Fashion is an increasingly important part of home-shopping retailer QVC’s offer. Drapers chats to fashion buying director Nicholas Chalkley about the business’s digital future, the importance of own-brand and what sets QVC apart.
Enthusiastic presenters are talking customers through the advantages of one of the day’s deals – a Dyson hairdryer – as Drapers takes a tour of home-shopping channel QVC’s sprawling head office. The retailer broadcasts live for 16 hours a day from its five-storey, purpose-built home at west London business development Chiswick Park, which thrums with a purposeful buzz. More than 17 million products were sold at QVC UK last year, spanning everything from electronics and homeware to cosmetics and, increasingly, women’s clothing.
The UK arm has four channels – Live, Beauty, Style and Extra – and customers can also shop online and via QVC’s app.Turnover hit £495.2m for the year to 31 December 2017.
QVC – which stands for “Quality, Value, Convenience” – is celebrating 25 years on UK television screens this month. Founded in 1986 by US entrepreneur Joseph Sege, a shower radio was the first product to be sold on QVC when it made its debut in November of that year. The UK became the retailer’s first international market in October 1993, and has since been followed by channels in Germany, Japan, Italy, China and France.
The retailer prides itself on offering its fashion customers a unique mix of international brands, big high-street names and own-brand, and customers can shop from a total of 50 fashion brands. Occasionwear brand Ghost London and Phase Eight both launched on QVC earlier this year, joining British labels including Joules, Joe Browns and Radley. International names include US denim brand NYDJ, which launched on QVC last month. The 26-strong fashion team is led by fashion buying director Nicholas Chalkley, former general merchandising manger at Harrods. Fashion sales at QVC have grown by 35% since Chalkley joined the business in 2012.
Chalkley laughs that he was a QVC fan long before he started working at the retailer, and jokes that the majority of his wages end up going back into the business. Determined to be a buyer from a young age, he studied at Central Saint Martins before starting his career in 1992 as an allocator at Debenhams. He rose through the ranks and spent 11 years at the retailer, working as part of the buying team for Designers at Debenhams and launching ranges with Ben de Lisi, Pearce Fionda and Edina Ronay. Chalkley then moved to John Lewis in 2002 as men’s casualwear buyer, later working as head of buying for accessories and jewellery. His time at luxury department store Harrods as general merchandising manager for own label and sports followed in 2006.
“It’s really funny,” he says. “I was a QVC customer 12 years before I came here, and I was a genuine fan. I was at home and QVC was on when the phone went from the [recruitment] agency and they said, ‘We’ve got this job Nick, are you interested?’ Everything is about an experience now and QVC is an experience – it’s a relaxed way to shop. It’s unique.”
“Clothing is a really important part of our business at QVC, and it has been growing in double digits year on year,” he tells Drapers. “Over the last six years I have been at QVC, the fashion offer has changed a lot. We used to be a lot more formal. It was a lot more classic and there was a lot more duplication [of product] in the mix. There’s been a real focus on differentiating the offer and also bringing a lot more brands on.”
We represent a customer across all ages and sizes, which is really important
Nicholas Chalkley, QVC
Chalkley argues that his customer is defined by attitude, rather than age, and the channel describes itself as “bringing fashion alive like no other retailer can”. Dresses are a key category for QVC – it sold almost 400,000 dresses last year alone – as is outerwear. Stock is held at the vast QVC warehouse in Knowsley, Merseyside, which is the size of eight Wembley football pitches.
“I think, with our different mediums and channels, we represent a customer across all ages and sizes, which is really important,” says Chalkley. “We do have a core customer who is more mature, but we can tempt her into buying a product that she may not normally go for on the high street. We can make her feel that it is OK to buy something a bit more fashionable when she might not be comfortable to go into a department store or a shop floor with an intimidating shop assistant.”
Differentiation has been the secret to creating a successful fashion offer at QVC. The retailer works with its brands on creating exclusive products and collections to give customers a crucial point of difference but is also increasing its focus on own-brand sales.
