In our era of globalized consumerism, authenticity is key. It’s not enough to sell good products, you also have to compel consumers with a narrative, invite them into your community and embrace new technologies without losing your core competencies.

One of the biggest global online luxury retailers, MATCHESFASHION.COM, masters many of these elements. Tom and Ruth Chapman opened their small boutique, Matches, in the London suburb of Wimbledon over 30 years ago. It was the first multibrand store to introduce U.K. shoppers to luxury brands that included Prada and Bottega Veneta. The relaxed pace outside central London allowed the Chapmans to spend more time with customers and develop the personal, service-oriented approach that still marks the company. They also made sure to collect shoppers’ names and email addresses, creating a first line of contact for the future.

A prescient move

Then in 2006, in the midst of a changing retail landscape, the pair launched an e-commerce offering featuring international shipping. The move quickly boosted business, with orders flooding in from Hong Kong, Germany, the U.S. and beyond.

In 2013, the company decided to take digital further and rebranded both the online and offline divisions. The transition took place under the lead of tech entrepreneur Ulric Jerome, who joined the firm that year as COO and is now its CEO. At the time a stranger to the world of fashion, Jerome’s high-level experience with online portals for electronics, pet food and gambling made him an unusual choice for the job. Yet his e-commerce know-how powered the firm’s rebirth.

After running the business successfully for 30 years, the Chapmans decided to step down and take some time off, so they sold a majority stake in the company to Apax Partners, which has previously invested in Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. The 2017 deal reportedly valued the company at $1 billion and came at the end of an energetic bidding war. The Chapmans retain a minority stake and an advisory role.

The luxury e- and retailer employs 500 people at its headquarters in the London skyscraper The Shard, and a further 600 people at its distribution center.

Online activities now account for 95 percent of sales, and the website receives 100 million visitors a year. Eighty-two percent of orders come from outside the U.K., from the 176 countries that make up the company’s customer base. Mobile purchases account for over half their sales.

This move to digital is here to stay for the company and its luxury shopping peers – a recent report from Bain & Company estimates that in 2025, online will influence all luxury purchases, and digital will enable around 50 percent of them. But digital mastery isn’t the only move in the playbook of MATCHESFASHION.COM

WELL-TAILORED: Ulric Jerome, CEO of MATCHESFASHION.COM

Building new stories

In September 2018 the company debuted a five-floor luxury townhouse, 5 Carlos Place, that’s part opulent showroom, part events space and part broadcasting house. The move may have raised some eyebrows in an industry where many retailers, including long-established department stores, are literally closing up shop to focus on digital activities, but Jerome sees it as a natural fit. “Let’s not forget where we are coming from,” he points out, referring to the company’s three decades of running stores.

Looking much like a well-heeled private home, 5 Carlos Place aims to unify commerce, culture and community – and as always, curation is key. Events have included installations from fashion designers such as Prada, JW Anderson and Wales Bonner, and guests have included model Kate Moss, Princess Beatrice of York, photographers Mario Sorrenti and David Sims, musician Paloma Faith and actor Robin Wright. Visitors are also welcome to sign up on site to attend masterclasses with Michelin-starred chefs, celebrity nutritionists and skilled florists.

This experience-driven approach doesn’t mean that shopping isn’t on the agenda, notes Jerome. As he points out, only 10 percent of global luxury purchases are made online today, even though the figure is steadily growing. “5 Carlos Place is an amazing place to make sales as well,” he says. “Anyone who comes to 5 Carlos Place can shop all of our products.”

That includes offerings by more than 450 designers, from established names like Alexander McQueen and Givenchy to newer talents, including German designer Horror Vacui and Lebanese jeweler Joelle Kharrat. MATCHESFASHION.COM also has its own label, Raey, for men and women.

A discreet custom experience can be arranged by calling ahead: An expert selection will be prepared in a private suite within 90 minutes. Visitors can also stop off at the top-floor cafe or courtyard garden.

It seems notable that a firm so dedicated to digital has invested in this eye-catching lifestyle destination. Yet, according to Brian Lee, Associate Director at digital-focused business intelligence and research firm Gartner L2, this is not unusual. “Offline experiences like stores may not be necessary to sell a product, but they provide touchpoints for promoting the brand, providing services and acting as a showroom,” he says. “Consumers go to stores for experiences, and the MATCHESFASHION.COM multiuse luxury showroom in London will provide valuable opportunities for introducing customers to their newest offerings.”

