These days, everyone’s talking about “embracing the new normal” or “pivoting to suit the COVID-19 reality”, and sooner or later, the subject of moving one’s business completely online and embracing e-commerce materialises…
Yet, some ‘traditional’ businesses out have innovated in such a way right from the start, even before any virus became such a popular conversational cue! Yes, fashion has actually been one of e-commerce’s most successful verticals. But what’s lead to this rise, and how should burgeoning fashion retailers ready themselves for success online?
In Malaysia, believe it or not, fashion was really one of the first verticals to create standalone brands which have gone on to become very popular indeed among consumers. And perhaps a leader amongst these is FashionValet – a brand that has led the way in online fashion retail for over a decade already!
Now, co-founder Datin Vivy Sofinas Yusof can’t help but feel very pleased indeed every time she thinks about the first few steps she took with her company back in 2010.
“Honestly the idea for this didn’t come from me,” she recalls fondly. “It was Fadza’s (her husband, Dato’ Fadzaruddin Shah Anuar) idea to have a lot of brands under one roof due to his frustration of driving me around from shop to shop in the KL traffic and rain (laughs).”
Datin Vivy clearly remembers that the two of them quickly saw they sat on the cusp of a wonderful opportunity because: One, there was certainly a gap in the fashion e-commerce scene in Malaysia. Two, she personally had a lot of connections with local designers as someone who loved fashion and wanted to support local names. “And three,” she adds, “I already had a blog with a loyal following so I had a ready audience if I started something online.”
Driven by these three factors, the industrious pair were soon convinced that this was pretty much a foolproof, million-dollar idea! Datin Vivy continues her trip down memory lane: “So, we wasted no more time. We detoured to a nearest coffee shop, borrowed a pen from the waiter and started writing up our business plan on a piece of tissue paper! The next day, we created the company. Fadza called the website developer and I started reaching out to the fashion brands – from calling them up to knocking on their boutique doors full of hope. The beginning was and still is an experience that brings a smile to my face.”
Soon, with 10 brands signed on, FashionValet was launched in November 2010. But being a first-time entrepreneur, Datin Vivy soon realised that she still had plenty of learning-on-the-job to do! “Nobody prepares you for the challenges that you’ll face when starting your own business, and I believe every entrepreneur would go through experiences that are unique to them,” she says.
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Datin Vivy recalls that even coming up with a suitable name for her new portal proved to be a bit of a challenge at first! “One mistake we made early on was trying to differentiate ourselves with our domain name. We initially started with www.fashionvalet.net, which soon landed us in trouble because people kept mistaking our website URL, leading to a loss in potential sales and, in the end, we had to pay a hefty amount to buy the domain name www.fashionvalet.com!”
And since the husband and wife team previously did not share a background in e-commerce or fashion, they felt threatened by the competition and tried to emulate them. “We learned that this was the wrong move because it made us forget our own identity,” realises Datin Vivy now. “In one particular year, we signed on so many new brands because we were trying to outperform our competitors as that was what they were doing.”
But she soon realised that customers weren’t happy with FashionValet because the platform was perhaps too concerned about variety that it was just not practicing any form of quality control!
“In the end, we sacrificed product quality as what we had was a broad mix of brands that were not cohesive. You would think that having so many brands would help sales, but the truth, sales were actually dipping. So, we decided to go back to our roots of having a good curation of brands… brands that are worthy of being stocked and promoted to our customers by out portal.”
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So, Datin Vivy did a complete 360 and started bringing in brands with products that she herself would consider buying, and be proud to be seen in. And as a direct result of embracing her own fashion sense and applying it to the business, sales finally grew and the portal began building a steady database of loyal customers.
“In the end, we found that there wasn’t really a winning formula that you can paintbrush for success. Instead, we learned that by being flexible in adapting to the changing consumer demands in today’s landscape, as well as by build a winning culture that fosters growth and trust, you can use these effectively to help you build and grow your company.”
And as COVID-19 hit every business really hard last year, FashionValet had a game plan ready. “Everyone was in lockdown, so no one was even thinking about buying fashion,” recall Datin Vivy. “So, the first thing we did was to be transparent with our team. Everyone in the company knew our financial position and the sales target we needed to hit to stay afloat, and everyone worked towards that goal.”
Datin Vivy also quickly proceeded to bring the company through a cost containment exercise. “Cash is king during the pandemic for any company, so we stopped certain projects and negotiated payment terms with suppliers.”
She also made sure that there were more items to buy on her portal for homebound customers. “Staying at home also meant that people needed different things such as more loungewear, home and living items, masks and sanitisers. We also had to work from home, but I’m pleasantly surprised things can get done pretty well when there’s more flexibility in working arrangements. This pandemic has taught us that it’s important for businesses to be adaptable and flexible to situations.”
More than anything else, Datin Vivy believes that the pandemic has emphasised the importance of digital adoption. She feels that E-commerce now is no longer a luxury as everyone is confined to their homes most of the time. “We saw a huge behavioural change where more and more people are shopping online. So, we took this opportunity to introduce more products and features within the website to enhance the consumer journey.”
According to Datin Vivy, some of the added conveniences include the GrabExpress delivery, an on-demand service that allow customers to get their purchased items within minutes of making an order, and also the introduction of purchase price installment plans in collaborations with Hoolah, Maybank and GrabPayLater to make purchases even easier for any customer.
“You’ll definitely be in a constant learning curve as an entrepreneur, and as such, I am still learning ‘till today. In fact, I am in the midst of writing a book that shares all that I have learned in my own journey with fellow young entrepreneurs out there, in hopes of navigating them away from making the same mistakes that I did. So, do stay tuned for this!