Interview: Luisa Via Roma's Online Empire

Although Luisa Via Roma has been at the center of Italian fashion for many decades, the multi-brand retailer was one one of the first Italian companies to begin exploring the online space. With the forward-thinking Andrea Panconesi pushing these new retail boundaries, the company has gone on to encompass hundreds of brands with the behind-the-scenes help of dedicated buyers, stylists, photographers, merchandizers, sales people and artists/visual designers/programmers. JC Report spoke to Panconesi about LVR’s role in creating the first international conference for bloggers, the struggles of moving into the digital sphere and what’s in store beyond their tenth anniversary.

JC Report: What was the moment you felt that the internet was going to be the next big development in fashion retail?

Andrea Panconesi: We have been online since 1999, and at that time it was really too early to know what was going to happen. At that time it was just something new, and I figured it was worthwhile trying.

Really it is only within the last 3-4 years that the connections have improved enough for everybody at home to have internet, so it is within this timeframe that we developed economically, in line with technology. The fact that we were at that stage already meant that we were prepared, and that gave us our competitive advantage. Now we are totally devoted to the online business, which has become a major part of our business.

JCR: Did you offer products on the site right away?

AP: We started with e-commerce straightaway, but it took us a while to develop. We had to start from zero as we didn’t have anybody with a ready-made service, or anybody to hire to give us information—we were not dealing with Silicon Valley. Even hiring people at the beginning to take care of customer service online was something unheard of because e-commerce developed very late in Italy, the closest we could get were people coming from a background in call-centers. Everybody we have now started from zero. In a sense though, this has worked to our advantage now, as we were forced to write all of our own programs. The fact that we don’t use any outsourced technology means we can change and update very very quickly.

JCR: Are there any systems or programs that you have developed that are unique internationally in terms of what they do?

AP: Everything we have is unique and developed by ourselves, written by our own programmers. They are using the same program now that I developed with my programmer 25 years ago—the program that we use to get all the orders into the system is exactly the same. Before we were doing it with a system as big as a room, now it is the size of a laptop, but the program is the same. I remember the Japanese coming to look at it and asking where they could buy the product, but it is not on the market. It took us a long time to develop, but now we are able to modify and upgrade when we want, and everything is integrated in our system.

JCR: Tell us a bit more about the integration of the “Buy it First” system?

AP: We have offered for a couple of years now to our top most demanding clients the possibility to order right after the shows any style presented by the top ten men’s and women’s designers of the season, which we hand-pick from the collections in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Some of the pieces in the selection won’t even be produced unless they are ordered specially—this is the service we can offer.

JCR: How your online the numbers grown over the last 10 years?

AP: We have approximately 50,000 unique users per month, and the percentage of growth is impressive—lmore or less 100% per year for the last 3 years.

JCR: What do you have planned for the next 10 years?

AP: Our goal ever since I started working on this project and made it the major focus of my daily working life is to be able to bring the virtual and reality closer and closer. Of course they are two parallel lines that will never meet, but our goal is to make sure that every day they get closer.

This is the major reason we redecorated the physical space of LVR. We brought in the most advanced technology like LED and touch-screens three years ago and integrated the web and e-commerce in the store, knowing that at that time the majority of our clients were not technologically advanced. They weren’t shopping online or even using the site. Having young children I realized that the two are closely linked, So we integrated the refurbishing of the new store with possibilities to put the clients in touch with the web. Now, after three years, we realize that 90% of our regular clients are shopping online. Even those living in Tuscany select items online at home, and then come to the physical space to try them on.

Our next step is to develop a program and system where this is a possibility in major cities worldwide. We are developing a program online and in reality that could be expanded no matter where.

JCR: LVR invited prominent bloggers from around the world to Florence last June for your tenth anniversary—what was the idea behind and outcome of that experience?

