Managing Director of online retail powerhouse Mr Porter Toby Bateman, on the secret to selling men’s style.
Mr Porter was originally launched in 2011 as a brother site to the enormously successful women’s fashion and accessories retailer Net-A-Porter. The invention of Natalie Massenet, a fashion editor turned retail prophet, the Porter brands sought to bring the luxury shopping experience to computer screens. And that starts with stocking the things modern, stylish guys actually want to unbox.
This is where Managing Director Toby Bateman fits in, leading the business across all departments, including marketing, buying, personal shopping, tech and editorial. Along with his team of buyers, he rounds up a mix of clothing, shoes, and accessories, from an ever-growing curated list of on-trend brands, that best reflect the needs of their customer.
Bateman joined Mr Porter as Buying Director in late 2010, following positions at House of Fraser, Selfridges, and Harvey Nichols, and was responsible for growth from 80 brands at launch to over 350 in 2015, when he was promoted to Managing Director.
This tally of brands has continued to grow, together with the site’s success, attracting more customers year over year. It’s benefitted from being able to evolve, a hallmark of any worthwhile store, together with continuing to present niche products, and fusing commerce with easily digestible content.
Here we talk to the man who has been behind making luxury menswear available with a few clicks, to learn about how he attracts the fashionable crowd, and tailor’s Mr Porter’s identity for a worldwide market.
What brought you into the world of fashion?
I always wanted to work in a business that I knew I was passionate about, and one that would remain so and wouldn’t simply be a 9-5 office job. I began my career on the UK high street where I started off working on own-label brands and that is where I really learnt my trade. After that, I moved onto larger department stores before joining MR PORTER as Buying Director.
How did your career as a commercial department store buyer help with your approach at MR PORTER?
My department store career was invaluable because it taught me how bricks and mortar stores operated, and how you should always remember to pick the best quality product, be able to present it in an interesting way, and offer your customers the best level of service. These are key learnings which I’m pleased to say we are able to offer our customers of today on MR PORTER.
What sets MR PORTER apart from other retail destinations, and gives it an edge?
Where MR PORTER leads is our natural blend of content and commerce that is rolled out in a global manner and to a global audience. We have been forerunners in this space, particularly in menswear, since we launched in 2011. With this philosophy in mind, we consciously decided that we didn’t want to alienate any man, whatever his age or provenance, and therefore positioned MR PORTER as a global style destination, making sure our focus was more than just fashion. Our various channels of content provide diverse context into the world of MR PORTER, including our weekly online magazine The Journal which is created entirely by us using only our own commissioned imagery and writing, and in April 2016, we were the first retailer to launch daily content with The Daily, making it easier to respond to current affairs, style news feeds, food, and travel stories, three times a day. To round-out our content platforms, we have our bi-monthly printed MR PORTER Post, which is our tangible medium that can be found in airport lounges and cafes around the globe. Regarding our product offering, we very much look at collaborating with designers we stock on a series of exclusive capsule collections, approximately 40 a year, which both inspires the stories we create and provides a point of differentiation when shopping with us. We are also the Global online exclusive retailer for many of the brands we carry, and we stock well-over 400 of the best in men’s and luxury lifestyle brands from around the world, a long way from the 80 we originally launched with!
Can you share with us how the retail experience for men is tailored differently to women?
We understand that men sometimes find shopping in general a totally confusing and unenjoyable experience, and our mission is to remove the stress and offer advice in an anonymous environment. We want to make sure our content and product descriptions provide advice which talks to real men, rather than the trend lead products which are pushed within the women’s sector of the market, often on models.
How important was it to get the brand identity of MR PORTER right from the outset?
It was very important to us. We set ourselves strict guidelines as to what type of product we were selecting, and the tone of voice our editorial had. These principles and values have very much stayed the same as to what they were when we launched six years ago.
Has the MR PORTER man changed since the site was launched in 2011?
Our customers are the same, but their approach to dressing has changed in the past six years for sure. Dress codes have continued to be broken and now good advice is even more essential to help our customers navigate the weekly and seasonal sartorial challenges. In this respect, I think that men have also become braver with their choices, wearing more colour and pattern, and also a lot more open to trying new brands.
Has the concept of the site changed considerably at the same time, especially with the changes in online shopping, and fast growth of social media?
MR PORTER is still the same site, and I think recognisable as such, but nuances have changed, such as now having Daily content, more frequent ‘What’s New’ uploads, having a more user-friendly App and so forth. When we started, we said ‘shall we employ someone to manage our Facebook and Twitter feeds?’ like it was an extravagant thought, and now of course social media is such a huge part of our communication strategy across all the channels.
Why do you think there are still so few premium online menswear retailers? Have you noticed this change since MR PORTER was created?
