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IR 2012 PREVIEW Interview: Geoff van Sonsbeeck of Isabella Oliver

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In today’s preview of our annual conference, Internet Retailing 2012 (IR 2012), to be held in London on October 9, we have our latest in a series of interviews with speakers at the conference. Geoff van Sonsbeeck, founder and chief executive of maternity wear specialist Isabella Oliver and the recently launched womenswear brand Baukjen, tells us how the retailer is keeping pace with customer demands – and shares details of the brand’s upcoming new eStylist solution.

Internet Retailing: At Internet Retailing 2012 you’re taking part in a discussion on speeding up operations in challenging markets. How are your customers challenging you? Do they want instant gratification – or what else do they want?

Geoff van Sonsbeeck, founder and chief executive of Isabella Oliver and Baukjen: Let’s assume that instant gratification is not about a product but the process of wanting it here and now – that’s something we have experienced since we launched in to maternity wear. Right from the offset, we realised that we have customers who want our products now, now and now.

They’re pregnant, don’t have the luxury of waiting time and need their clothes as soon as possible. We have an incredibly short shopping window in maternity – eighty per cent of buying will happen in an eight-week window. So we learned early on that we must exceed expectations if we want to make them happy customers that keep coming back.

IR: How can retailers learn from that customer demand?

GS: It’s about delivering an amazing experience, something we understood right from the beginning. If a customer placed an order by 5pm we would deliver the next day. Nine years ago it was relatively easy to exceed the customer expectations but since then the competitive landscape has changed and the customer has, well, more challenging expectations. Now people are really getting good at it, so to stay ahead of the rest we need to keep moving. So, as the customer is becoming more and more demanding retailers need to up their game. They need to excel at pretty much everything if they want to deliver the right experience. They need to be better, faster and cheaper, as in better price/quality. It really is about preemptive investments in distribution, technology and solutions in general. No doubt the customer is getting a better and better deal as we go and I think that’s good.

IR: Is the market becoming more challenging – and how?

GS: No doubt the recent market has experienced lot of headwinds – Europe in particular is in a difficult position but this also offers opportunities. We just closed September 75% up year on year so I think we’re doing quite well. But it’s tougher and the customer is certainly more demanding.

IR: How do you and other retailers keep up with that demand?

GS: I think it’s about how they really embrace the omnichannel experience. I have a lot of respect for what Aurora Fashions [owner of the Coast, Warehouse and Oasis brands] does. They really flipped, as an example, their bricks and mortar disadvantage into an advantage with 90-minute delivery slots across the UK. That’s a real competitive advantage and something I can never do as a pureplay etailer.

But for me, how do I respond when customers want to use click and collect? I don’t have a ‘collect’ network but I am very good at ‘click’ so that’s my challenge. There are some suppliers, such as Collect Plus, and a few others who allow you to collect on a local level and I think we’ll see much more of them. In general, logistics has been deemed unsexy for years but I think it’s actually quite exciting, with a lot of new logistics solutions popping up every day that enhance the choice and customer experience. But it’s also technology. It’s about the experience the customer has online and how they personalise it. I think that’s all very fast-moving and very interesting.

We are launching an e-stylist service in the next few weeks, which is really about turning our online-only presence into an advantage. To us this makes sense. It works through a skype-type of technology that allows the customer to schedule an appointment in the comfort of her home. This is about her very own online Personal Stylist, like a boutique assistant, helping her to get inspired, trying new colours, new looks etc. The stylist and the customer can literally walk through the wardrobe of the customer, talk about what suits her, what doesn’t work, and what can work. It’s more than a personal shopper, it really is an online stylist solution. We’re currently testing the service and fingers crossed we will launch it in the next few weeks.

My point here is that this is really enhancing the customer experience. Technology is increasingly providing good solutions for the customer and it means we as online players can in some sense offer an offline experience.

IR: Is this focus on the customer experience a key way that retail will change in the future?

GS: It’s going to be one of the many ways that retail will change. The customer is going to be able to buy in any way they want it, anywhere they want it and at any time. They’re going to be increasingly demanding customers and if you can’t keep up with that it’s going to damage your brand. I think this provides interesting opportunities.

I also see many things happening on the technology and logistics side. It’s very easy to relate to why something is going to work. You just need to ask yourself – as a consumer would I like this? I’d say yes, this is great, this is more choice, more convenience or whatever so it will work.

Geoff van Sonsbeeck will be one of the panellists discussing Speeding up operations in challenging markets, in stream three of Internet Retailing 2012. The discussion starts at 4.15pm.

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