There are some similarities between the virtual and physical worlds, feelunique.com chief executive Joel Palix concedes.
“From time to time you need to make a significant investment and completely renovate your store,” he says. And, for Europe’s largest online beauty retailer, the decision already seems to be paying dividends.
The company’s website was totally revamped towards the end of last year to provide a seamless experience that is tailored to each consumer, no matter whether they’re using a desktop computer, tablet or mobile device.
By the time of the busy post-Christmas sales, more than half of all traffic and sales on the site was coming from mobile or tablet devices; just ten months previously the proportion had been less than a third.
Mr Palix, who has held senior roles at some of the biggest players in the beauty industry all over Europe, including Clarins and Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, says that changes to the site and mobile strategy were partly driven by the company’s bias towards female customers.
Some 85 per cent of purchases from feelunique are made by women and the company’s own research shows that women are 20 per cent more likely to use a mobile device to buy online. “For any e-commerce site, mobile is no longer just an option,” says Mr Palix. “For us, doing it well is an absolute must.”
Shoppers are increasingly sharing links and pictures of products online to sound out friends, and be reassured their decision to buy is a good one
However, statistics from a recent study by IMRG, the UK’s online retail industry body, suggest that many of feelunique’s peers are lagging behind. Some 27 per cent of multichannel retailers do not have a mobile-optimised website. That figure rises to 43 per cent among online-only retailers.
And there is much at stake. A study by the Centre for Retail Research forecast online retail sales made with mobile devices to increase by 62 per cent in 2014, reaching a total value of £7.92 billion. That’s 17.6 per cent of all UK online retail sales.
It’s all a far cry from Mr Palix’s first experience of e-commerce, launching Clust.com in 1999 in the earliest days of the online retail revolution. Back then, he says, most of the people who shopped online were men: “geeks shopping for electronics from their desktops”.
Today, feelunique’s offering is shaped by different trends. Mr Palix observes that, while the site’s traffic tends to show two peaks, one in the morning and then again in the evening, it’s during the evening peak that purchases are more likely to be made. This type of “browse and buy” behaviour has been characterised as “am to pm” shopping where “analysis moments” happen in the morning before “purchase moments” later in the day.
The company’s assessment of consumer behaviour also suggests that, despite migrating away from bricks-and-mortar over the last 15 years, retail has not lost its social element. The discussions have merely begun to happen in a different way.
Mr Palix says shoppers are increasingly sharing links and pictures of products online – often using their mobile devices – to sound out friends, and be reassured their decision to buy is a good one. They might then actually make a purchase later in the day, using a different device.
This is why one of the major goals of the revamp to feelunique’s online and mobile offering was to provide a smooth, user-friendly experience that reflects shoppers’ habits. “More and more we’re trying to offer a seamless journey,” he says. “So what is ordered or viewed on one device, can be easily accessible on another device. We try to create an environment that is more personalised.”
Mr Palix says that, while great strides have been made, part of the company’s strategy has been to lay foundations for tweaks to be made to the site over time. “Now we have a very robust platform that will allow us to make continuous improvements to the site,” he says.
Fine-tuning to the site will mostly be the result of so-called “A/B testing” whereby the effects of experimental changes to different elements of the site are recorded and analysed as part of a data-driven approach.
“We are lucky to have the ability to test a lot of things,” says Mr Palix. “That’s a big advantage over physical retail. When we want to change anything, we do A/B testing; instead of relying on the judgment of one individual in the company, we just run tests. The market is always right so, in effect, the consumer manages the company.”
As the leading player in its sector and a company that sells the majority of its products to customers using a mobile device or tablet, it’s perhaps surprising that feelunique doesn’t have an app. Mr Palix acknowledges this, but stresses that, if and when the company does decide to launch one, it will be on his its own terms.
“We are always talking about this internally,” he says. “But we never reach an agreement about what the killer app would be. We like to achieve excellence in everything we do, so we are not going to do an app just for the sake of doing an app.”
The business does, however, have two bricks-and-mortar stores, in Guernsey and Jersey. Mr Palix says they are the consequence of “selective distribution agreements” that the company must strike with brands in order to stock certain products, rather than the beginning of a concerted push to become a fully fledged omnichannel concern.
Looking to the future, he expects the way that feelunique’s customers pay for their purchases to remain relatively stable. Innovations, such as digital currency, are not sufficiently close to being useful on a large scale. Conversely, he predicts there will be changes in the way people interact with the site and the type of mobile devices they use.
“In terms of mobile, I think e-commerce players will see big transformations because the devices will continuously evolve. Maybe at some point you will have an augmented reality screen whereby your mobile will be able to project an image as big as the screen on a desktop. The whole concept of ‘a mobile site’ might one day become obsolete – that could be transformational,” he says.
In fact, while mobile devices are particularly suited to use in some contexts, the distinction between the different ways in which consumers browse and shop is already starting to dissolve.
“Mobile is just perfect for certain situations. If you know the type of product you want and you just want to reorder it – that’s very simple to do on mobile. Or if you want to start researching the products or asking friends, you can use it during commuting time when that’s the type of device you have in your hand. But I really see mobile as just one of the devices people use,” he adds.
For Mr Palix, the best mobile strategy is one that is incorporated into a holistic, cohesive view of how a company interacts with its customers. And that should be driven by one overriding consideration. “As a retailer, we want to be on every device possible,” he says, “because our goal is to make the customer’s life as easy as possible.”