The outlet store has had a long-standing reputation as home of the leftovers. It’s the place where department stores dump their excess inventory--the place where the irregular, the mismatched and the oh-so-last-season make their last-ditch attempts to catch shoppers’ eyes.
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But discount shopping Web sites such as The Outnet are overturning the notion that bargain shoppers have to sacrifice style for price. Launched in April 2009 by the same team that launched popular luxury e-commerce site Net-A-Porter, The Outnet calls itself “the most fashionable fashion outlet” and sells designer women’s apparel and accessories at up to a 70% discount. The U.K.-based company carries more than 200 luxury brands and says it chooses its merchandise with a careful eye. In addition, The Outnet often works with designers to offer exclusive product – a concept not often explored by in the discount world.
Steering the company’s vision is Stephanie Phair, who held high-profile positions at Portero, Vogue and Issey Miyake before becoming director of The Outnet.
In the 10 questions below, Phair explains how the site has managed to successfully straddle the line between the luxury and discount universes, hints at what the company’s latest smartphone app might be capable of, and addresses the biggest question of all: whether sites like hers will kill off the full-priced luxury consumer for good.
1. What is it about The Outnet that sets it apart from other fashion-outlet Web sites?
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Our brands and products. We stock over 200 designers and edit rigorously to keep our offering fashionable. We merchandize and outfit items and show our customers how they can channel current season trends with previous season products with “Dress Me” where we house our editorial content. We’re accessible too--and on a global scale. We are open 24/7 and ship to 170 countries. Through our customer service we offer a luxury experience in a discount world.
2. Where does the merchandise you sell on The Outnet come from?
Seventy percent of our stock is sourced directly from our designers. We work with over 200 brands including Alaïa, Balmain, Burberry Prorsum and Chloé. Our buying team also scours the world looking for under-the-radar brands to bring to our customers. Last November, THE OUTNET became the first retailer ever - either at full price or discount - to stock the cult brand Clemens en August. This Munich-based label, worn by the likes of Kate Moss and Emily Blunt, had only ever been sold in contemporary art spaces in select cities around the globe.
3. You’ve done a great job of getting designers like Anna Sui to create exclusive collections for your site. How much of a boom has this been to your business? Are there any other exclusive collections that we should be watching for over the next few months?
Our tagline is ‘the most fashionable fashion outlet.' We stay true to this by offering the best previous season fashion from top brands as well as working with designers to provide exclusives for our customers. We’ve had this approach since launch so it’s not a new thing for us. Collaborations and exclusives allow us to offer on-trend items at a brilliant price to our customers around the world. We’ve got more things in the pipeline so watch this space.
4. Luxury brands have joined mainstream brands in engaging customers through social media, and the “flash sale” phenomenon has made them even more accessible to the public. In doing so, has the luxury world lost a lot a bit of the air of exclusivity that used to define it? If so, is it a good change?
These days it is about making luxury accessible to a new audience who has the disposable income and is willing to discover new brands. All it’s meant is that the definition of luxury has evolved and taken a new direction. It’s no longer about exclusive access, it’s about bespoke and custom made, for example.
5. Flash sales often sell out in seconds, leaving customers empty-handed and frustrated. How do you respond to this?
We’re not a dedicated flash sale site but our product does sell out quickly. However, we want to be a destination where you can shop at any time, on your time and always find something you need or want at a great price. Now we upload hundreds of items three times a week--every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday--so that our customer always has something fabulous to choose from. Our inspirational photo shoots in “Dress Me” link to products featured as well as alternative, like products curated by THE OUTNET editors.
6. The luxury consumer has come back in a big way since the worst of the economic downturn. Have you seen this in your own business? If so, how?
It is perhaps not as relevant for us because we’re a startup and are fortunate to have seen growth of over 100% year on year.
7. Sites like yours give even the most fashionable people reason never to shop full-price again. Is shopping at full-price a thing of the past?
Not at all. There will always be that customer that is an early adopter, fashion-forward and eager to buy pieces straight off the runway. The discount shopper is fashion-savvy but her mindset is to mix and match more. There’s the potential that she’ll trade up to retail too.
8. There’s been a lot of buzz about the new smartphone app you guys are set to release, but you’ve remained hush-hush on its specific capabilities. Can you tell us anything about it?
Our app is in the final developments stages and due to launch soon but we still can’t disclose too much. It takes THE OUTNET’s USP - our merchandized approach to discount and outfitting - and combines it with community.
9. There has been talk that the new smartphone app will allow people to shop The Outnet and make purchases from their phones, but some wonder whether a “purchase-on-the-go” system will catch on with consumers, especially when they can only see a tiny image of what they’re buying. What are your thoughts on this?
We’re the next generation of brands developing apps, not the pioneers, so we’ve looked at and learnt a lot from previous apps and of course the technology is always improving. While our app ensures our customers can purchase on the go, it isn’t solely a sales-vehicle. It’s a continuation and value-add in terms of our offering and our service.
10. Right now, The Outnet sells women’s clothing and accessories. Do you have any plans to branch out into the men’s market?
We’re considering a number of categories and men’s is certainly one that is requested. You’ll have to stay tuned!