IMRG Online Retailer Interview: Feelunique

A Q&A with Jim Buckle, COO, Feelunique

We spoke to Jim about international growth, being a pure play retailer, and gaining value out of negative reviews.

Tell us about Feelunique

Feelunique is an online retailer of premium beauty products. We have one of the largest selections of brands and categories of any retailer globally. The business was founded in Jersey about 12 years ago by a couple of entrepreneurs over there, and it has now grown to make over £100 million sales a year.  We’re currently focussed on the UK, China, and France, but with sales across nearly 100 different countries.

What are your biggest challenges in 2018?

In a growing business, it’s always a challenge to maintain growth momentum whilst keeping the rest of the P&L evolving in the right direction.

In the UK, it’s a very competitive market. We’re at a sort of inflection point where some of the bricks-and-mortar retailers have significant challenges. Obviously, House of Fraser are closing stores, Debenhams are having some challenges. They’re looking at how they can squeeze every sale out of their stores and liquidating stock ahead of planned closures.

Shopping mall

In the high street that creates a lot of competition and a lot of discounting. There’s also a number of online retailers who are all looking to grow and take advantage of that, so there’s a fairly healthy competitive battle going on for the attention of the beauty consumer. That’s the key thing for us – to continue to build in the UK and continue to build a relationship with our customers beyond the noise of discounts and offers.

In France, we have a much smaller but a much faster growing business. Over there it’s really about maintaining that growth momentum and establishing ourselves in the market, but it’s a less mature market, so online penetration in beauty is a lot lower. So, it’s about trying to drive that forward.

In China, we’ve been growing very fast. The next step for us is to put more roots down over there: we’ll be opening a distribution centre later this year and start to build a team out there, to start to develop that market more for us. Internationally, we’re also figuring out where we put our investment to grow in other countries.

Ornate globe

Does being a pure play retailer come with any disadvantages?

If you have a really successful multichannel business, then the presence of a store, provided you can make it economically viable, provides physical brand awareness. It’s a way for your customers to live and experience your brand as a retailer. In beauty, it’s a way of combining the convenience of online with the ability to go and touch and feel products in the store.  Our goal as an online retailer is to take that experience and to improve on it through an online environment, which is why sampling services are a core part of our proposition.   

One of the things that is very strong in good multichannel businesses is click and collect as a delivery method. One of the groups that has that down to a tee is John Lewis; being able to go and pick up your John Lewis purchases with your Waitrose shopping is a really good use of that multichannel model.

You might not necessarily want to go to John Lewis, but you do pop into Waitrose to do your shopping, and therefore, that works well within the particular customer demographic that goes to Waitrose to buy their groceries.  Again, we need to ensure we give the best possible delivery experience for our customers, which is why we now offer an unlimited next day delivery service on subscription to our customers, which is proving very popular.

One of the interesting things for us is that we have our own microcosm of multichannel. Although we describe ourselves as a pure play, part of getting the brands in Beauty means that you have to have a store presence. So, we have stores in the Channel Islands and also in Paris. Because we’re a relatively new and small player in France, having stores in Paris helps to build credibility with the customer base and builds some brand awareness within that locality.

Beauty products

Do you encourage and monitor reviews?

Yes. In terms of customer reviews of our service, for me that’s very important. We ask customers to review us, and we split that across a number of different platforms. We use TrustPilot, Feefo, and Trusted Shops, dependent on geography. So in Germany, for example, Trusted Shops is more important. In the UK, TrustPilot is more important. We proactively encourage customers to review our service, and we monitor those responses.

When there’s something negative, there’s two things that’s doing: if there’s some reason a customer hasn’t been able to get their issue resolved through the normal channels and it ends up on a review site, it’s disappointing, but it gives us an opportunity to fix it. And it’s also a way of picking up on any generic issues.

One of the generic issues which pops up on TrustPilot is people saying they’ve contacted us and they haven’t heard back. Often that’s a perennial issue with email: emails can go astray. They go into junk folders or just get missed in people’s inboxes. It’s important to sniff out causes of why customers may not receive emails from us and try to plug those gaps.

I find those review sites a really good way of taking the temperature on a number of different levels. From these you can see your overall rating, and that’s an important metric to track. You can also pick up generic issues and solve individual customer issues as well. For me, they’re quite a good tool in that respect.

Table of charts

How do you engage with social media?

We are very active in all the social media channels, each of which has different characteristics and requires a different approach. 

We also try to incorporate social media content into Feelunique. If someone references Feelunique on social media, then we work with Bazaarvoice to harvest those posts and use them on the website. If, for example, someone’s bought a particular product and then posted on Twitter with an image of that product, then that image will end up on the product page of our website.

Have you found any way to quantify UGC?

We’re a bit hot and cold on whether it generally delivers a conversion improvement, or not. There are two different types of integration on the Feelunique site – imagery that comes via general social media, and we also have a new integration with a beauty community app called Veleza.

The users of that app talk about beauty products, share imagery of looks they’ve done with make-up products, give reviews, etc. We’ve built up a relationship with Veleza where we bring that imagery onto our site. On some product pages you’ll see content from Veleza, or some from Bazaarvoice, and on some you’ll see both.

The impact on immediate conversion is not conclusive, but I think what it does do is bring the site to life. What you get is more of a long-term brand benefit from a site which has a bit more going on than just the standard imagery which comes from the brands. Harder to measure, and it may not impact that individual purchase at that time, but it may impact how people feel about that site and coming back to it.

Person checking their phone

Is data always valuable to you in some regard?

I think the important thing is how you use it, and also that you don’t just rely on it. I think you can learn a lot from diving into individual situations, and if you just monitor high-level trends and data at that level, you can often miss things.

You might have a set of numbers you look at regularly, but every now and then it’s good to look at something in more depth, or change the frequency with which you look at something. Sometimes when you dive into something in a bit more detail, that’s when a discovery is made.

One of the things that I really like is getting customer complaints. Occasionally it’s a sign that we have screwed up, so I don’t like it in that respect, but also it means I will end up personally investigating the situation.

Often, just by unpicking that one individual’s situation, you can uncover a wider issue which you wouldn’t identify by looking at monthly management reports and high-level data. I think, for me, data and KPIs are great, but you need to not always be doing that. You need to have a variety of different tools to look at what’s going on in the business.

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