5 Questions with OOAK’s Alice Xu; Succeeding in China with omni-channel boutique fashion

Having begun in 2012 and now with over 230,000 followers on Taobao, a new Tmall store and the OOAK Concept Boutique, OOAK (One Of A Kind shopping experience) has realised the retailer’s ideal of a multi-faceted brand which features both Western and Chinese designers, even creating their own branded jewellery in the process.

We spoke to the Founder of OOAK, Alice Xu, about the journey.

You have recently started selling on Tmall. Why did you choose Tmall over the other options?

Yes, we started on Tmall on the 1st of December. Last July, we launched our own namesake jewellery brand and then last September or so, we were invited by Tmall to open our official Tmall store as part of their designer brand mix. The timing was just perfect, as around that time, we were also in preparation for our first ‘ooak’ (lower case) jewellery store, which, compared to our flagship OOAK Concept Boutique, is a more focused and well-curated jewellery-only multi-brand store. So, it’s partially an organic development but also one of the things that have been on our agenda for a while.

We have been running our Taobao store for about 4 years; in fact, we were one of the very first multi-brand stores in China embracing online platforms. Till today, we have about 220,000 followers on Taobao. Also, we were the first few stores collaborating with other more niche platforms like Red and the Beast. We chose Tmall to be our official online store because it’s a very mature platform that has a really strong system, as well as unbeatable traffic scale.

Did you start your business years ago with a clear concept? Or is it more a case of reacting and changing the model as you go along?

We started in 2012, and our vision remains unchanged, which is to “bring the world’s best jewellery to you”. We believe that beautifully designed, well-made and reasonably priced jewellery isn’t a myth, and buying jewellery should be easy and fun. This was why I started OOAK in the first place.

As the name itself suggests, we offer one-of-a-kind products and shopping experience to our customers and this stays at the essence of our business. What has evolved and changed along the way is the “content”, that is, what comprises our product mix.

At the beginning stage, we only carried foreign brands, then around 2014, we started to stock Chinese jewellery designer brands because we scouted a few very talented young Chinese designers, and then, we did a few very successful crossover collections with a variety of designers. Most recently, as you know, we started our own jewellery brand “ooak”.

It’s altogether quite a natural progress, just as we launched our own jewellery line in response to the rapidly increasing demand for contemporary designer jewellery. In terms of our business model, it has also evolved quite a bit. From a single multi-brand store in the former French Concession area, to a multifaceted concept comprised of a brick and mortar retail store, with e-commerce, pop-up event spaces, an in-house brand, showroom and PR agency. You have to be very responsive to the market and industry in China, that’s why we are always planning something new and different, but overall everything we do is around the idea “style in jewellery”, and is a small step towards our vision.

What have you noticed as the current trend and expectation of the Chinese consumer? And what do you see going forwards this year?

Indeed, now the buying cycle is becoming shorter and shorter, and the difficulty in attracting your targeted consumers is unprecedented as there’s so much competition out there. On the one hand, Chinese consumers’ buying decisions are increasingly influenced by celebrity endorsements and KOLs’ recommendations, on the other hand, their interest in a certain product (or a certain celebrity/KOL) can only last so long that as a brand or retailer, you have to constantly create buzz or to do something cool to keep the consumers interested.

Also, your store or products need to be picture-ready or social media worthy as people are so eager to post something special. We have always seen our concept store as a destination shop because we are not the easiest store to find in map, hidden as a “boutique hotel”. We thought the location might be an obstacle, but on the contrary, people love the idea and visiting the store has become more of a leisure activity, taking selfies and posting well-taken pictures are now as equally, if not more, important as shopping itself.

As for going forward, I would say the new generation of the Chinese consumers is less loyal to brands; consumers are more products-oriented in a way. It’s a very segmented market, for our typical customer, she often buys the dress from one brand, shoes from another brand, the bag from another, and then the earrings from us, her total outfit may sometimes consist of a dozen brands. You have to be the top of your game.

Although there is so much international news about China and its consumer, when you travel overseas and talk about China, what do people abroad still mis-understand about here?

People I know of from overseas are all very keen on knowing what’s happening in Chinese market, mostly designers or brands. What they may still misunderstand, or gradually starting to grasp, is that the “aura” around Western brands is fading. Chinese consumers are more sophisticated and acquired now. They are looking for great design and quality with a reasonable price tag, whereas the country of origin is quite down on the list, from what I observe.

The KOL trend is still on the rise. Have you co-operated with KOLs, and what do brands need to be careful of or anticipate when working with them?

Yes, we are in close relationships with KOLs. I think it’s key to work with the right ones, not necessarily the ones with most followers. Whether the KOL’s personal style or image is compatible with your brand identity is the most crucial factor to consider.