Interview: Mike Branney MD of Oh Polly

For online retailer Oh Polly, success is measured in uptime, says Mike Branney, managing director. “The fact of the matter is we are a pure-play eCommerce company, and as a result all our revenue comes through our website.”

By that outcome the business, founded in 2015, is doing very well – being on track to achieve over £21 million in turnover this year, up 140% the previous year. But in 2017 sales took a big hit after the site crashed during Black Friday in the face of traffic of up to 7,000 concurrent visitors. That led the company to relaunch the platform in a more flexible and scalable hosting environment.

The site was ticking on a day-to-day basis. “But as soon as there was any peak traffic, for example a celebrity posted on Instagram… we might get an additional 30-40% of users on the site. And it would either crawl to a snail’s pace or it would literally go down. It was a deeply unsatisfactory situation,” explains Branney.

The crash crystallised Branney’s decision to shift the site to AWS. “On the one hand I don’t like the fact [Amazon] are taking over the world, but on the other, I really do admire the way they do business,” he says. “If you want to get something done properly go with the biggest player in the industry.” After much consideration over which suppler to choose, the company picked Claranet to oversee the migration.

However, by that point peak trading was rapidly approaching. “We realised the implementation was going to take at least three months. So we were really cutting it fine to have it up for Black Friday [2018], but we did. We got it up in a week to go.” Aside from a “minor blip” just after midnight with the checkout functionality, which was quickly resolved, Oh Polly had a successful day.

“We were just shy of £1 million in revenue. So the whole project was probably paid for in that day.”

Being social

Much of Oh Polly’s success is due to its active presence on social media – specifically Instagram – having gained 1.9 million followers in the last three years, with this number increasing on average by 80,000 users per month. However, last month the firm hit the headlines for the wrong reasons – facing an angry backlash from shoppers after they created a separate ‘inclusive’ Instagram account for plus-size models. It later apologised.

So how does the company plan to build on its social media success differently? “We are promoting diversity across the company, you can see that [throughout] our website. We do have a variety of different models. We work with a variety of different influencers across the world on our Instagram accounts,” he says.

The e-tailer is seeking to broaden its customer appeal, too. “We’re looking at shoes, accessories, a move into more outerwear, particularly in denim. We are trying to open up the market to a much wider audience than perhaps just [people looking for] a going out dress.”

Pace of tech

Technology continues to play an important part in its growth strategy. Not only through social media (the company is also looking at ways to use Tiki’s Tok, the media app for creating and sharing short videos) but through a variety of innovations.  For example, it is exploring True Fit’s technology, which allows online shoppers to find clothes that are the right size for their specifications, “because returns are obviously one of our biggest costs.”

Other plans include: launching dedicated store fronts for its US and Australian markets, optimising page load times through tools such as Varnish, rebuilding its developer environment in AWS, improving email capture through email capture via personalised offers and working with packaging tracking company Narvar.

Online retail remains an increasingly competitive market – with fashion giant Asos’ recent profit slump a signal the rest of the industry that growth is not a given. But Branney believes the company’s real differentiator is its chief exec and co-founder Claire Henderson.

“Nothing goes onto platform or design that she hasn’t had a say in… [there’s] nobody in that senior position as relevant and who understands the market as well as she does. She lives and breathes it,” he says.

“If anything the technology can’t keep up with Claire…. she’s moving at 100 mph and expects results yesterday. But technology doesn’t work like that, projects take 3-6 months to implement.”

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