Once'it: Putting the class back into clearance sales

Designers were initially skeptical of fashion clearance website Once'it, but employing a strategy of exclusivity helped overcome the wariness and propel it to success.

Jay Goodey and his fiancé Catriona Macky were scoping out designer fashion clearance sales one day when he hit on the idea for website Once’it. Goodeyrealised there was an opportunity to help New Zealand fashion designers shift their end-of-line stock and at the same time make it easier for consumers to buy it at decent prices, but maintaining a sense of exclusivity and classiness – something often lost at clearance sales.

Goodey had stumbled upon a blog that posted details of designer sample sales happening in Auckland and thought it would be a great extension if you could buy directly from the website.

“I did a bit of research and found a company in New York doing a similar website and thought, with a bit of tweaking, this could work really well in New Zealand,” Goodey says.

“From there, I talked to a few designers to gauge interest and got a mixed response. Most were a little reluctant at first, and fair enough as their brand is their most important asset they have, so I can see how they could be reserved about putting it on sale online.”

But a couple of designers – Stolen Girlfriends Club, Kathryn Wilson and Huffer, to name a few – said yes, and then other brands began to take notice. Goodey used an exclusive, invite-only approach to membership, which combined with the look and feel of the website appealed to the designers he was pitching to.

“We were really careful what brands we partnered with and aligned ourselves with. We now have great relationships with the designers and a lot of them now factor us into their yearly retail calendar.”

Web developers Pixel Fusiondesigned and built the Once’it site and has a stake in the company. Then came marketing. With zero extra funds, Goodey relied on digital and social media – no above-the-line activity at all – to launch the brand. At first, he was skeptical.

“In the early days, I questioned the purpose of trying to grow our Facebook fans and whether there would be any gains to our bottom line, but the penny dropped when I posted a link to a necklace and almost instantly a whole bunch of orders came through from that lead. Now we’re testing out sponsored posts on Facebook and a few other social advertising initiatives to grow our member base and increase engagement with our current members. So far the ROI has been great for us.”

Just under 17 percent of Once’it’s web traffic comes from Facebook leads alone, and that number is growing.

“Social has been a really big key in our membership’s growth and customer retention. We find each social network is useful for different things. For example, we use our Twitter account like most other businesses – shooting out 140 character messages to promote sales, or to engage in conversations with our followers – but it’s become most valuable to us as a customer service channel.”

An invite-only mechanism for joining Once’it and incentives to members who make referrals also helps with the word-of-mouth marketing strategy, as well as maintaining an exclusive aura.

The customer base now numbers more than 80,000 and the website has branched out into homeware, art and fine foods, with 12 staff on hand. And given Goodey was just 22 at the time, his track record is something of a coup.

“I definitely got asked how old I was a bit,” he laughs. “I think in some industries that would definitely be an issue, but I think youth could be seen as an advantage in an industry like fashion. We were also working in a relatively new online space in New Zealand and many of our first customers were expected to be young early adopters.

“At one stage, everyone who worked at Once’it was under the age of 24 and I think that worked in our favour, because we were trying to create something new and there were no preconceived ideas about the right way to do it. We were young, idealistic and less aware of the possibility of failure – we felt like anything was possible.”

Goodey says the company had quite a few growing pains and resource issues early on, so he advises others in a similar position to prepare to scale up quickly.

“We didn’t really know how much traffic to expect to the site in the early days, and we experienced classic teething issues with the website crashing due to heavy traffic on big sales. As a result, we had to invest a lot of time and resource into making it work.”

Resource is another common dilemma for entrepreneurs and startups.

“I really like that we grew organically and started small, but in the future if I was to take on another project I would try to be better resourced from the start.”

Goodey admits it would have been great to have another investor in the beginning to help with finances and resources, but the three years since it launched, there are no regrets.

“With the business built up, it’s quite cool that we still have a big bit of the pie.”