Interview: Fashion e-tailer Navabi on selling plus-sized clothing online

Plus-sized fashion is a sector which is accelerating at pace, but physical retailers are unable to take the plunge and offer the clothing at scale. E-tailer Navabi believes online is the first step in encouraging retailers to bring plus-sized fashion into the spotlight.

You only have to look at high street retailer Phase Eight’s recent plus-sized launch of Studio 8 to realise the industry understands there is a substantial market opportunity in plus-sized fashion.

An estimated 50% of European females are now wearing plus-sized clothes and market research from Mintel estimates the UK market will grow to almost £6 billion this year, an increase from £3.81 billion in 2008.

Phase Eight seems to be one of the few brave enough to create a dedicated plus-sized collection but the retailer has not made its collection available in store forcing its customers to go to department stores or online to get hold of its new range.

And with plus-sized e-tailer Navabi securing an additional €25 million of capital, it may be that online is the way for brands to dip their toes into the plus-sized market.

Bahman Nedaei, co-founder and joint-CEO of Navabi, says while brands understand the opportunity to provide larger sized clothing, the immaturity of the market means not many are making a move to do so.

“They don’t want to dilute their brands offline,” he says, explaining fashion companies are instead coming to Navabi for an online platform to access the plus-sized customer. “More and more brands are approaching us to enter this market, because they can’t figure out how to do it offline.”

“There is a lot of stigma to plus-size,” he adds. “It’s seen as something that’s negative and that’s why designers don’t design the clothes and retailers can’t cater for customers.”

Nedaei says customers who shop offline are ignored with plus-sized clothing hidden away at the back of department stores, meaning shoppers find online shopping a better experience.

“Online plays a very big role in plus-sized fashion,” he says. “For both brands and from a customer perspective it is very preferable to have this online channel.”

The online retailer was founded in 2009 and now has 150,000 customers across the globe, but focuses its efforts on the UK, France and Germany. Rather than cheap and disposable clothing, Navabi sells premium fashion in sizes 14 to 24 from over 100 third-party brands, including dedicated plus-sized retailers as well as brands such as Lacoste and Roberto Cavalli.

Made to order

The e-tailer has also launched its own brands as well as a made-to-order service earlier this year in order to provide more plus-sized premium fashion options for customers. Made-to-order clothes are forecast to represent over a quarter of Navabi’s overall business turnover this year.

Navabi introduces one sample fashion piece and puts it online which Nedaei says the investment cost is almost zero. The customer then orders the piece which is made and shipped to Navabi and then sent to the customer in about a week. “The customer doesn’t really ever know we don’t have it in stock, and it’s much less working capital and inventory.”

“It allows us to take risks,” he adds. “Because our customers want great fashion and the latest trends.”

Nedaei points out that it is the online model which allows Navabi to deploy this made-to-order service. “Offline you wouldn’t be able to have that, unless you have a guide shop where you order in store – you would need to have more than one sample and all the different sizes.”

Nedaei also says that Navabi does not lose revenue when items sell out. “That’s one of the biggest challenges for retailers,” he says. “The are big losses from sold out items because usually you can’t reproduce it very quickly and this leaves customers frustrated and you lose potential profit.”

Data analytics

The e-tailer uses data analytics to improve its fashion ranges and to decide if a made-to-order sample is worth producing a full line because it is likely to be popular.

“As an eCommerce company having its roots online, data has always been a part of our DNA,” he explains.

The company  ̶  who’s entire website was built in-house  ̶  also programmed the big data algorithm which is being constantly fine-tuned by the IT and business development team.

Nedaei says within two weeks of offering a made-to-order sample online, the e-tailer will know how well that product will sell. “It’s based on how the customers have been browsing, click-through, conversion and returns – it’s just maths.”

The automated algorithm also deactivates styles which are slow sellers in order to keep the most popular styles available.

“It enables us to put samples online and even if we see it not doing well we can quickly take it down.”

“But most importantly is for the team to take the learning from it, why didn’t it work? Was it the product, or the way we promoted it?”

Bricks and mortar?

And would Navabi consider branching out into bricks and mortar?

“It’s always something we’re thinking about,” answers Nedaei, who says if Navabi was to shift into offline, it would not be as a significant sales channel, but as a marketing initiative.

“It would be where customers could get to know us and interact with us to get advice. We would also convert them into online customers,” he explains.

“But it’s not something that is on our agenda right now.”