Inside Yoox Net-a-Porter’s London tech hub

Author: Caroline Baldwin

A stone’s throw away from Yoox Net-a-Porter’s UK HQ in Westfield London sits a further 500 employees dedicated to developing the latest innovations in retail technology.

The e-tailer’s new state-of-the-art tech hub in West London is part of the group’s €500 million investment in technology and logistics, which it believes will double the size of the business by 2020.

And Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP) has not held back with its new London digital base which totals 70,000 sq ft and features high-end soft furnishings and cleverly designed collaboration spaces, with 2,459 plants and a 40m arbour walk made from nine tonnes of timber.

The 500 technology employees match the 500-strong team based in Bologna in Italy, and both collaborate closely using Cisco video conferencing technology and digital screens which fit seamlessly into the space at White City Place. YNAP wants to create a further 100 jobs in London over the next two years and these techies will be focussed on building artificial intelligence (AI) and mobile solutions for both the customer and the e-tailer’s employees.

YNAP CEO, Federico Marchetti, described the tech hub as a “temple of innovation”.

He said: “What innovation means for us is not innovation for the sake of innovation, but innovation for the customer.”

Marchetti explained he was a “bit obsessed about mobile” and it is his job to transform YNAP into a mobile-first company.

Speaking to media, who were given a private tour of the new building ahead of the official launch on Tuesday morning, Marchetti and YNAP CIO, Alex Alexander, shared a few of the innovations the technology team have been recently working on, but Marchetti was quick to point out that they wouldn’t share all their secrets in order to keep a competitive advantage.

Artificial intelligence

YNAP believes AI is revolutionising the luxury fashion industry and enabling customer experience to become more personalised. The e-tailer has been experimenting with this technology since 2015, using image recognition to suggest similar products as well as pattern recognition software.

This technology comes to life when used as an aid for YNAP’s personal stylists, where AI and machine learning can suggest a combination of clothes for a stylised outfit, cross referencing with a customer’s purchase history as well as events in their calendar, weather forecasts and other data points.

Alexander said: “We’ve combined lots of things for AI – context, calendar, weather, smart data, product, preferences – we combine all of that and feed it to the machine learning – traditional commerce can’t handle that.”

YNAP said this technology, which was built in-house and has a unique IP, could potentially provide “unlimited inspiration” to customers and enable personal shoppers.

Marchetti said these style assistants shouldn’t be afraid of losing their jobs to AI. “There’s still a lot of work that’s done manually,” he said. “So these tools we’re giving them finally allows them to focus more on the noble part of their job.”

Mobile first

As part of its strategy to become mobile first, YNAP is kitting out all of its employees with the latest Apple iPhone devices. Over 3,000 iPhone 6S and iPhone 7 devices will be handed out to employees around the world over the next eight weeks and Alexander said the intention is for the devices to replace an employee’s own device and be used for both personal and work.

Working with IBM and Apple, the e-tailer has developed tailor-made apps to meet the basic needs of their employees and encourage productivity, while ensuring they are secure through the use of Airwatch for business emails.

Eventually, the e-tailer wants to move away from working on desktop computers and it hopes its “mobile only” strategy will encourage the use of iPhones and iPads to do everyday tasks, from video calling colleagues in Bologna, to unlocking doors to enter the building.

Different parts of the business will be asked to visit the in-house mobile development team to contribute ideas around applications which could help make their jobs easier. For example, when Essential Retail visited the new tech hub, YNAP’s personal stylists were talking with developers about the latest mobile applications which may help them do their job more efficiently, such as a mobile view of inventory and a payments tool to accept payments on their mobile while attending client appointments.

Mobile for customer experience

YNAP’s CEO, Marchetti, believes the majority of the company’s sales will come via mobile devices by 2020, with figures standing around 50% today. Mobile shoppers at YNAP are 1.5 times more loyal, twice as engaged and spend three times more, so ensuring customers receive the best experience on smartphones is the utmost importance for the retailer.

YNAP developers are working with the latest version of Apple’s software iOS 11 – which will be released to the wider public later this year – to make the most out of the native iOS features.

One such feature is a QR code reader Apple will make available within the camera application, meaning users will not need to download a standalone QR code app. By providing this feature, Apple will help QR codes become a mainstream piece of technology and YNAP is ready for this by creating QR codes for some of its partners’ store windows. If a shopper spots a Valentino dress in a shop window after hours, they can simply open up the iOS camera app and scan a QR code – connected to RFID technology in the store mannequin – to be able to shop the item from the YNAP eCommerce site.

Other mobile innovations include the ability to bookmark articles on the Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter apps, as well as making it easier to share screen shots of products with a pop-up option to share via social channels.

The e-tailer has also integrated its app with iMessage, so if a customer with the Net-a-Porter app is iMessaging their personal stylist, they can browse and suggest YNAP products without leaving the iMessage application.