Despite all the criticism and negative press it gets, fast fashion remains a booming business — particularly in the UK, where the "high street" concept originated. And one company, co-led by veterans of that industry, aims to be on top.
Boohoo founders Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane have decades of experience in the high street apparel business, supplying inexpensive, youthful, trendy clothes to a number of multi-brand fast fashion retailers, including Topshop and ASOS. In 2006, he and Kane decided to cut out the middle men and start selling Boohoo directly to consumers online; in March of last year, Boohoo became a publicly traded company. Its debut on the stock market sent shares up 60 percent above the company's initial offer price, with investors seemingly certain they'd found the next ASOS. However, the share price has since dropped to 30 percent below the offer price as sales haven't quite lived up to the hype.
Still, after issuing a profit warning in January, the company has gradually been gaining back momentum — sales for the first half of the year were up 35 percent to about $136 million — and is steadfastly in expansion mode. It's been ramping up marketing efforts in the pursuit of greater international awareness — particularly in the U.S., which is currently Boohoo's third-largest market in terms of revenue and second-largest in terms of traffic. To that end, this year, the company launched a New York pop-up, a collaboration with Charli XCX and an ad campaign starring U.S.-based influencers like Hannah Bronfman and Chloe Norgaard, all in the hopes of getting more 16- to 24-year-old Americans onto Boohoo.com (instead of ASOS, Forever21, H&M, Nasty Gal or another of its many competitors).
And just last month, Boohoo invited a group of American editors (myself included) to hang out in London, tour its Manchester headquarters and preview its core offering for spring 2016. We didn't see the complete collection, because central to Boohoo's USP is its ability to react quickly to the trends it identifies either through social media, the runways or on a celebrity (though, usually, without directly knocking them off), and to constantly deliver new product. Like ASOS, Boohoo is one of those sites customers will need to check every day if they want to have a somewhat comprehensive sense of what's on it. According to International Director Andrew Thomson, the site published about 4,000 different products in October, averaging 200 per day. The most it published in one day that month was 327.
But, how? Fast production and quick turnaround are ingrained into Boohoo's supply chain. The company is almost entirely vertically integrated — meaning everything from design to sample production to marketing to photography takes place within its maze-like (I absolutely would have gotten lost in there had I not been guided by an employee) Manchester headquarters.
Boohoo also has the luxury of local production facilities in the U.K., where the company says it produces about 50 percent of its products. Plus, Kamani and Kane's many years in the biz have allowed the company to develop relationships with even its most distant international factories, where it can place shallow orders on new items. This is the backbone of Boohoo's "test-and-repeat" business model: It will stock only a few of a new style or trend, and then buy deeper if it performs well. "We can buy anything from 200-600 of a style and [do] a crowdsourcing approach where the customer ranks the stock for us," explains Kane. "Within 48 hours of something going live, we have a good idea as to how many weeks we should run that style for and what kind of depth we should buy into it." This business is also facilitated by the fact that Boohoo is online-only, and doesn't have to worry about stocking multiple points of sale.
We're told that Boohoo can identify an adaptable trend, design it, produce it and post it to the site in under two weeks. The five in-house photography studios have a lot to do with this as well: on-model shoots (including hair and makeup), still-life shoots, casting, styling and retouching are all done on the premises. Up to 350 new products have been shot in one day, thanks in part to the recent industrialization of still life photography. Boohoo uses a fleet of large, futuristic-looking machines (pictured below) made by a company called Styleshoots to streamline the process: A garment, like a sweater, is quickly placed onto a headless mannequin, the machine takes a photo of it and that photo automatically uploads with the mannequin already cut out of it (something that would otherwise have to be done manually with Photoshop), thanks to the machine's ability to detect a garment's edges. It was very fast, and required only one actual human to do the (incredibly repetitive) job. "Before we had to use shop mannequins and we had to have photographers and stylists working together," explains Graham Reid, head of studio and photography.
The other challenge Boohoo is working to solve is how to not overwhelm shoppers with the volume of merchandise they must navigate on its site, and how to prevent that merchandise from getting lost with so many new items arriving each day. "I think this is the perennial challenge of all e-commerce sites," notes Thompson. "I think for us it's even more of a challenge because we have more new product than most brands [due to] our test and repeat philosophy." Like many e-commerce sites, it's merchandised to prioritize newness, so that no matter what category a shopper clicks on, he or she is shown new product first. Boohoo has also been making a push to divide its product into different "Boohoo brands," like "Boohoo basics," "Boohoo Blue" (denim) and "Boohoo petite."
Expanding into new categories, rather than just piling on more styles, will be a big part of Boohoo's growth strategy moving forward. "A lot of the new growth we've had in the last 12 months has been from new categories," says Kane, "So it's not necessarily that we've got lots more dresses, but we've now got them in petite, plus size and tall." It's also steadily growing its accessories business, with its first (real) leather shoe range debuting for spring 2016.
But as Boohoo expands its product offering, it will still have to work on user experience and getting the right products in front of the right shoppers. According to Thompson, they want to "educate consumers with content," particularly on mobile, where the majority (about 65 percent) of Boohoo's traffic comes from. Thompson says he also wants to be able to eventually offer "a level of personalization based on previous purchase history and your previous 'click journey' through the site so we're feeding relevant product," adding, "It can be a little bit stressful when you have so much choice." Indeed, it can.
Disclosure: Boohoo paid for my travel and accommodations to visit its headquarters in the U.K.