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Open for Vintage, a new business specializing in vintage fashion, hadn’t been open for long when they received a mysterious call: Top-level stylist … high-profile client … loves 80s' fashion … needs a few pieces to try on … tight deadline … would you be interested? “Absolutely we would,” said the SME co-founder Colin Saunders.
"Oh, by the way. It’s Kim Kardashian."
Colin saw the potential PR bonanza. The woman who broke the Internet set quite a challenge, however: 50 items of clothing and accessories needed to get to LA in just three days. “And of course, because all of our pieces are coming from different boutiques around the world, that adds complexity ….” Says Colin.
With the help of the DHL Account Manager who expertly handled the whole end-to-end process, they pulled it off. 48 hours later, 50 outfits from vintage stores dotted across Europe were in La-la-land. Kim bought three. Paparazzi duly snapped her wearing a 1980s' Escada skirt, sourced by Open For Vintage, while on a Valentine’s date with Kanye West. A big boost for the young SME’s profile, landing the brand on the Daily Mail and E!.
This was great news for the new company, helping to propel the brand to a new audience while simultaneously cementing their position as the go-to destination for standout vintage pieces to create a stir. Founded in 2015, this online shopping platform for pre-owned and pre-loved luxury fashion items now enables customers to buy from 60 boutiques across 12 countries, all in one place.
Strangely, Colin wasn’t into fashion. He was, however, into e-commerce. “I wonder what industry would benefit from having a marketplace? A network effect?” He asked. Meeting a vintage clothing and accessories enthusiast, who went on to become a co-founder, gave him the answer.
The pre-owned market is growing rapidly. According to a report by the Fung Group, the total apparel resale market in the US alone is expected to increase from US$18bn to US$33bn in 2021. Resale disruptors, such as websites and platforms like Open For Vintage are expanding five times faster than traditional second-hand outlets. As well as being easy to use, these ‘re-commerce’ sites focus on curating their stock carefully, offering higher-quality pieces in better condition in order to attract the best customers.
For the designer resale industry, there are even more upsides. Vintage pieces have inherent value as timeless classics that are still in demand. The value of an 80s' Birkin handbag by Hermes, for example, has outperformed gold. But there’s a problem. Where do you buy one? Open For Vintage provides a potential solution:
“We have a boutique in Capri. And unless you happen to be very, very fortunately going to Capri on your holidays, you’re not going to be exploring and seeing what this shop is selling.”
Colin saw an opportunity to create a single platform bringing together these 'beautiful businesses' and customers clamoring for vintage around the world.
Vintage can be from any decade. The business is about selling pre-owned designer fashion, jewelry and watches. But as Colin points out, “… if people are searching for a Tag Heuer watch, they don’t search for a second-hand Tag, they [are more likely to] search for a vintage Tag.”
And that’s one of the key challenges in selling online – finding the right way to connect and communicate with the customer. It’s Colin’s biggest concern.
“What we’ve really learned over our first year of trading has been that there’s quite a lot of work that has to go in just to put the infrastructure in place to have a conversation with the customer. Never mind competing against other people who are also vying for that customer, their time and their attention.”
Fortunately, it’s never been easier to build that infrastructure, because you don’t have to. The technology is already out there, ready to buy.
“You can go at it and buy an off-the-shelf platform. In fact you don’t even just buy it, you can license certain parts of it, and be up and running and selling online really quickly.”
Marketing your SME is easier too. The advent of social media has facilitated even closer relationships with customers. If Kim Kardashian can become passionate about your brand, her fans can too.
“Social media in the luxury fashion world cannot be overstated … You’ve got this whole new world of influencers and bloggers who are really able to connect with customers in a really rich way.”
The connectivity cuts both ways. Open For Vintage used to research, contact and persuade boutiques to buy into their vision. Now through social media, sellers come to them.
The result? 10,000 items on Open For Vintage’s website. That’s a lot of stock. There’s a challenge, however, as it’s not all in one place.
“It's really important that when a customer shops with us, that despite the fact that they might be buying, let's say a Rolex from a jewelry shop in Dublin or a Chanel 2.55 handbag from a boutique in Japan out of Tokyo, the experience is identical.”
Being international is critical for their success. Fortunately, the precision logistics and global reach of DHL ensure that Open For Vintage can deliver pieces safely and on time anywhere in the world. The business works closely with its DHL account manager, who played a big role in getting those skirts to Kim. DHL also helps fulfill the vision of the business as a whole.
“Having someone who understands a very fundamental part of what we do, that being the logistics element of it, but also having an understanding of retail and e-commerce means that we’re able to have very interactive discussions about our business.”
To further maintain a consistent service, Open For Vintage has designed their own packaging to complement DHL’s, simplifying the packing process and helping DHL to keep their precious cargo safe in transit.
Among the excitement and drive of setting up a new venture, challenges are inevitable. One of the early hurdles for Colin was International Customs regulations. Tokyo boutiques offered Chanel pieces previously unavailable in Europe. Not expecting the popularity of items from that far away, the SME hadn’t warned customers about increased charges for Japanese imports – the sort of miscommunication that can kill a new business.
Such mistakes are part and parcel of starting up a SME. “Don’t be afraid to fail, really go for it,” says, Colin. “As long as you’re constantly evaluating your performance and how you did, and you’re being really honest with yourself and your team and you allow others to be honest with you, you’ll benefit from making those mistakes.”
'Always be learning' is a mantra for Colin. As a child, the 34-year-old Dubliner dreamed of becoming a businessman. After catching the entrepreneurial bug from a startup at college, he’s been chasing the same buzz ever since.
An early morning gym junkie, Colin believes self-discipline and a positive attitude are the keys. This guy’s heroes are John McCain and Brian Keenan, famous hostages who found a way to keep going. For Colin, an entrepreneur is an agent of change, “… someone who says, ‘Right. I don’t quite have all the answers to it, but I believe in this particular idea so much that I’m actually going to do it’.”
More and more people are. In retreat since the global financial crisis in 2007, SMEs are now on the rise in most economies. And they’re essential. In the UK, for example, the combined annual turnover of SMEs in 2016 was £1.8trn, 47% of the country’s private sector turnover.
Have you got a small business idea? Go for it! Who knows? Maybe a stylist will call.
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