essentials of style
Ulric Jerome, the gregarious chief executive of MatchesFashion.com, on how he transformed the former bricks-and-mortar company into an online powerhouse.
The MatchesFashion.com story.
Pop quiz: what do you need to successfully spearhead the digital transformation of a company? (a) clarity of vision; (b) acute business acumen; or (c) magnetic charm and charisma?
Luckily for MatchesFashion.com, its chief executive Ulric Jerome possesses all three. In spades. He’s a bona fide triple threat.
We’re in an industrial showroom in Soho, Manhattan—the space is flanked by models on the left, all dressed in the latest autumn/winter 2018 fashions and arranged into five vignettes to reflect the five floors of the new MatchesFashion. com retail concept, 5 Carlos Place, to be unveiled in London this summer; and on the right, a succession of tables filled with chocolate, cheeses and charcuterie.
Jerome is working the room like a pro. He is flitting between business partners and CEOs to digital influencers and PYTs (pretty young things), giving out HAKs (hugs and kisses) and switching conversation, without a beat, from SEM and CRM to the latest trends and hype brands that are totally TDF (to die for). It’s a beautiful thing to watch. And amid all this, he still manages to throw me a wink as I walk past—juggling a flute of champers and biting into a cracker loaded with what I thought was cheese (turns out, it was butter; explains why it was so easy to spread). I almost choke (because, butter). He laughs. I laugh. Champers has spilled onto the concrete floor. (Yes, I’m that person at the party.)
Earlier that day, just up the road in the very fa-shun boutique hotel that is Sixty SoHo on Thompson, I sat down with Jerome over lunch to discuss all things MatchesFashion.com. What were the challenges in going digital? How is he positioning the company for future growth? Is artificial intelligence part of the equation? It was a rare chance to speak to one of the key drivers of the digital fashion revolution. And, as you will see, he is quite the tour de force. (Thankfully, on this occasion, no butter or bubbly was wasted.)
E S Q: Matches started as a bricks-andmortar retail store. With you onboard, everyone now knows it as an e-commerce site. How did you transform an offline store into an online platform? What challenges did you face? UL R I C J E ROME: What was really important was our existing relationship with the luxury brands through our retail stores. We had an opportunity to make an impact in an industry that had really low penetration online. Back then, in 2012, only two percent of the total personal luxury goods market was transacted online. In comparison, mainstream fashion was 20 percent, travel was 60 percent online, and consumer electronics was 20 to 50 percent, depending on the category. The luxury market was really behind the rest of the pack because the luxury brands had not embraced the opportunity to go digital.
So for us, it was an opportunity to first, leverage the partnerships we had with luxury brands; second, work rigorously to change the underlying technology for the business; and third, bring the right e-commerce expertise into the business.
E S Q: Looking back now, what helped the transition from offline to online? ULRI C J E ROME: The one thing that really helped us with the transition was the change of name. The name up to the beginning of 2013 was ‘Matches’. For me, it was important to change the name to ‘MatchesFashion.com’ because by placing a ‘.com’ in our name, it instantly made everyone in our organisation understand that we are now operating on a global level.
E S Q: Was it hard to convince the team to back the name change? UL R I C J E R OME: What we did, very early on when I came into the business, was to bring the whole team together for half a day and share the vision of the business. We announced the name change and took everyone through the opportunity of going online. I think we were good communicating the goal and bringing everyone together. I think if you hadn’t brought everyone onto the same page, we would have faced a lot of resistance. Also then, we weren’t such a big company, so it was easier. Less people to manage and less people to convince. So I did not find that part a challenge at all.
E S Q: What did you find challenging? UL R I C J E ROME: What I did find challenging, but in a good way, was that we had to implement all the new systems: implement a new e-commerce platform; implement a new warehouse management system; implement a new merchandising tool, which we call ERP; and integrate a CRM functionality within the entire core architecture of the business. In 2013, we hired new staff with the expertise to bring us online and then we started working on transforming the company into an online business from January 2014. It took 14 to
15 months and we went live in April 2015. We changed everything. What we did not change was what we are known for: the way we curate our products and the way we curate our content.
E S Q: How would you describe the spirit of MatchesFashion.com? What is its competitive advantage? UL R I C J E ROME: We are the most personal luxury shopping experience in the world today. The reason why it’s personal is because we are the reverse of a department store. We are the reverse of the market place. We curate heavily. Our motto and DNA sits behind our level of curation. We are known by our customers, press and brands to be a very authentic business that cares a lot about our shoppers and cares a lot about having a very strong fashion point of view.
Today, you don’t necessarily have this point of view on our scale. You have mainstream businesses with a few thousand brands and hundreds of thousands of SKUs, but we have always kept at 400 to 500 brands because we believe it makes it easier for the customer to understand the logic of merchandising. Otherwise, it gets messy and the customer loses the intimacy. The mission statement of the business is literally to be the largest personal luxury shopping experience in the world.
E S Q: Looking back at the vision that you shared with the company in 2012, how close are you now to achieving that goal? Or have you already achieved it? UL R I C J E ROME: From what we talked about at that time, we have now delivered what we set out to do. I’m really proud of the team because they completed a technological transformation of the business, which is really difficult. Many companies have failed. Moving forward, our focus is to excel in the continued execution of this vision.
E S Q: What are the new goal posts now? What’s the next step? ULRIC JEROME: The next goal is to build our scale, which is extremely important. So this summer, we are moving our global warehouse to a new location that is four times larger, still based in the UK; we have just moved into a new creative luxury studio, that is 24,000 square feet of modular space; and we opening up 5 Carlos Place in London this summer too—a retail concept that is going to be a multi-disciplinary embodiment of what MatchesFashion. com stands for. Also, we have just opened a new office in Hong Kong, that is four times bigger than the old office, and we are 18 months ahead of schedule. But it’s not just infrastructure, it’s also about getting the culture right. Over the last 18 months, we have hired close to 200 more people to join the business.
