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A model from Zalando's latest 'Look Book' Zalando
smart clothes

The fashion giant that probably knows what you want to wear... before you do

We unpick the technology behind Zalando, Europe’s biggest online fashion store.

IN THE FRONTIER skirmishes of the online clothes-shopping world, enticing people to buy is as much about the data as the dresses and denim.

UK-based ASOS is the dominant player in Ireland and its home market with credentials firmly grounded in its appeal to trendy 20-somethings.

On its site, the fashion-forward approach manifests itself in features like mini catwalk videos of clothes and the “style feed” unpicking outfits worn by celebrities.

Elsewhere in Europe however, its main rival Zalando, based in Berlin, commands top spot with an approach that is less hipster, more geek-chic.

“One of the most important challenges to making e-commerce work in the long term will be to show you a smaller set that is better suited to you without you having the feeling that you’re missing something,” the company’s head of technology, Philipp Erler, told in a recent interview.

Doing this right, in a way that you don’t feel you’re pushed there … that’s challenging.”

Last year Zalando made €2.2 billion in sales, a 25% increase on the previous year, making it Europe’s largest online fashion retailer – although that comes largely on the back of its dominance in the German-speaking markets.

Part of its success has come from using technology to both draw in more customers and to lure those who do shop to spend more in every order. As Erler puts it: ”If we want to be quicker than everyone else we need to look forward.”


Last year, Zalando became one of the first major e-commerce sites to deploy image-recognition software, the development of which has been one of the largest projects for its near-1,000 tech staff.

The software enables users to upload a picture of an outfit and have the company automatically pick matching items from its catalogue.

The next step (to image recognition) would to also understand how an item feels … this is where the fashion experts come into play, because it is something we cannot solve yet with a machine,” Erler said.

Erler1 Zalando's Philipp Erler YouTube YouTube

A slow-moving industry

One of the company’s goals, he says, has been to drag the fashion industry as a whole into the 21st century.

We are still buying some brands via fax machines in 2015 … the whole industry is not very forward.”

With that in mind Zalando has been teaming up with some global brands by feeding them a stream of data about how their customers are shopping.

Royal visit to Germany British princesses Beatrice and Eugenie visit Zalando's offices in 2013 Chris Jackson / PA Images Chris Jackson / PA Images / PA Images

One of those labels is Nike, which the online retailer has supplied with detailed information on what clothes shoppers paired with their shoe purchases.

This is very valuable for Nike – they told us. They are one of the biggest brands in the world and they have huge revenues but they have very little direct access to this information.”

However combining a human eye for fashion with the power of software to roll out solutions at scale – thousands or millions of times over – remains a key piece of the e-commerce puzzle.

Zalando has also enlisted a team of fashion experts to make personal recommendations, a service launched in Germany in May under the ‘Zalon’ banner. The company now plans to roll out the same offering to other regions.

Stylists assemble a “personal box” of recommendations from the company’s catalogue for shoppers, while the fashion retailer’s software also makes its own judgements by crunching the data gleaned from all its sales.


The Irish component

Meanwhile, for a company that launched its Dublin office with much fanfare last year, Ireland remains notably absent from Zalando’s map of 15 European markets.

While the lack of an Irish site was “not great for the Irish customer”, Erler admitted, the company’s anonymity in the Republic helped when it came to staffing its local outpost.

The company currently has around 25 staff in Dublin working on its data-science projects and it has said it will hire up to 200 people in the city over the next three years.

f.l.t.r._enda_kenny_robert_gentz_joan_burton_martin_shanahan_0 Zalando CEO Robert Gentz in Dublin earlier this year Colm Mahady / Fennells Colm Mahady / Fennells / Fennells

“Whenever we recruit in continental Europe everyone knows our brand, we are huge there, we are the market leader,” Erler said.

“People think it’s only a web shop, people don’t know the iceberg … there is six or seven parts below the water. In Ireland it’s different: we don’t have a branch here and that helps us in recruiting, because we don’t have to overcome this idea that it’s just a web shop.”

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