Yet digital is firmly integrated into on-floor activities in the company’s retail sites, from the handheld devices used by sales assistants to access online inventory all the way to the QR codes on display, which interact with the MATCHESFASHION.COM app on customers’ mobile phones. The latter also personally welcomes them and guides them through their visit, and offers content such as catwalk videos and click-to-shop product pages. 5 Carlos Place also shares its exclusive events through livestreams and podcasts.

Reaching new territories

The company’s online retail portal, app and social media presence all serve to create community, while simultaneously enabling personalization.

MATCHESFASHION.COM’s services include a fashion concierge team, MyStylist, offering 24/7 advice via phone or email, and The Style Report, an in-house fashion magazine with exquisite shoots, trend articles and deep dives into the wardrobes of top editors and tastemakers. The Style Social integrates social shopping, allowing customers to “see, share and shop” the Instagram feeds of influencers and fashion fans, while the Shop With… service brings new customers to the page via trendsetters.

According to Gartner L2’s Digital IQ Index: Fashion Global 2018 report, the firm is pretty smart online. It promotes brands on Instagram, the best fit for its followers, as well as in email newsletters. “MATCHESFASHION.COM is one of the most active retailers on Instagram Stories, posting frequently and utilizing swipe-ups to drive customers to gallery pages for brands,” notes Bill Duffy, Gartner L2’s Associate Director. Despite its bricks-and-mortar heritage, MATCHESFASHION.COM scores like a digital native.

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: Style from the MATCHESFASHION.COM Autumn/Winter 2018 Lookbook.

Delivering on the promise of fashion

The evolution from boutique to online retailer has also required setting up a strategy for delivering on the promises of expansion to 176 countries. The company provides a full slate of shipping options with top-flight service. This includes free delivery on orders above a certain amount, premium delivery within London, which allows the customer to pick the date and time for receiving their purchase, as well as the option for standard, express, or next-business-day deliveries. To allow for easy cross-border transactions, items are shipped on a delivery-duty-paid basis that is worry-free for consumers.

“We spend a lot of time on the optimization of the supply chain, the optimization of the delivery journey and the user experience around it,” explains Jerome. “Reverse logistics is also very important. As an online business, we find that our customers often have to return items that don’t fit or don’t suit them. The easier we make it for the customers to return unsuitable goods, the more they order.” To that end, the firm even offers free returns pick-up in certain markets.

Additionally, in 2016 the company became the first in the luxury retail sector to offer 90-minute delivery to select postcodes in London on its entire catalog, setting a new trend in the sector. “We really believe in making an e-commerce transaction as physical as possible,” says Jerome, who regards the initiative as a passion project.

“Ninety-minute delivery service is as close as you can be to a physical experience, because you get your product in an hour and a half,” he continues. “The customer is very demanding and on the go, and wants to touch and feel the product all the time. So we were very much looking in terms of on-demand delivery service and the power that it has to change customer behavior.”

For Jerome, logistics is simply the backbone of the business. “You can do all the great things in the world, you can have all the best products in the world, you can have all the best teams in the world, but if your last-mile delivery isn’t working, you don’t have a business,” he says. “For us, logistics is a business development opportunity.”

MATCHESFASHION.COM’s newest focus, curated offerings for home and lifestyle, has been a big hit, though it requires extra care when it comes to delivery. A €3,000 ($3,500) Gucci Décor porcelain vase or a Murano glass carafe doesn’t travel quite as lightly as a Burberry trench or a Fendi clutch. Jerome says the company works closely with each brand so that products come extremely well packaged and protected.

FASHION HOUSE: 5 Carlos Place features offerings from more than 450 designers.

Meanwhile, customers around the world are catered to, but the product selection isn’t geographically tailored. “We think our point of view has a global reach,” explains Jerome, noting that customers don’t want to see what’s already available in their market. “In luxury what people want is to experience curiosity, they want to experience discovery.” Susanne Stein

Published: January 2019

Images: Matches Fashion/Cat Garcia; Matches Fashion