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Big interview: My-Wardrobe head of eCommerce Matt Henton

Some of the larger pure-play online retailers and international web giants have been toying with entering the physical retailing space for some time now.

Online marketplace eBay has experimented with pop-up stores and it recently established a presence in a number of Argos shops throughout the UK. In addition, Japanese internet services company Rakuten has opened a Café in Tokyo that brought together its various digital offerings into a physical environment for the first time, while there have been rumours circulating since the start of 2014 relating to the potential opening of a Google store in New York.

A UK e-tailer that has confirmed it is to diversify into bricks and mortar retailing is fashion business, My-Wardrobe, which is opening a store at Whiteley's shopping centre in London's Bayswater later this month, accompanying its plans to grow rapidly online.

Matt Henton, who joined My-Wardrobe as head of eCommerce in March, told Essential Retail that the retailer has a significant percentage of customers living close to the store, and it will give the company a chance to provide a range of multichannel services.

"The store will allow us to tackle some of the multichannel challenges that exist for pure-play retailers entering into physical retailing," he explained.

"We've not got a plan to open hundreds of stores across the UK – it's very much about dipping a toe in the water to put a store fairly close to where a lot of our customers are and to provide additional services there. People can come and look at products, try them on and use click & collect, as well as return products to that store."

There's no huge technology investment going into the new Bayswater location, and no plans to introduce the likes of iBeacons, but what Henton hopes to achieve from the store is enhanced customer interaction, and the creation of a venue to "get to grips" with what it entails to be a multichannel retailer.

"It's an opportunity to meet more of our customers face to face, and understand more about what they want to see from My-Wardrobe," the eCommerce boss added.

"We'll be using that as an opportunity to invite customers in. We have a generous loyalty programme and we'll be looking to extend invitations to our loyalty customers to attend in-store events, and get face to face with important customers."

The plans for the months ahead follow a period of unrest at the business, which saw the retailer bought from administrators in a pre-pack deal by Growth Capital Acquisitions last November. These turbulent events resulted in co-founder Sarah Curran leaving the business and her husband and commercial partner Andrew Curran taking on the CEO role, although he also departed the company earlier this year.

Investor Steven Tucker is now overseeing the business and, under his guidance, the e-tailer is developing plans for a more sustainable future.

Much of that focuses on its core proposition of online retailing – an area of the business that Henton suggests had arguably been ignored under the previous ownership.

Although acknowledging there are "lots of great things about this business", such as its loyal customer base, "fantastic" buying teams and strong brand partnerships, Henton says the pure eCommerce element and online user experience has been letting My-Wardrobe down for some time.

"That had been under-invested in, in my opinion, and had certainly been neglected while the business focused on those designer relationships and on the product that we were buying," he remarked.

"I think this was ultimately what caused the business problems and why it wasn't performing as well as it could be."

Since joining the business in the spring, it has been Henton's job to lead the eCommerce redevelopment, and plans are well underway to replace what is effectively an in-house web platform that has run its course. The introduction of a Magento system that will enable the business to launch a fully responsive version of its website and better customise its country-specific sites is now on the agenda.

He argued: "I've used Magento before and the platform is built precisely for what we want it to do. It's fully responsive, so the mobile and tablet experience is going to be fully optimised and customised – and there is the third party developer community there producing functionality that doesn't come 'out of the box' with Magento.

"Magento gives us the flexibility to present the product and content differently, depending on the territory – not just changing the currency and shipping information. We can then push the different products and designers we've got to different markets."

The latest eCommerce Index released by Rakuten, on Wednesday, found that 6.1% of online shoppers around the world prefer to use a tablet device, while 6.8% prefer to use a smartphone – but both channels are growing in importance in terms of where customers make their online transactions. Traffic from handheld devices, be it a tablet or smartphone, accounts for more than 50% of all visits to the My-Wardrobe website, so Henton and his team are adopting a "mobile-first" approach to the company's web platform revamp.

"It's not that we are necessarily placing more emphasis on mobile than we are on tablet or desktop – they are all equally important," he said.

"But from a UX [user experience] design perspective it'll be a lot easier to start with mobile and work your way up in terms of screen size than start with desktop and work your way down and realise you've created problems for yourself in trying to condense that to the smaller screen size."

He admits that the current mobile site on My-Wardrobe "is just not good enough", adding: "I suspect that if we had the responsive site that we plan to have, the traffic split would be leaning even more towards mobile devices - I think we're disappointing our customers when it comes to this part of the business."

The new web platform will be live later this year and will aim to solve some of these issues, while the new store – which is due to open before the end of June – will bring a new dimension to the retail business, who's only foray into physical retailing to date comes in the form of two pop-ups in central London.

Another new aspect that Henton believes can improve My-Wardrobe's customer service further is the introduction of more user-generated content on its website. With the costly issue of customer returns proving to be a drain on many e-tailer's profit, it is hoped the positioning of user comments relating to product size, fit and style will help minimise the problem.

"I think we're slightly below the industry average in terms of the proportion of items we sell that are returned – but there is, of course, always a lot more you can do to try and tackle the issue and get things right first time wherever possible."

Bayswater, which will offer a click & collect service so that customers can pick up online orders in-store, will also play a role in this strategy – but it is clear that the imminent new website launch is viewed as the central component to My-Wardrobe's next phase of development.

Henton said: "Having a new site launching that offers the kind of eCommerce experience people want and deserve across all device types is going to be a big step change and will allow us to push further, bring more brands into the business and continue the growth."

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