Advance Copy

Core Principles of a Holistic E-commerce Presence With Thalia Tserevegou

05.02.22, London

This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts & Spotify.

Encouraged by her network and observations of a changing customer mentality, strategic brand management consultant Thalia Tserevegou decided to establish TT CoLLECTIVE, allowing her the freedom to share her strategic 360 vision with a multitude of value-aligned brands. With a wealth of professional experience in the fashion industry spanning global brands, internationally renowned department stores, leading luxury e-commerce platforms and independent brands, Thalia’s career is inspiring to say the least.  

She takes us through her learnings on how to build modern, conscious fashion companies in an ever-more turbulent market and shares with us the moment she decided to step back and pursue more balance and purpose.

Advance Copy: Thalia, as a consultant you work behind the scenes to help grow successful brands. Could you explain where you’re from and what you do to those who are not familiar with your work?  

Thalia Tserevegou: I’m the Founder of TT CoLLECTIVE, a strategic brand management consultancy whose objective is to bridge the gap between creativity and commerce to deliver sustainable growth for brands in today’s complex retail landscape. My journey in fashion started in Florence, Italy. I have a background in business and economics, and I went to Italy to complete my Masters in Fashion Merchandising and Management. I found myself surrounded by incredible creatives, many of whom I still count as friends and collaborate with to this day. Being immersed in that community was really my first experience in the industry and I was fortunate enough to kick off my career in merchandising at a prominent Italian luxury house, so I started off at the top of the pyramid. I worked with the design team on handbag development which I often refer to as my first true love.

Most people in the industry know me as a shoe specialist but handbags and accessories is where I started and it’s something I’m super passionate about. It was really a wonderful experience but in my mid-twenties I craved a more dynamic pace which quickly led me to multi-brand buying. Fast forward a few years, a trans-Atlantic move, a lot of hard work and I landed on an incredible project of building the largest shoe floor in Canada. It was a big undertaking and that’s when I first realised that I loved building businesses. On the heels of the success of that, I crossed the pond again and when Net-a-Porter came knocking on my door, leading their footwear buying strategy was a dream come true. I had dreamt of that moment many times and to have the opportunity was not only incredible for my professional growth, but also allowed me to cultivate some strong relationships in the industry. Fast forward a few more years, and I found myself moving at a relentless pace. Completely unsustainable lifestyle, juggling from one season to the next, facing burnout like so many in our industry. Which is when I decided to step back and pursue more balance and purpose in my work. 

“The creativity vs commerce algorithm is really something that’s a challenge for many brands.”

AC: Thank you very much for bringing this up because it helps to hear someone in the industry discuss that they’ve achieved their version of success but also that there could be a downside to that dream. How did these life steps make you decide to start TT CoLLECTIVE? What was your initial intention for the consultancy?   

Thalia: I was approached by a number of brands to collaborate and that quite organically kicked off the business. However, what really spurred it on is that in my roles up until that point, I would often see over 100 collections each season. I would preview a brand’s range, and provide feedback and that’s when it became apparent to me – the creativity vs commerce algorithm is really something that’s a challenge for many brands. I witnessed brands rise and fall simply because of this and I often found myself thinking ‘how can I truly add value?’. TT CoLLECTIVE was born out of a desire to help brands connect the dots. I really wanted to channel my years of experience as a merchant to guide independent brands towards manifesting their purpose and building a roadmap towards their success. But more importantly, helping them define what success really looks like. I think a lot of brands lack creativity when it comes to defining what success looks like for them. And that’s something that I’m passionate about – helping them bridge the gap.  

The scope of my work is quite multi-faceted. I always like to say that no two brands, or days, are the same. I always take a 360 approach when I look at any business.  

AC: An important topic for independent brands, especially in today’s competitive landscape, is e-commerce and Direct-to-Consumer (DTC). It is the one channel where most brands see the biggest opportunities for growth. Could you summarise the most common ways in which independent brands approach their e-commerce platforms? 

Thalia: I feel like many brands tend to approach Direct-to-Consumer as a bit of an abstract concept, almost an afterthought – something they’ll get to or something that’s super daunting. They sometimes prioritise the status and instant revenue of wholesale partnerships and put all their resources into making that a success, almost forgetting the e-commerce and Direct-to-Consumer element of their business and, importantly, the potential behind that. To me, there’s a lack of creativity in this approach.  