I think that there are certainly more than there were six years ago. However, the women’s sites still tend to be more prevalent and greater in number which simply reflects the different sizes of the market.
Tell us about the growth of the number of brands featured on MR PORTER, and how you ensure that you remain exclusive?
We launched the business with around 80 luxury brands, and in our second season we took that to around 140 brands, building out our contemporary and designer offerings. We now have well-over 400 brands, which despite the number sounding huge, it has felt quite organic, and we’ve had extraordinary growth in new category development such as Fine Watches, Sport, Grooming, Home, etc.
How do you source new labels?
Our rule at MR PORTER is that new brands cannot replicate the role of an existing one. It sounds rather obvious, but actually I believe that for example in womenswear you can have a lot of duplication in terms of aesthetic and price point which women are happy with, and perhaps even enjoy more choice, but for men, we prefer less choice. That in itself is a pretty good summary of what we do for our customers, we make their choices for them and present a shortlist of carefully curated products for them to choose from.
What is key to avoiding being obviously trendy, while attracting the fashionable crowd?
The mood of our editorial content is the key to this. We ensure it is pitched in a very stylish and grown up way whilst having a very contemporary feel. Of course, we stock what are deemed to be ‘high end fashion’ brands, but again we always try to put our own MR PORTER stylish slant on the edit and the styling.
Do men tend to be particularly loyal to brands?
Yes and no. Online shopping favours brand loyalty because I, for example, can re-order the same blue shirt again and again and that suits me well. But at the same time, sites like MR PORTER have introduced a lot of people to brands they simply wouldn’t get to discover otherwise, so the reverse rule also applies and we see men trying new things they wouldn’t have necessarily chosen.
What was behind your decision to launch an own brand label?
First and foremost, we are product people, and for a long time we would sit down and say, ‘you know that shirt from such and such, I love it, but I wish the collar was a bit smaller,’ or, ‘why did those trousers get discontinued?’. Then it occurred to us that we could solve these problems by doing it ourselves. We have created a year-round collection of future classics and essential wardrobe staples which we think all men should own in their wardrobe, which can be paired with exclusive and limited-edition capsules which are seasonally driven.
Are there any new premieres that you can share, and which brands should we be looking out for on the site?
Salle Privée is new to us for AW17, and is a particular favourite. Each piece is expertly tailored and made from quality materials.
What’s one item of clothing that every man should own?
I could easily name around 20 essential items that every man should own in their wardrobe, so picking one is quite tricky, but if I had to say one, it would be a navy blue suit.
Targeting men worldwide, where do you see the best-dressed men?
In terms of sales, where are your biggest markets and have there been any surprises?
Our core markets are the US and UK, but we have seen strong and significant growth in APAC countries over the past couple of years along with the Middle East region.
Do you see yourself tailoring your identity to specific regions?
To a degree yes, whilst the site content and product offer is the same globally, we have separate communication strategies and separate marketing and media partners according to regions, so we can speak to people in Australia and the Middle East about swim shorts and t-shirts at the same time we are speaking to people in the UK about coats and sweaters.
One of your new categories, fine watches, has been growing and taking on more premium brands, what do you think is the reason for this growth?
The fine watch industry has been slower to adopt an online strategy, but in the past year or two, this has changed and these brands have realised that MR PORTER can be a good retail and communications partner at the same time, whilst being able to tap into a customer base that they perhaps hadn’t done previously. In the world of online, MR PORTER sets the benchmark for luxury fashion in terms of photography, information, advice, and service, and we have set out to achieve the same benchmark in fine watches which is incredibly important to these brands in order to gain their trust to become authorised dealers of their products. So much so that we have been lucky enough to launch exclusive watches with the likes of Ressence who designed a MR PORTER watch, and the launch of the Tag Heuer x Kingsman Connected watch which we released in July in anticipation of the seventh collection of Kingsman, in collaboration with Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
Are you finding that consumers are increasingly comfortable with buying high-end, luxury items such as watches online? And how important are watches to your product line up?
I believe that customers want the product they want, when they want it, and where they want it, with convenience being the key to their shopping habits. With a fine watch being such a considered purchase, content becomes increasingly more important for men to make that next step. Whether it’s the history behind a brand, the style associated with a brand, what’s inside the watch, or how a brand and watch can fit into your lifestyle, men seem to demand and rely on these elements to purchase a watch.
Is this a direction where we will see more expansion?
Watch this space, pun intended! We have several more exciting launches coming up between now and the end of the year, with more already lined up for 2018.
What is your opinion of how the internet is influencing consumer spending on watches?
We recently surveyed a lot of our existing and prospective customers on the fine watch category and the primary finding from those surveyed was that they all ‘researched online’ before making a fine watch purchase.
And finally, what is most important rule in menswear retail?
The key is to have the best, and most carefully considered product available for your customers.
By Eliza Scarborough