,” said Smallwood. Then, there is the degree of trust that comes with being a large and well-known platform. “If people see EBay, they know it and they trust spending their money on it,” added Holland.

What’s more, selling through EBay’s marketplace gives emerging designers direct access to data and insights about their consumers, rather than getting this information filtered through buyers and store managers. “As emerging designers, a lot of what we know about the industry comes from the stores that we are selling to. EBay is an opportunity to get direct feedback from consumers and to see what they are responding to. Rather than the buyer, you are actually getting your customers’ direct thoughts,” said Jordan.

For young designers, concerns around brand dilution remain. But selling on EBay no longer carries the stigma it once did. “The only potential concern with this sort of collaboration is that is might damage the brand's identity at a crucial stage,” said Alexis Barrell, another designer who took part in the BFC Contemporary initiative. “But EBay have been very careful to create a luxury environment for the product and communicate and preserve each brand's particular point of view.”

EBay's interest in emerging designers is smart. Attracting labels to the platform, at a stage in their development when it is most advantageous to them, could help the tech giant expand its overall presence in fashion, the second largest and second fastest growing online sales category behind consumer electronics. And, indeed, following the company's recent decision to spin off online payment services provider Paypal, which provided a significant portion of EBay's growth, the business has more riding on fashion, one of its top marketplace categories, than ever before.

In this context, attracting the right emerging designers to the platform could go a long way towards building EBay’s fashion credentials, in turn making it more attractive to established brands and consumers alike.

But will the focus on fashion pay off?

“People love winning an auction — the thrill of victory. But people also love one-site shopping. So even when they ‘buy now’ and score a deal they get excited,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NDP Group. But EBay still struggles to convince consumers that “the product is authentic and of the same value they find in stores,” cautioned Cohen. “The other big challenge is search and navigation.”

“E-commerce is going to continue to soar,” he continued. But with sophisticated competitors like Amazon — known for its seamless customer experience and sophisticated recommendation engine — ramping up their presence in fashion, “EBay must get to that level.”

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