“The thing that brands need to focus on right from the get-go is functionality. Less is more.” 

Wholesale partnerships are invaluable. They are a quick way to raise brand awareness. They offer an instant injection of cash flow into the brand that could enable it to scale much faster than if they were going at it on their own. But brands need to be careful because if they don’t challenge themselves, they quickly develop an over-reliance on a channel that nowadays has become quite volatile.  

Another way I see brands approach their e-commerce is like ticking a box rather than with actual intention. Throughout my experience in this space, it’s been proven that a functional and visually compelling website is the single and most important investment in a brand’s Direct-to-Consumer journey. It’s almost like a window to their world yet so many fail to view it this way. It’s not a static channel. For e-commerce to realise its potential, it requires a holistic approach across different touchpoints and making sure that brands are really viewing it as the tool that it is. 

AC: What are the pillars of a versatile DTC strategy and the elements for setting a good foundation?  

Thalia: The thing that brands need to focus on right from the get-go is functionality. Less is more. You can have a very simple website that’s functioning impeccably well and that is really the foundational element to any e-commerce strategy. The most important pillar of a Direct-to-Consumer strategy that I think will resonate with brands regardless of where they are in their e-commerce journey, is community. It’s about realising that it’s not just about design, quality, fit, craftsmanship or even whether the product is sustainable. All of these are key pillars, however, the culture of the brand is what customers are buying into. And the e-commerce platform needs to reflect that culture. Now more than ever, independent brands focus too much on the noise and they need to channel their energy into their unique point of view and rely on the strength of collaborative partnerships to reach new customers and build their community. It’s about realising that they can’t be everything to everyone.   

The other key element of a successful strategy is: what is the ‘why’. I respect that creatives feel compelled to create and if they’re going to channel that into their brand, they need to realise that, yes, it starts with the product but the world doesn’t actually need more product. So, if you’re uploading a product onto a site, what is its purpose? And how are you narrating that across the different touchpoints? It’s about realising that they should not aspire to just put more things out there. They need to focus on curated product edits, adding value to the customers that are shopping on their website through not just product but also the service aspect of the website.  

“The culture of the brand is what customers are buying into.” 

And the third one is marketing. This is the most expensive and obviously, the one brands struggle with the most. The simple truth is that brands need to go where their customers are – not the other way around. I think this is a concept that’s often quite confused. People think they could do Google Ads and Instagram and all these different marketing tools to get customers to come to their website. But really, it’s about the brands figuring out where their customers are, on what platforms and what physical locations regionally, and working on partnerships and creative ways to engage with their customers. I think often brands can get a bit stuck in just the structure that the industry is dictating to them. 

AC: You’ve touched on common mistakes that brands can make with their approach to e-commerce. But do you have any specific pet peeves that frustrate you? 

Thalia: The first common ‘mistake’ brands make is delaying an e-commerce launch or not even moving forward with it if it’s not perfect. There are so many platforms nowadays, even something as simple as Shopify that offer endless possibilities and have the functionality already built-in to take the guesswork out. So again, less is more. It’s better to have a beautiful-looking functional website that services customers because ultimately that’s where they come to interact with your brand, rather than having something so elaborate that either doesn’t work or holds you up from growing the business.  

The second thing is being inventory-heavy. One of the common challenges brands face when launching e-commerce is how many products should be online? If they have wholesale distribution, they want their website to be the destination where customers come to discover new products every season. But having too much only ends up tying up cash flow. So it’s about finding the right balance of how much product is really necessary to keep the consumer engaged and how often you should upload it to keep them coming back to your website, rather than investing in producing the whole collection for your website and then ending up with inventory in the warehouse at the end of the season that you have to liquidate which could damage your brand or you have to hold on to and it eventually loses its value. Instead, you can channel those resources into building your community or growing your business.  

The third thing that is often a common oversight is a fragmented marketing strategy. When you’re first launching it’s an ever-evolving dynamic space and you have to test different platforms and it’s great. But ultimately you have to pick a lane and have to try to make that your focus. I think making sure that your communication aligns across your e-commerce platform, Instagram and your physical presence – wherever that may be and in whichever form that may materialise – is something that is often lost in translation. It sounds quite basic but it’s not always the case.  