E S Q: Really? You are growing very fast. UL R I C J E R OME: Yes. We are continuing to build the foundation for scale.
ESQ: How many people work for MatchesFashion.com now globally? UL R I C J E ROME: So, if you include the people in the distribution centres, it’s 900 people in total. We have 500 staff in our headquarters and 100 people in our physical retail operations in London. When I started six years ago, we had 150 staff in total.
E S Q: Which country or region presents the greatest growth potential for MatchesFashion.com? UL R I C J E R OME: Don’t think I’m joking when I say this, but every country is a massive opportunity. The number one country for us now is the United States.
E S Q: Ahead of the UK? UL R I C J E ROME: Yeah. Look, in 2012, we were doing most of our business in the UK, and mostly in physical stores. Now we do 80 to 83 percent of our business outside of the UK, and 95 percent is done outside of the stores. That’s the real transformation. And our opportunities for growth are almost in every country in the world, because even though the US is our number one country, it’s still very small in comparison to what we can do.
E S Q: How big is the online luxury goods market now? ULRIC JEROME: The total personal luxury goods market is a €260 billion market, and online only constitutes nine percent of that today. In 2012, it was only two percent. And I believe that by 2025, online will constitute 25 percent of this luxury goods market. So, the opportunity is everywhere.
ESQ: What about Asia? Is it still a big consumer of luxury goods o nline? UL R I C J E ROME: Asia is very strategic for us, hence the reason for an office in Hong Kong to better serve our customers. We have also a Korean website that we launched in September 2017.
E S Q: Why Korea as opposed to Japan or China, for example? UL R I C J E ROME: One thing at a time [ laughs]. But we did start with Korea because we were really pushed by our South Korean customers to have a fully localised site.
E S Q: I think it’s a great strategic move as Korea has a lot of soft power and influence over the rest of Asia. UL R I C J E R OME: You’re totally right and that’s another reason why we launched the site. It’s not necessarily a big country, but because of Korean dramas and K-pop, it has a big impact on the region. We unveiled the site on the back of an exclusive event we did with Vetements in October 2016, where we created amazing exposure and recognition for our brand. And as a result of the Vetements collaboration and new Korean site, I believe our name is now more recognised in Asia. It’s just the start. Australia, which we include under Asia, is a big market for us. Hong Kong is big for us, and we trade in English, not Chinese.
E S Q: Why do you think the US has been so successful for you? UL R I C J E ROME: I think there is a gap in the market. Customer behaviour has
“We curate heavily. Our motto and DNA sits behind our level of curation. We are known by our customers, press and brands to be a very authentic business that cares a lot about our shoppers and cares a lot about having a very strong fashion point of view.”
shifted very fast due to social networks and customers are very demanding; they want things very quickly. The proposition in the US department stores is not necessarily in line with what customers want anymore—in terms of newness of products available, curated content to inform purchase decisions and the desire for experiential retail. Customers want to be inspired everyday. Retailers in the US are still very traditional and have failed to address these needs.
E S Q: You talk about a personalised e-tail experience. What technologies are you investing in to drive this? UL R I C J E R OME: The foundation of our business, let’s make no mistake about it, is how good we are at curating the right product selection, the right brand mix and the right content. And then, on top of that, we bring in technology to talk to our customers in a personable way.
E S Q: What is an example of this? UL R I C J E R OME: For the emails that our customers receive, we built an algorithm that looks at their browsing behaviour, brands in their wish list, their order history, and the time they generally open their emails, and with all of that, populate and deliver an email with the products and content that is targeted to their specific needs.
E S Q: So are you saying that emails to each customer will be different and personalised? UL R I C J E ROME: Yes. We send out five product-centric emails a week because we introduce 1,000 to 1,300 new products to MatchesFashion.com each week. So you will receive daily product emails with new recommendations because our customers want this newness; they are super interested about new drops. That’s the beauty about being a multi-brand platform—you don’t have to wait for a new season to push out products; we do it everyday in a very customised way. And then on Wednesday, we send our ‘Style Report’ email, which is basically our online magazine for both men and women.
E S Q: What percentage of our customers are men? ULRIC J E R O ME : So 80 percent of our business is on women, 20 percent from men, but the men’s business is growing very fast. At maturity, I think men should constitute 30 percent of our business. And in terms of catering to both genders, I think the same principles apply: it’s all about making the effort to inspire our customers; going after the unexpected, which is the MatchesFashion.com DNA; and supporting local designers.
E S Q: I’m sure the big brands like Gucci and Balenciaga are doing well on your site, but are there brands that are performing well that are, maybe, a little unexpected? ULRIC JEROME: Raey, our own brand, is doing well—it’s in the top 10 brands across all countries—and nobody knows it’s our brand, which is great. But generally, we are all about finding new brands, taking a chance on them because we believe in the product, and giving them a platform to perform. Now new brands are able to compete with big brands instantly, which was not the case six y ears ago.
E S Q: Looking forward, any plans to incorporate more AI into your platform? UL R I C J E ROME: Yes, we are about to unveil a ‘first-time customer survey’— which used to be 30 questions—that now only has one question. The survey simply asks the customer to rate their experience from one to five, and there is a box for them to leave comments. We have machine learning technology that looks at the comments and then organises that information by topic. It’s a great example of when technology is beautiful and serves the user experience of the customer.
But, any machine learning or new technology that we introduce will always be seamless and relevant for the customer. We will never bring in technology for the sake of having new technology. The customer comes first.
MatchesFashion.com’s open-plan office at The Shard in London includes its own photo studio.
MatchesFashion.com delivers to over 170 countries, including Singapore.