When consumers started to move over to online shopping, they did so knowing a little of the personal touch would be lost.
Yes, they could choose from a wider range of products. Yes, they could buy at any time and from any place. But they would never have those human interactions that can make wandering the high street so rewarding.
Well, that’s changing. Why? Because of social media.
Channels such as Instagram and Twitter give e-tailers an opportunity to engage personally with their customers. Now, they’re grabbing it.
London-based fashion specialist SilkFred is a good example. Its co-founder and CEO Emma Watkinson is wholly committed to complementing the ‘macro’ behavioral data that personalizes the online experience with genuinely individual contact via social channels.
“We say we use social media as our shop floor,” she says. “Yes, we’re selling online, but we’re not a faceless business. We want to talk to our customers how a trusted friend would talk to them.
“So, recently, we started directly responding to customers’ specific questions with a video. It doesn’t need a big production – just someone with a phone. It’s awesome – the kind of one-to-one interaction that some online companies just don’t do enough of.”
She gives one compelling example.
“We had a customer who said she was going on a birthday weekend to Dublin and she asked us: what should I buy? One of the girls who works here is from Dublin. She picked out some outfits and also made some recommendations of where to go drinking. She posted a video on Instagram, and the customer bought everything.”
Watkinson believes so strongly in the power of personal interactions that she is also exploring how it can bring back lost customers.
She explains: “If we have a product with high returns, we will collate customer comments and then work with suppliers to re-fit the garment. Then we write to customers to say: we listened, we’ve had another crack at it. Then we will give them the item as a gift to get their feedback so we can release it again. If you show people you’re listening, that’s a nice thing to do.”
This care over personal engagement has helped SilkFred become one of the UK’s fastest growing fashion e-tailers.
Watkinson founded the company in 2011 while working at another online fashion start-up. Doing that job made her realise how many independent fashion designers were struggling to find distribution for their products. She decided to launch an online showcase, named it SilkFred, and raised £150,00 from seed investors. In 2012 she raised another £145,000 on Crowdcube.
Today, SilkFred attracts nearly a million visitors a month. It works with 600 brands and generates 90 percent of its sales through social media. There is now speculation of a £100m public listing.
There’s no doubt SilkFred has grown fast by finding a gap in the market. And it has made sure it is active across every available consumer touchpoint. But Watkinson stresses that the brand experience and identity is still consistent on them all.
She says: “You have to make sure you have the same experience across your customer service team. The proposition also has to be clear from channel to channel. If it is, then it doesn’t matter so much where your customers are coming from.”
Of course, this clarity sits on top of a sophisticated back-end. There’s a lot of technology powering the consistent and personal experience that SilkFred customers like.
“What tech can do to help the customer is one of the most beautiful things about e-commerce,” says Watkinson.
“We can look at macro data to understand behavior on the site. [We can answer questions such as] which dresses are most popular, which sections of the site have a high drop off, is there something in the user experience that’s off?”
Ultimately for all the complexity involved in setting up an online retail business, Watkinson retains a refreshingly straightforward approach when it comes to the ‘big picture’.
“Selling fashion is pretty simple,” she says. “You have to have a product people want to buy. Is it a price people are prepared to pay and can you deliver a seamless experience to match their expectations? There’s no magic art: they bought a dress; you gave them a good experience; have you got a new dress for the next time round?”