“The broader the brand’s distribution network the more challenges it brings.” 

AC:  Have you found that having a tighter approach to stock management – like limited edition launches or drops – is better than doing bulk seasonal deliveries? Have you seen more success in doing limited releases?  

Thalia: Limiting product releases is a key tool, especially, in the hype culture that we’re living in at the moment. There’s always the risk of customer disappointment which is e-commerce 101 – you want to always make sure that you have stock when customers want to buy it because ultimately, they could just move on and not return. However, I think there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. A combined strategy is usually the one that proves to be the best return on investment. Maybe tightening product offer just a bit, making it more focused and then layering in some additional product drops of things that, as a designer, you think should be more limited. Whether it’s your core product range because you want to protect the price integrity of that product or whether it’s something that is creatively the direction that you want to take the brand in where you don’t need it to live on the site for an extended period of time.  

AC: Let’s take a step back from internal factors to the external. We just spoke about setting up an e-commerce platform and having a holistic and authentic approach to direct-to-consumer but we also can’t ignore the fact that brands are then in competition with everyone else in the world. One concern is discounting, when your stock gets marked down earlier than expected by wholesale partners and you’re basically forced to mark down too. At this point it’s important to highlight that, it’s illegal to control or dictate pricing… The second external factor is managing currency conversions if you’re shipping worldwide. Could you share your thinking and maybe recommendations on these two market pressures from an angle of an independent business owner?  

Thalia: When it comes to factors outside of a brand’s control it’s important not to panic and to take everything in stride. The broader the brand’s distribution network the more challenges it brings. That’s something that brands need to be honest with themselves about. There’s no solution for it per se. Our industry is yet to put in place controls that would mitigate some of these challenges. But ultimately controlling distribution is a key solution, being truthful with yourself and the team as to what potential partnerships may bring. And if you are willing to engage with them then you have to be prepared to navigate these challenges with them.  

“If you have a DTC channel it’s a great opportunity to offer products that are not elsewhere in the market, where you can control the price integrity.” 

If you’re clear with your customers and your partners about the products that are an important part of your range – making sure that it’s an edited selection and it’s realistic, not 50% of the range – and being transparent about that would usually allow them to plan their investments accordingly. It’s not a perfect solution but it definitely helps. And limiting releases of core products. So, if it is something that you want to maintain price integrity for then make sure that you’re not caving into the pressure of these partners to buy thousands of units that may then end up off-price. Because ultimately, they’re buying into it to achieve their sales targets but if it’s something that’s an important statement for you then you need to be more protective of it. Or come up with exclusive products. If you have a DTC channel it’s a great opportunity to offer products that are not elsewhere in the market, where you can control the price integrity. And of course, keeping a lean structure back of house allows for a little bit more flexibility. These are all the things that a brand can do to sustainably grow and mitigate some of those challenges in off-price. 

Currency conversation is a whole other ballgame. That’s one I’m still working out myself but there’s third-party platforms that help with that. They come at a cost and they take a commission on your sales but ultimately if they enable you to have the opportunity to be well priced in the various markets where the brand wants to grow its presence it can be a worthwhile investment. Managing currency conversion and pricing in-house for independent brands especially, but even large multi-brand retailers that don’t have the resources or the staff in-house is a full-time job. There’s no doubt about commissioning third-party support here if you’re serious about entering new markets.  

“If you truly want to build a brand with longevity, you need to learn to say no.”

AC: To pick up on your point about having a lean structure. It’s often tempting to say yes to distribution opportunities but in such a volatile market its important to ask – what is the overall goal?  

Thalia: Exactly, and I think that is the bottom line, for brands to be truthful and look inward to define what it is that their objective is long-term. It’s one of the first questions I ask brand partners, what is their objective? If you truly want to build a brand with longevity, you need to learn to say no.   

AC: Something came up in a conversation recently – customers’ hesitation to buy directly from independent brands’ websites, instead preferring to purchase from multi-brand websites. How do you gain customers’ trust?  

Thalia: My view is the way to build trust is through service. We were talking about value proposition, product proposition but service proposition is not something that I think independent brands are putting a lot of focus on when it comes to their website. Being clear about the parameters around shopping on their website and quite purposefully communicating that through the various channels is, I think, a way to build trust with new customers.

This interview has been condensed and edited by Ria Jaiswal.