Net-a-Porter's New Social Shopping App Might Be Fashion's Smartest Data Play

Shopping for clothing online can be a fairly unglamorous, perfunctory task. Even browsing the most beautifully-designed, well-curated e-commerce site can’t compare with the thrill of finding a gem hidden in the racks, or a few hours spent trying on dresses with friends.

Natalie Massenet knows this. And as she’s watched mobile sales climb to a staggering 40% of all purchases on her pioneering fashion site Net-a-Porter, she’s been trying to combine the ease and convenience of online shopping with the pleasurable aspects of brick-and-mortar buying.

On Wednesday, Net-a-Porter is launching the Net Set, an app for iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch that unites the retailer’s enviable e-commerce capabilities with a social function that encourages more spending — and, crucially, allows the luxury giant to collect data on its burgeoning Millennial customer base.

“We’re the first luxury retailer to launch a social network,” said Massenet, who founded Net-a-Porter in the heady dot com boom days of 2000 and watched it not just outlive its peers but grow to compete with mall stalwarts like Neiman Marcus, Saks and Nordstrom JWN -1%.

The company, which posted net sales of $835 million in 2014, is set to merge with Italian online retailer Yoox in September in a deal that values the combined entity at $2.5 billion. Net-a-Porter’s Swiss parent company Richemont confirmed the agreement after rumors that Amazon was interested in snapping up the site to bolster its high-fashion credentials.

The Net Set, created in-house by a dedicated team of 15, offers a shoppable live feed of items ‘trending’ on Net-a-Porter worldwide.

Members can shop within the app, comment on styles they like, recommend fashions to friends, and take a voyeuristic virtual peek into the closets of stylish women like Massenet herself, who has a prominent Net Set profile.

Users can follow a ‘Style Council’ of 15 fashionistas (globetrotting stylist and W magazine contributor Giovanna Battaglia, for one), checking out their favorite looks. It’s as close as you’ll get to shopping alongside them.

An Instagram-like interface allows members to upload their own images, although instead of ‘liking’, users either ‘admire’ a woman’s style or ‘love’ a piece of clothing. Brand pages allow designers and their teams to interact with their customer base. “Stella McCartney controls her page,” said Massenet.

It also wisely recognizes the power of ego in both social media and high-end shopping. A member might ‘love’ a $735 printed Peter Pilotto top, but once she’s seen that supermodel du jour Gigi Hadid agrees, she may well be moved to buy it.

The app also boasts image recognition — what Massenet calls the “holy grail” for e-commerce. Upload a photo of a little black dress you’ve spotted on the street, and Net-a-Porter’s technology will do its best to match the look to an item sold by one of the more than 350 lines carried by the retailer.

“It’s like Shazam, for shopping,” Massenet said. “Women will be shopping off each other. There’s so much complexity, trying to teach a computer to act like a human eye, but sometimes it’s freakishly accurate.”

This technology also works to channel a shopper’s inspiration into a purchase. An uploaded photo of pink spring magnolia blossoms brings up a long feed of floral print dresses, trousers, sneakers and more.

The Net Set is, of course, a data play as much as a mobile shopping tool. Members are encouraged to join or create ‘Style Tribes’: groups within the app with common interests or aesthetics. A user joining the ‘Double Denim’ group can upload favorite images they find online (a young Charlotte Rampling in jeans and a chambray shirt, in one case) while also giving Net-a-Porter an unprecedented look at the sorts of styles gaining traction with these younger shoppers.

“If you’re a member of ‘Double Denim’, we can email you when great new jeans come in,” said Massenet. If the app gains anywhere near the traction Net-a-Porter’s social media presence has seen (4.1 million fans and followers on nine channels), Massenet will have a data goldmine on her hands.

The in-house Net Set team is working on an Android version of the app to launch in the next few months. The iOS version is available as of May 13th.

“There’s a new generation of mobile-only, mobile-native shoppers,” said Massenet. “This is part of future-proofing Net-a-Porter.”

  • Clare O'Connor www.forbes.com