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'Luxury has caught up online but now it has the chance to take over'

Classic British menswear brand Belstaff was relaunched last July and its average online customer spends £1,000 per shop. Caroline Rolfe, its newly promoted global director of online, talks to Lucy Handley about meeting the demands of luxury consumers.

Caroline Rolfe

Marketing Week (MW): The Reckitt Benckiser-backed luxury business Labelux Group bought Belstaff in 2011. What effect has the new ownership had on the brand?

Caroline Rolfe (CR): When I joined Labelux last July as head of ecommerce at a group level, the business was evolving from owning brands to running them. It was looking at the three big brands it owns [Jimmy Choo and Bally, as well as Belstaff] and how to create efficiencies and be a best-practice retailer across those brands. It had invested in Demandware as the group website platform and Ecommera as the service provider.

When I joined, it was a few weeks from the launch of the Belstaff website. I was focused on getting that to run beautifully, with all the challenges of a new website and a new brand which has been completely overhauled – the ownership is different and the designers are different [creative director Martin Cooper joined from Burberry in 2011].

Belstaff is a heritage brand that has been around for a long time. There are beautiful classic ‘legend’ products, such as the roadmaster jacket, modelled by Ewan McGregor, but Belstaff is adding a ready-to-wear product and a women’s line, as well as shoes and accessories.

MW: How central is ecommerce to Belstaff?

CR: In terms of ecommerce, it was a clean slate. It didn’t have a website that was operated in-house before, so I’ve spent the last six months getting it ship-shape.

The ecommerce base for the three brands will be in the same place in London, so as a company we can gear ourselves up to be a central part of the business, not just another revenue channel.

MW: How has the luxury industry’s view of ecommerce developed?

CR: I’ve always looked at it not just as being about sales on the website. Other visitors may be there interacting with a brand because they find it aspirational, or they are researching before going into a store to try something on.

When ecommerce first came about, most luxury brands were very slow to the table because of this general feeling that no one would buy a £2,000 handbag online. At that time, no one was thinking that it might not be about what customers will buy, it was about what they will view and then go in stores to buy.

Luxury has caught up online but now it has the chance to take over. It has always been more about the experience. Brands have got to justify the price tag.

The customer has to feel special, from being welcomed into the store, being given VIP access, to walking out with their beautifully packaged purchase. That has to be replicated online. Luxury has this advantage that it has been focused on customer experience for a long time.

Belstaff 1

A women’s line now supplements Belstaff’s ‘legend’ products

MW: Since the new website launch for Belstaff, what kinds of sales are you seeing?

CR: Sales are doing surprisingly well considering people don’t yet know the new part of the brand. When we are asking them to spend upwards of £1,000 on a jacket when they don’t know the style and fit, then that is difficult. We want them to discover that jacket and then potentially try it on in store and fall in love with it.

The only thing ecommerce can’t do is let people try it on, touch it and see the quality, which is what sells it. We have invested a huge amount in our product photography but still there is no true replication of the real thing.

We are doing well in terms of sales, but how I judge it isn’t just simply by looking at online sales. If I can grow ecommerce sales steadily but grow in-store sales by supporting them with a beautiful online shop window, that is the ultimate aim.

MW: How might you reach your ambition of integrating the website with the physical stores?

CR: It’s all about the systems. Many brands have gone back to basics to look at their systems and how they link up. The majority of brands didn’t have systems that linked to their retail stores and customers didn’t understand why they couldn’t go online to see if something was in a store, for example.

Simple stuff like that makes a huge difference to a customer’s belief in you as a brand. So getting that right before a brand launches into having all-singing, all-dancing technology in store is probably the key thing.

We have launched lots of flagships over the last six months including New York, Milan and Munich, and London will launch later this year on Bond Street.

MW: Content marketing is a big trend right now. How is Labelux tapping into this with its Luxury In Progress (LiP) website, launched in December?

CR: The business is good at information-sharing and we have our internal newsletter that is sent every day – the Labelux Lens, a round-up of what is happening in luxury as well as thought leadership – which has its own editor.

From that, we wanted an external tool that wasn’t a PR piece or commercial thing. The goal of LiP is to share the passion that we have as a natural resource in the company, as well as using external contributors to gather information. It has been likened to Nowness [an online magazine created by luxury group LVMH].

I’m not sure that the people who read LiP are the people who buy; it’s part of that classic marketing term the ‘sales funnel’. If we started to try and sell something from Jimmy Choo for example, it would not work because that is not what it is there to do; it would just read as a sales pitch.

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MW: How do you plan work with the other brands in the group, Jimmy Choo and Bally?

CR: We intend to use our resource wisely across the three brands. Belstaff has just gone through a replatforming project and we are looking at the relaunch of both the other brands’ websites for this year.

If Jimmy Choo is building something, and I can make use of that for Belstaff, then I will. I learnt my way on that at Estée Lauder: working across brands, not in a silo.

Caroline Rolfe’s three challenges

1. Keeping up with customers’ expectations online.

To a certain extent, I’m not worried about the sales growth because we are on such a new path. But I am concerned about turnaround times in keeping up with customer expectations, improving and giving the best service online and achieving all that in the shortest possible time. It takes time as soon as technology is involved.

2. Making every customer feel special.

I want to add to the customer’s experience, personalise it more. It’s about surprise and delight, so that might be an invite to a store launch or getting them involved in coming to Goodwood with us [the brand is to launch a Goodwood-inspired range], or experience our fashion show on a live video stream. For example, at Christmas, we sent our top customers some gloves with a handwritten note. We didn’t tell them, or ask them what they thought, but we got handwritten notes back saying thank you.

3. Segmentation.

We have some beautiful content and imagery, [and I want to] make that relevant to our different customers, by segmenting and growing our database. We are at relatively early stages. It is about the product and person but also about VIPs and lapsed customers and retaining them.

Our customers are not people who have come along and spent £40, they have spent a lot more so they have invested in us. It is about is keeping that alive and working out ways to make every customer feel special.

CV Caroline Rolfe

February 2013 Global director of online, Belstaff, Labelux Group

2012-2013 Head of ecommerce, Labelux Group

2010-2012 Global head of online, Links of London and Follie Follie

2010 Website manager, Burton Menswear, Arcadia Group

2009 Becomes a member of the IDM’s Digital Council

2002-2010 Online manager, Clinique, Estée Lauder

2001-2002 Marketing and advertising co-ordinator, Korn/Ferry International

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