AP: What struck me was that these people all speak the same language, whether they speak Chinese or Japanese or European, because they share the same idea: a love of fashion. But they had never met physically. Why not give them the chance to come here and enjoy the party, see Florence, the center of the Renaissance, and also give them a chance to go back home having completed work that could help them for the next season? We organized models, photographers, hairdressers make-up artists, a van for them to get around in, as many assistants as possible and, with the help of the city, opened museums like the Sala Bianca.

For us it is not merely from a commercial point of view. Of course it is important—being in e-commerce we are very focused on selling—but I strongly believe that these people are doing a fantastic job in terms of critical writing. These people are really open and free critics and voices in the way that big media companies cannot be. This is the reason we are supporting them as much as we can. We strongly believe in promoting new ideas and new designers, this is the very essence of fashion.

JCR: Unlike many other online stores, LVR.com has a brick and mortar store as well—how do the virtual and physical spaces interact and where is the store going in the coming years?

AP: The major reason we refurbished the store was to separate it from the stockroom. The salesperson is not able to reach the right size in-store, it comes magically from the system. By choosing your size you have to go into the internet, and you can repeat the same experience after at home once you have learned.

I realized many of our clients don’t lack the money, they just have a mental barrier to use it, so we did this to break the barrier. By doing it we also obtain another very important result, which is to give the client a different buying experience. When they go out from the store with their jeans they will remember the experience, not because of the jacket by Lanvin or Givenchy, but because they bought it in a different way.

JCR: How does the internet affect the sociability of shopping?

AP: We are working now to try and combine the experience of shopping online with sociability. We are developing a new system, a new way to shop online that enables you to touch what you buy. We won’t be able to offer the whole collection, but a selection that you can physically touch.

If we can give our clients the possibility to gather together and share the same experience, they will be able to have an even deeper experience than shopping by themselves, they will be shopping with a group of people all interested in the same subject. The idea is the same no matter where they are, in Florence or New York or Bombay or London. That’s the fun part, there are no limits to imagination, the problem is convincing the programmer to follow you!

JCR: Florence was a very important artistic/fashion hub in the ’80s, do you see that happening again?

AP: I see it happening again but on a different scale. It has stagnated because it was more and more difficult to do anything in Florence. New enterprises, young people, if they wanted to do something new they were not given the chance. The ones that did happen to open a new activity were having so many problems that they decided to stop or to go somewhere else to do it.

But I really strongly believe that in Florence there is a very high potential, because everything started here. Florence is the beginning of everything if you think about Western art and civilization. Everything started here in the 1400s. What we are missing very much now is the physical place where these new activities can be brought together, which led me to another project that we are working on, which we are going to present during the festival of Florens 2010 on 17th November. It’s called CENT, short for Centro di Eccellenze per le Nuove Technologie, for e-commerce. I don’t know if it will work or not, but it’s something that I myself could use for my business.

JCR: Which international markets do you think have significant growth potential for lvr.com?

AP: We are going east for sure, all of the Pacific area, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singpore are the places where we have the biggest growth at the moment.

JCR: Do you think Asian e-commerce retailers have a better appeal to a local market? Do you see this as a problem or an opportunity?

AP: I see it as an opportunity. Luckily, the best quality and design still comes from Italy. Eighty percent of the products we sell are Italian and Made in Italy, so we get it faster than anybody else. Not only that, having been in the business for over 30 years, we have very close relationships with all the designers. We saw them starting, they were clients who would come on Saturday trying to sell their jeans. Then they became very famous and now sell millions of jeans.

JCR: Can you give us a few names?

AP: They were all here, from Dolce & Gabbana to DSquared. They were all our clients when they first started 20-25 years ago. They were always in love with fashion.

JCR: How do you manage to stay enthusiastic after all these years?

AP: Well I think if you do something you like it’s a big advantage. I was so bad at school when I was young that I decided once I started work I would only do something that I really loved. And not only that⏼I would demand that my assistants and the people who worked for me also enjoy what they are doing. If somebody doesn’t love what they are doing, it is impossible to do anything constructive. That’s the only way I decide to hire somebody: if they are going to have fun, and if they are going to love what they are going to do. That is the major reason. I want to have fun, and I still do.




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