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Preview Internet Retailing Expo: Geoff van Sonsbeeck, co-founder and CEO of Isabella Oliver

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Isabella Oliver is a pureplay etail operation born out of one couple’s frustration at the lack of decent maternity-wear available in the UK market. Having launched online in 2003 from the family home, international interest in the Isabella Oliver brand seemed to come from nowhere, so the company has since launched dedicated country sites for the US, Canada and France and is reaching new international customers every day. The company was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2010.

CEO Geoff Van Sonsbeeck says that the web provides a unique means of catering for a very niche product category, but on a global scale. “When we first spotted the gap in the market for stylish, high quality maternity apparel we weighed up the options, but quickly decided the online model would be best,” says van Sonsbeeck. “Ecommerce is more successful, more affordable, more scalable. From a cash and capital point of view it makes sense to start out via the web and grow at your desired pace.”

There are huge opportunities both here and overseas, and it’s possible to make connections with people without having to invest in a massive infrastructure, says van Sonsbeeck. Customers all over the world now order goods – with around 97% of sales coming through the online channel, and 3% phoned through. Catalogues are produced but these are largely used as a marketing tool, which then directs people online to buy.

At the heart of Isabella Oliver is great product. The range of maternity clothes is made from stylish, easy care fabrics that are designed to look great, but be comfortable too. There is a signature style which features ‘wrapping’ and ‘ruching’, and this is what has proved popular and gives the brand its distinctive look, explains van Sonsbeeck. The company has just launched an ‘everyday wear’ non-maternity range too – called Isabella Oliver 365 – sales of which have been growing fast. “The apparel market is tough at the moment in terms of sourcing at a competitive price and growing sales, so we felt diversifying with a new range would be a good idea,” says van Sonsbeeck.

The company began in one room in a Hampstead house, spread to two rooms, two floors and eventually into a designated commercial space. “Because of the growth, and having a larger team of employees, we recently relocated the warehouse operation to Luton, and have an office in Kentish Town,” says Dutch-born van Sonsbeeck.

At Internet Retailing Expo’s Insights Conference on 23 March, van Sonsbeeck will be presenting alongside more2’s Kevin McSpadden, covering the importance of having a single customer view, and revealing how the company has used data to track the success or otherwise of marketing activities. “When you are reliant on Pay Per Click, natural search, affiliates, and a host of other recruitment and marketing methods it’s very hard to understand which activities have actually delivered customers and sales,” says van Sonsbeeck. “Our work with more2 has really helped us dig into the data and follow the success or otherwise of our marketing strategies.”

With the help of data marketing partner more2, Isabella Oliver has successfully built an international single customer view, using this to gain valuable insights into customer behaviour. This has enabled the company to measure and improve the important metrics for the online business. “We are able to segment the customer groups and work with them in a much more intuitive way today,” says van Sonsbeeck. “Our work with more2 has resulted in much richer understanding of the market and our customer needs. For instance we know that most women want to purchase maternity wear in the eight weeks between week 12 and week 20 of their pregnancy.”

Data intelligence has provided powerful insights that are shaping how Isabella Oliver connects with its customers and does business. Delegates at the Insights Conference will benefit enormously from hearing how the business model has been planned, executed and refined, and is now underpinning the success and future growth strategy of this fast-growing operation.

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