“Its existing own brands include outerwear brand Centigrade, and an eponymous collection withThis Morning presenter Ruth Langsford, which launched last year.
“There’s a really good mix of brands within the QVC fashion assortment,” Chalkley explains. “We work with our international partners to gain access to brands you can’t find elsewhere on the high street. Then we have a mix of high street brands and we also go to [trade show] Pure London each season, where we have previously found labels such as [print-focused womenswear brand] Onjenu.
“Excitingly, we appointed in an in-house designer last month. Own brand is a big opportunity for us and the range with Ruth has been very successful, so we’re really looking into how we can ramp that up.”
Petite and tall ranges have also been earmarked as potential areas of opportunity for QVC, Chalkley explains: “One of the key strategies over the next 24 months is to drive the petite business, which is a big opportunity for us because that part of the market is still not catered to particularly well. At the moment, we’ll always offer a dress or a jumpsuit in a petite length, but we’re looking to develop the category going forward.
“We’re also looking at our strategy for tall ranges. We want to broaden the customer offering to really make sure we’re reaching as many people as possible.”
That storytelling is something that we do really well, and that’s why brands want to work with QVC
Nicholas Chalkley, QVC
Provenance and quality are two key components of QVC’s buying strategy. Chalkley says that the retailer is constantly approached by brands looking to sell across its platforms, but only those with a story to tell and a real genuine on quality make the cut.
“That storytelling is something that we do really well, and that’s why brands want to work with QVC, because they can get their story across. The whole provenance of the Joules brand, for example, does really well, because the story of how Tom [Joules, brand founder] set the business up is so lovely. We can tell that story to a customer who wouldn’t know it if they just walked into a store.
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“We also try to make sure a brand fits in with our customer’s expectations around the actual fit and quality, because one of the challenges we face as a distance retailer is how our customers make their mind up about which size to buy.”
Selling on QVC can also allow brands and retailers to get their product in front of a new customer, argues the chief executive of one fashion brand that sells on the platform: “It introduces brands to a consumer audience who many not previously have come across them in a standalone store, concession or online channel.”
Taken on trust
As customers are unable to touch or try items before they buy, QVC focuses on building a sense of trust with its fashion customers. On television, well-informed presenters advise on fit and give styling tips, as well as showing products on a variety of different body types.
Although QVC may be still be best known as a home shopping retailer, Chalkley is keen to stress the growing importance of its online offer. Its app and transactional website offer “Special Value” pieces and highlight items recently shown on air.
Video content, detailed customer reviews, and questions and answers are used to recreate the experience online.
“We’re really good at what I call ‘anti-sell’”, explains Chalkley. “We will say to customers, ‘You know what? If you prefer a closer fit, then perhaps this particular item isn’t for you.’ We’re always honest with the customer so they know what to expect. Obviously, the television channels can do that very eloquently, but our digital offer needs to that as well, so we work hard to recreate that online as much as possible.”
He will not reveal the split of online and TV sales, but says: “Our sales are growing very strongly on digital. The digital channel is both driving a new customer to QVC and driving sales. Our content and imagery online is really strong and all done in house, which we’re really proud of. We also launched a web-only campaign, My Little Eye, last year, which is focused on a slightly younger fashion customer.”
To support the My Little Eye campaign and promote its online offer, QVC is tapping into the power of social media. The retailer is working with influencers, including online stars We Are Twinset (95,000 Instagram followers), Erica Davies [116,000 Instagram followers] and Fashion Foie Gras [68,000 Instagram followers] to help pull in a digitally savvy shopper.
Chalkley’s clear love for the brand and broad retail experience place him in an ideal position to develop QVC’s own-brand offer, expand its ranges to appeal to an ever-broader customer base, and create a compelling experience online that will help QVC continue to attract new shoppers.
“We’re almost that special adviser who can guide customers into making the right purchase that you would have got in a department store years ago,” Chalkley concludes. “Bringing fashion alive to the customer is what we can really do.”