In Shadow of Amazon, European Challenger Looks to China for Inspiration
BERLIN — Robert Gentz stepped off an Air Berlin plane in Beijing with the goal of conquering online fashion in China. By the time he boarded his return flight to Berlin, he had a new plan: to copy it.
柏林——罗伯特·根茨(Robert Gentz)在北京走下柏林航空(Air Berlin)的飞机时，目标还是征服中国线上时尚产业。等踏上返回柏林的旅途时，他已经有了一个新计划：复制中国模式。
Gentz, a 34-year-old German who is a co-founder of Zalando — a European clone of Zappos, the online U.S. shoes and fashion retailer owned by Amazon — held meetings in fall 2013 with Chinese and international fashion labels, online stores and other parts of the local e-commerce industry. He wanted to expand his company into the world’s largest digital market.
But after the meetings, Gentz decided China’s approach to online fashion was far ahead of anything available elsewhere. He marveled at how Chinese consumers freely chatted with — and bought from — brands and stylists on WeChat, a local internet messenger, while online retailers, independent delivery companies and fashion houses routinely joined forces.
“We wanted to take that experience back to Europe,” Gentz said.
This holiday season, Zalando, which is Europe’s biggest digital fashion player, is using a made-in-China approach to take on Amazon, just as the U.S. giant is looking to cement its place as the world’s dominant e-commerce company by expanding aggressively into the Continent’s still-fragmented world of digital fashion.
Few companies have been able to keep Amazon — the largest online fashion seller in the United States — at bay after it enters a new market. The notable exception is in China, where rivals like Alibaba, the world’s second-largest online seller by market value, have been able to hold their ground.
For decades, tech companies have taken their cues from Silicon Valley. But Zalando’s approach of borrowing from its Chinese counterparts represents a new strategy of looking East, not West, for inspiration.
In overhauling its successful European online fashion store into a digital platform, Zalando differs from others trying to match Amazon and its logistics and technological prowess.
The German company previously focused on handling all sales and inventory itself. But in addition to selling directly to consumers, it now wants to remake itself into a digital shopping mall, allowing fashion houses and retailers to make sales as well, often with limited input from Zalando.
These efforts, roughly a year in the making, may foster a rare European tech player able to give Silicon Valley heavy-hitters a run for their money across the region, still one of the world’s largest — and most profitable — markets.
“If you want to be the dominant player in a geographical area, you need to go beyond being just a traditional e-commerce player,” said Erik Mitteregger, a board member at Kinnevik, a Swedish investment firm that was an early Zalando investor and still owns a 32 percent stake. “It’s a necessary move.”
Zalando’s inspiration from China, though, comes with challenges.
Despite domestic dominance, Chinese players like Alibaba have yet to successfully replicate their business model overseas. Online shopping habits in Europe also are somewhat different from those in China. And Amazon and European competitors, including ASOS and Yoox Net-a-Porter, may yet outmuscle Zalando with their traditional takes on e-commerce.
For most Americans — and even some Europeans outside its core German-speaking markets — Zalando is not a household name.
It began in 2008 as a Berlin startup founded by Gentz and David Schneider, two business school graduates who once tried — and failed — to build a Latin American rival to Facebook. By 2014, Zalando had become the largest public offering in the European tech sector since 2000. It counts Rocket Internet, a Berlin incubator known for copying successful online business ideas, and DST Global, a backer of Facebook, Twitter and Alibaba, among its early investors.
它成立于2008年，最初只是根茨和戴维·施奈德(David Schneider)在柏林建立的一家初创公司。根茨和施奈德都毕业于商学院，两人曾试图在拉丁美洲打造一个能够与Facebook竞争的平台，后以失败告终。到2014年，Zalando已经成为欧洲科技行业自2000年以来公开募股规模最大的公司。以模仿成功在线商业理念而出名的柏林孵化器Rocket Internet，以及投资过Facebook、Twitter和阿里巴巴的DST全球(DST Global)都是它的早期投资者。
To meet the needs of Europe’s national markets, Zalando has tweaked its offerings. In Germany, where few people use credit cards, consumers can pay with an online service linked to their bank accounts after receiving clothes in the mail. In Italy, it worked with a local delivery company so people wary of goods not arriving could pay in cash upon receipt of their orders.
While European competitors have also earned loyal followings, Zalando remains the largest, both by market valuation and total online sales, according to Euromonitor, a data provider. It is expected to double its yearly pretax earnings this year, to $220 million, and revenue is likely to jump more than 20 percent, to $4 billion, according to an average of equity analysts’ estimates.
“Zalando is well placed to be a leading fashion platform in Europe,” said Andrea Ferraz, a Morgan Stanley analyst in London.
“Zalando处于有利的位置，有望成为欧洲领先的时尚平台，”摩根士丹利(Morgan Stanley)驻伦敦的分析师安德烈亚·费拉斯(Andrea Ferraz)说。
Still, the company remains a relative minnow — its $9.5 billion valuation is one-fortieth that of Amazon. And Europe’s fast-growing online fashion market, estimated to be worth $75 billion, has not gone unnoticed by e-commerce giants.
Alibaba has hired local country managers and brought its payment service to Europe, mostly to serve Chinese visitors. Amazon has opened a fashion studio in London and joined the British Fashion Council to bolster its local credibility.
阿里巴巴在各国雇佣了当地的管理人员，并将其支付服务引入了欧洲，主要是为了服务中国游客。亚马逊在伦敦设立了一个时装工作室，并与英国时装协会(British Fashion Council)联手，以增强自己在当地的可信度。
To compete with Amazon and others, Zalando has spent heavily on a network of logistics hubs that dot the European landscape.
For Nicolas Borg, a Zalando strategy executive who previously worked at eBay, the next stage will most likely be chatbots, or humanlike interactions powered by artificial intelligence, to offer fashion advice to consumers on the likes of Facebook Messenger.
Zalando负责战略事务的高管尼古拉斯·博格(Nicolas Borg)曾任职于eBay，他认为下一个阶段极有可能是通过聊天机器人，或由人工智能实现的类似人类的互动，在Facebook Messenger之类平台上为消费者提供时尚建议。
“In the future, what will matter is not where the purchase happens, but how you can influence it,” Borg said.
“That is our biggest challenge,” he added. “How do we change the online experience?”