The man who made online retail profitable is about to reshape designer fashion

By Nicky Godding. Pictured: Chris Griffin
Chris-Griffin-Secret-Sales-CEO

He’s done it once, he’s done it twice, now Chris Griffin is unleashing his unrivalled e-commerce knowledge on the global fashion sector again. But this time he’s taking on discount retailing for the world’s most exclusive brands

“There are things you can do in the real world that you can’t do on screen and in 10 years’ time, with more affordable technology, the streets in our bigger towns and cities could be mindblowingly engaging and experiential”

Three years after selling Cheltenham-based Anatwine after growing the team from two to 200 employees in just four years and almost a decade after building the world’s most efficient online retail system of its time for Superdry, Chris Griffin is back.

Now he’s helping the world’s biggest fashion brands efficiently dispose of their excess stock, having bought the controlling interest in the online designer fashion outlet, Secret Sales.

In an ideal world, every fashion retailer would make exactly the right amount of stock, in the right sizes and sell it all. Shock horror, this doesn’t happen.

Discount retailing is an accepted way to dispose of excess stock. But for the world’s top brands, such as Dior, Gucci, Ted Baker and Jimmy Choo, it’s tricky. How can you dispose of goods you’ve previously marketed as “luxury” at less than half price and still maintain that sizzle of exclusivity?

Beautiful clothes from the world’s most famous fashion houses must maintain their desirability, and the retention of brand equity is a massive headache for every top fashion brand’s marketing team.

Yes, there are high-end designer outlets where they can be sold, such as Bicester Village (acknowledged as one of the best of its kind in the world) but not enough, and up-market brands certainly don’t want their goods to end up in TK Maxx, or on any old online discount store.

There are also online private sales sites which retail high-end brands, but none of them truly represent the world’s top fashion brands in the manner they would wish.

Some global fashion brands experienced fairly unpleasant headlines last year when it was revealed that a small number were burning excess stock to avoid getting rid of them through outlet sales. Clearly nobody wants that to happen in an era where sustainability is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. So what to do?

Enter Secretsales.com. With more than six million registered users already, 95 per cent of which are based in the UK, this well-established online platform was launched in 2006 by brothers Nish and Sach Kukadia. Earlier this year it was bought by the newly-established Lifestyle Retail Group, set up in Cheltenham by Chris Griffin and his Anatwine co-founder Matt Purt.

Nish and Sach are still on the board – as Chris says they know their users better than anyone else. “They are smart guys and have a level of understanding about their customer base it would take me years to get to know,” he said.

A great company with an extraordinary database

Chris bought the controlling interest in Secret Sales not for the proposition it has but for the proposition it will have. “It’s a great company with an absolutely extraordinary database,” he said.

When Chris and Matt bought into Secret Sales, it was running a flash sale operation and turning over around £50 million, but the entire operation is being relaunched this autumn to become an exclusive online store.

It will offer global designer brands a marketplace where they can have their own store on the site.

The Secret Sales marketing team will help them build high-end campaigns, alongside exclusive content, and add in a digital feed that will be able to showcase their entire discount inventory to customers.

This gives designer brands a top-quality online shop window which Chris says doesn’t currently exist elsewhere.

“We are offering the best shop window outside the brand’s website. Traditionally, retailers don’t look after brands well, they simply want to sell product. We work collaboratively, giving brands the opportunity to clear stock effectively, in a way that doesn’t have to be a dirty secret, but becomes something they are really proud of.”

Chris gets physical to boost brand awareness

This king of e-commerce has a few surprises up his sleeve. It’s not all about online. Secret Sales is using well-targeted pop-up stores in high footfall fashion areas to promote the concept.

“This summer we had one open in St James’s, London. We take smallish, 1,800-2,000 sq ft units where we allow one brand seven days to showcase their full price inventory at the front of the store, which is branded Secret Sales. The customer receives the full fashion brand experience as they enter, but 85 per cent of the store is behind closed doors, where only those invited will be able to access.”

A double whammy for brands and their customers

Chris’s plans for Secret Sales not only offers brands a place to sell excess stock in a classy and engaging way, it’s also helping brands build customer data to which they can market their full price stock. “When a customer buys through us we have their data. However, with the customer’s permission we will share their data with the brands.

“Big brands spend a great deal of money in acquiring customers. We can acquire a customer for a fraction of the cost by using the assets we have. We are not only a sales channel for brands, but a massively effective marketing channel for them too.”

Everybody wins, says Chris. “Customers win on price, and also on the level of engagement with the brand which is offering them a better experience than simply buying online.”

A world-class concierge service online

Here’s another area where Chris can see huge opportunities for the business, and where he plans to increase his team in Cheltenham to 50 people within the next 18 months.

“I have major plans for a customer service centre like no other. This is a huge opportunity for a brand to get to know their customer. I can’t think of the last time I had an online customer experience that even if they solved my problem, by the end of the call they had got to know me better, which could deliver a greater level of engagement with them in the future.

“Our customer services won’t just be answering questions but engaging with customers on all levels to make sure they are getting great service.

“I believe we should behave like a five-star hotel. You can buy a drink anywhere. But if you get looked after and feel valued, you’ll return again and again.

“We want to be a concierge unit delivering an experience and I expect that to become a massive part of the business. The biggest opportunity for Secret Sales is to know our customers when they talk to us.”

So why launch in Cheltenham, when the world beckons for this new retail concept?

“Gloucestershire offers a fantastic support network for local businesses and provides a great talent pool which we know will be essential as we concentrate on rapid growth,” said Chris. “Currently almost all of our sales are in the UK, but within the first six months of next year we plan to launch Secret Sales sites in six countries across the world, and that’s just the start.

“Secret Sales has the potential to be a billion-pound business.” He’s not joking, and if anyone can do it, Chris Griffin can.

The future of retail, according to Chris Griffin

Chris said: “Being an e-commerce expert, everyone thinks they know what I will say. While e-commerce is likely to become the biggest part of most retail businesses, human beings are emotional creatures and we all like to look, feel, touch and experience.

“Online does a good job on certain fronts, but I’ve seen some amazing technologies which could transform our traditional high streets, making the physical retail environment more exciting than it’s ever been.

“There are things you can do in the real world that you can’t do on screen and in 10 years’ time, with more affordable technology, the streets in our bigger towns and cities could be mind-blowingly engaging and experiential. More importantly, retailers will be making money.”