The last time I properly posted about Far Fetch was back in 2008 when it had just launched. Nearly three years down the line and I'll come clean that I've actually never bought a single thing from the site. That's not because I'm not an online shopping fiend. I am. Is it the failing of the site itself? Not exactly. The premise of Far Fetch is that it has gathered a selection of independent boutiques from all around the world (in the beginning, it was mainly concentrated on ones in London) to provide them the all round vehicle of e-commerce - everything from fulfillment, shipping, web platform and all the know-how/resources of e-commerce to make it FULLY functional. The founder and CEO Jose Neves of Far Fetch once described the site as neither pure e-tailer nor marketplace - but instead a multi-channel e-tail network.
In plain speak, that's over 1,000 labels for us to shop from, mixing up contemporary, high end, cult and emerging designers all under one site covering womens and mens bases in all areas well - the very reason that it excited me in the first place. So why the no-buy from an online nut such as myself. I'll admit that after the initial hurrah, what I discovered was that all the products I loved came from stores right in my locale - I can just go into Labour of Love, bStore, Beyond the Valley, Feathers etc to shop, proof that bricks and mortar still have their allure.
I was to discover that Far Fetch has become a very different beast from that introductory trial run. On my recent trip to Guimarães in Portugal, I stopped by Far Fetch HQ, which is in an area that can be likened to a Silicon Valley-type business park, and I had the opportunity to rediscover Far Fetch, at an exciting period when they have just relaunched their website, taken on new boutiques with plans for further expansion. Neves personally showed us around and kept on emphasising that the point of Far Fetch was to allow bricks and mortar shops continue to do what they do best - BE good bricks and mortar shops and provide for their customers. I could really sense that Far Fetch is making the step up towards becoming a major player in e-commerce, with a business model that is uniquely their own, supported by their brand mission statements dotted around the walls for their staff of about 120 (and counting) to see. They're general business of fashion feel-good statements which I personally had to photograph just in case I ever wish to push myself into enterprise-mode...
I'm not sure what I imagined 'operations' to be like at Far Fetch - little fairies and elves working at night scurrying from boutique to boutique, grabbing stock and sending it all off, boxed up with a Far Fetch bow and a cookie? With now over 70 boutiques in Far Fetch's roster, how is stock managed in terms of going live on site and how does it work getting stock to tally up with the physical stores to ensure stock levels are in sync...?
A bit of clever software is installed at all the stores that can operate without an internet connection - keeping in check what is in stock at the store, what is being sold on Far Fetch, whether something is being sold in the store (which would prevent it being put into someone's basket online), whether something is being returned and can therefore be restored to store/site - apparently it's 90-something % accurate...
All new stock come into Far Fetch to be photographed to ensure that all products are presented 'house style' and are then duly sent back to the store.
Packaging, tags and return labels are provided to the boutiques so that when something is sold and all boutiques are responsible for the packing (shipping is provided by Far Fetch). Far Fetch encourages the boutiques to add their own personal touches - printed tissue paper, ribbons, cards etc so as to not homogenise the final product received.
The product photography department was probably the most 'wizard' of them all. With about six studios where models and still lifes are photographed, Far Fetch have to manage a a few hundred products coming from all over the place everyday, shooting it all efficiently and getting the product back to the corresponding stores. They aren't reinventing the wheel with their photography of course - there is a tried and tested e-commerce formula that our eyes seem to be trained to look for - the close-up shot for super zoom, a variety of angles, an on-model shot that is sometimes faceless so we can see the fit. Doing all of this is an exhaustive process that all e-commerce sites need to undertake but I had actually never seen it in action. It goes to show how MUCH people need to factor in when taking on the behemoth of e-commerce. It CAN'T be a slap dash job otherwise it's set for failure and by providing this service to boutiques, Far Fetch have ultimately eliminated the headache.
It's sort of like an image factory - shoot, Photoshop, product description, done. There's no room for arty farty presentation - try and be clever and fancy online and you risk weirding out customers who just want to Click and Buy. Looking at the most successful sites, there seems to be a very linear pattern of how we want our fashion e-commerce sites to look like and there's a risk with straying away from that pattern.
The question I had for Neves was whether there was fear of over-saturation in the fashion e-commerce market. Not that I don't believe Far Fetch have a unique and enticing prospect on their hands (I had a wee glimpse at their daily sales figures - IMPRESSIVE stuff...) but I was merely wondering whether stiff competition had him worried. "Online still represents only roughly 15% of all fashion sales, this is not a lot compared with many other industries, so there is space for everyone. There have been many interesting new concepts in fashion ecommerce lately (as well as copycats of established ones), but I believe there is still room for many innovative ideas. There are fashion lovers in all corners of the world which rely on the internet to be able to access their designers of choice," says Neves.
And what of the high-end brands such as Balenciaga, Marni, Lanvin etc who have redeveloped their own websites and e-commerce propositions? "This will intensify, as most brands are not yet tapping the online channel efficiently. However, this does not mean multi-brand web sites won't have space. On the contrary, it's a bit like the brick & mortar world - there is coexistence of flagship mono-brand stores and multi-label boutiques, department stores, etc."
That comparison with bricks and mortar in a way draws parallels with the comparison between blogs/websites and magazines. There's room for ALL and Far Fetch's model means there are still plenty of untapped markets/areas to go into - boutiques from Australia and Asia could well be next although Neves is concentrating on Brazil for now.
From my perspective, I wonder whether there's the possibility of working with independent designers to provide Far Fetch's level of professional e-commerce. How many own-brand e-commerce sites can we scour and mightn't it be better to have them under one umbrella? Just an out loud thought there.
After this mini 'physical' tour, I gave the site a thorough 're-browse'. It took about 2 hours. There's a bit of an imaginary shopping basket thing going on that is threatening to bankrupt me but the fantasy element is part of my own fun and games to play with e-commerce sites. Notable additions to the boutiques include more regional UK boutiques such as Hervia Bazaar in Manchester and Paper Scissor Stone in Leeds. Then there's the heavy expansion in US which means there's a good lot of LA boutiques represented - such as Tenoversix and Satine - as well as NY ones such as OTTE and Eva. They also now have an interesting designer vintage offering in the form of the mighty A.N.G.E.L.O. in Milan. The most recent MAJOR coup includes L'Eclaireur in Paris, a boutique so reassuringly old-school that I thought they'd NEVER EVER go online and the new concept kid on the block, RA in Antwerp.
The mix of pieces here is just a sampling from my two hours of straight forward scrolling (and actually in some cases, learning about brands I'd never heard of...). That first purchase is definitely on its way.