Big Interview: Aaron Chatterley, founder, Feel Unique

Over the last decade, Feel Unique's online proposition has developed to include 500 brands selling 25,000 products to three million customers across 100 countries. The retailer has also expanded into stores, salons and spas, as well as developing its own team of beauty journalists who write for the e-tailer's online magazine. 

Feel Unique started out in 2005, when there was a handful companies evolved from salons or spas which were the e-tailer's main competitors. But founder and deputy chairman, Aaron Chatterley, says as the company continued to expand its selection of brands, it was soon competing with the likes of Boots, John Lewis and Debenhams. 

"We compete with them on fragrances, luxury skincare, beauty and makeup, but the difference is we're able to stock a much wider range of products, including premium hair care, and we're not constrained by shelf space."

When he originally set up the business, Chatterley thought Feel Unique would be a pureplay replenishment model operation, but he and his team quickly learnt if they wanted to trade directly with the manufacturers, they needed a physical presence in some instances. 

"You need your own stores, consultants and level of expertise in order to sell brands like Chanel, Dior, Aveda and GHD online," explains Chatterley. The brand now has two salons, three stores and a spa in the Channel Islands – where Chatterley is from – and a second spa in Hampshire.

"Acquiring the stores and salons was interesting and expensive, but that's why we have the brands that some of our online competitors don't – it was a necessary evolution of the company."

Editorial engagement

The business now has between 50 and 60 employees in London, who work in online marketing, PR, in-house development and design, as well as a small editorial team which was set up four years ago when Chatterley decided to embark on customer engagement beyond the typical commercial level. He headhunted the beauty editor of Harper's Bazaar and built out an editorial team which poached beauty journalists, included one from InStyle magazine. 

Chatterley treated the team like a typical magazine in order to maintain a level of impartiality over the beauty products they were writing about. 

"We have to give them a certain amount of free reign," says Chatterley, who stepped down as CEO two years ago and remains a non-exec deputy chairman on the board. "Once you get too commercial with editorial, it quickly becomes obvious to the customer that it's a promotional piece rather than genuine thoughts and feelings of a credible beauty journalist.

"If they lose that impartiality, they lose their credibility and lose value to the business."

Chatterley also says retailers who embark on true editorial customer engagement need to understand that it is difficult to quantify its commercial impact. 

"It doesn't drive a huge amount of instant sales from the page, but it increases our visitors and builds our brand in many ways," he explains. "But if you get too forensic about the analysis, it can have a negative impact on other KPIs like conversion rates – people come to our site to read beauty blogs and that gives us a huge spike in visitors, but the conversion rate is then negative.

"A lot of retailers get really hung up on conversion rates, but other KPIs are more important, especially when you're trying to engage with customers more than simply transactional," adds Chatterley, who since stepping down as CEO has set up a VC fund called Techsmart, investing in early stage digital and consumer businesses.


As well as editorial content, Feel Unique is also looking into personalisation techniques for its online customers, based on transactional history, interest, skin types, hair types and other demographics. 

But ensuring the website is slick and effective at converting customers is always going to be high on the agenda. Chatterley says this refinement process is like painting the Forth Bridge. 

"It's ongoing based on the latest technologies and constant analysis looking at drop-off points and doing minor changes and testing to the nth degree," he says. "In the early days it was mostly based on gut instinct, but things are a lot more forensic now."

He goes on to say Feel Unique is also constantly looking at different payment solutions to ensure the website offers the latest and most sophisticated options for its customers coming from 100 different countries.

"The amount of times people mistakenly think you can build a website, refine it, get it right and then sit back and let it tick over and make money is fairly naïve these days. We're constantly evolving."