YNAP CEO Nisreen Shocair: ‘Returnships’, MENA retail’s evolution, and e-commerce trends


March 7, 2022 | By Shruthi Nair

As the RetailME photographers were setting up for our covershoot on the 29th floor of Boulevard Plaza overlooking the glimmering buildings of Downtown Dubai, which is where the YOOX NET-A-PORTER Middle East office is, Nisreen Shocair walks in wearing a bright orange shirt, chic white trousers and a smile as bright as her top, somehow single-handedly elevating the mood and energy in the cozy office space.

Having met her once at the Middle East Retail Forum’s CEOs Conclave, where her candid stories changed the mood of the table comprising of seven other men suited in black and one other woman, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the composed, pleasant, yet authoritative aura she brought with her.

Born in Nigeria, Nisreen has travelled the world, experienced different cultures and held senior positions across the Middle East, Europe and New York, in the fields of media and entertainment,and retail. Prior to commencing her retail journey 15 years ago, she worked for Hearst Entertainment for clients like Walmart, which gave her a glimpse of how licensing, imagery, branding, and attracting the right audiences work.

Using that experience, she moved to Virgin, a UK-based brand that started as a shop that sold records back in the 1970s. When Nisreen joined its Middle East base, Virgin was still a store that sold CDs predominantly but quickly diversified into a lifestyle destination for fashion, gadgets, beauty, and all things media and culture. “What was very apparent to me at the time was that a designer and an artist in fashion and music were so synonymous. You were seeing it with Beyonce and Jay Z, Kanye and Kardashians and so many more since then. We also saw artists being more comfortable putting a name on a product, to now fully owning a journey and becoming complete owners of a brand that they love and believe in (like Rihanna with Fenty). So the sticker slapping days were gone,” she said.

Following her long and successful stint with Virgin Megastore MENA that lasted over a decade, she took on the role of CEO of Ellaycom, an engaging fashion, beauty, home and jewelry omni-channel shopping experience as a joint venture with Saudi-owned media conglomerate MBC Group.  Ellaycom is a TV retail brand that brought beauty and design to the Arab world, through television, online and social media. The trends of chord-cutting, due to the surge in streaming platforms like Netflix, combined with inspiration drawn from the success of homeshopping channels in Asia, showed Nisreen that shoppable TV was the way forward.

“The project was purely Saudi-focussed and it taught me a lot about our Saudi customers and about inclusivity in terms of sizing, styling, as well as how far a description can go when done right. We turned it from a one-dimensional old-school homeshopping channel to a livestreaming digital platform. We were the only 24 hour livestream channel in the Middle East that was going to go digital,” she explained.

“Livestreaming in Asia had already taken over digital. The days of perfectionist studios were long gone. That led me to Project Beauty, where we got social influencers to sell the product, with the idea to make television programming fully shoppable. The producers could see the sales per minute. For example, when someone picked up an orange shirt and they saw the sales spike, they knew in real-time which items were moving faster,” she added.

the X in YOOX

An undisputed visionary, who was curious to read and predict market trends, bold enough to experiment, and driven enough to bring her ideas to life, Nisreen was among the very few women who had a seat at the boardroom table back in the days. “I was always alone, being the only woman in a sea of men in suits,” she remarked.

However, she never felt lonely or victimised or under-confident throughout her journey, which is why she was able to address the problem of women representation in the C-suite without bias and even propose realistic solutions to this very pertinent problem.

“In Virgin, I had 1500 employees and 30% of them were women. Virgin was a very tech-savvy environment. 15 years ago, when the government laws weren’t there to support maternity etc. a company had to really step forward to create the right roles and keep women in business,” she said.

Back in the days, when women were expected to play the predominant role when it comes to raising a child, cooking and other household chores, many working women had the tendency to feel ‘guilt’ for not fulfilling their primary duties as a result of putting in more hours at work. While things are slowly changing now, where the man and woman are taking on equal responsibilities at home, the issue of balance still remains.

According to reports, 75%-85% of all purchasing decisions are made by women, and yet less than 25% occupy C-suite positions. While the number of women entering the workforce at early stages of their careers is substantially higher, according to Nisreen, it is in the middle management level that companies start losing them. “When they hit middle management, they are on top of their game, but they are also in the toughest time of their personal life. They’re raising children and having their second child, life is becoming more complex financially and otherwise. So in this case, she needs to work but she is unable to balance,” she explains.

According to the International Labour Organisation, over 2 million moms lefts the workforce in 2020 due to the caregiving crisis created by Covid-19, exacerbating an already big problem. Even before the pandemic, labour force participation for mothers (55% for women aged 25-54 with partners and at least one child under the age of 6 at home) was lagging behind women’s overall participation rate (62.1%) and was substantially lower than that of fathers (97.1%). Working fathers, in fact, enjoy a labour market premium – they are more likely to participate in the workforce than all men in the same age group (whose participation rate is 93.5%).

Returnships over internships

So what is the solution? “Returnships instead of internships,” Nisreen responds. Returnships are simply return-to-work programs for parents who have taken time off from their careers to focus on their children and household. While there are a number of strategies that help moms navigate the road back to their careers, Nisreen has always believed in consistent time allocation as the first step.

“When they (mothers) are ready to quit and unable to balance it anymore, companies must allow them to take the time off to stay at home, but ask what they can offer, however small it may be. See if they can give you an hour, which becomes two and then three, and then a week becomes two weeks and so on. What I didn’t want is for her to quit work completely and stay at home for a long time and then lose the energy, drive and confidence to come back, or worse, the business environment is not there to support her,” she said.

“A major problem when women look for jobs is that there are gaps in their CV. What if we forgot about gaps and brought them back as returnships, where we bring them back at the level they left and retrain them at where they used to be? So as long as they can stay in middle management, we can keep them in upper management,” she added.

Being an advocate of women’s evolving roles in the workforce, a believer of purpose-driven businesses, and an innovator in her own right, Nisreen has always chosen companies that align with her own principles.

Leading YNAP

“One of the reasons I was interested in YOOX NET-A-PORTER was that the company was a huge endorser of women in tech, women in business, diversity and inclusion, which was not just reflected  in our campaigns but also the designers we were bringing onboard, our employees and more,” she said.

YOOX NET-A-PORTER is an online luxury and fashion retail business made up of four multi-brand online stores NET-A-PORTER, MR PORTER, THE OUTNET and YOOX as well as the YOOX NET-A-PORTER’s Online Flagship Store. With 5.3 million customers in 180 countries, YOOX NET-A-PORTER takes a localised approach to serving its clientele around the globe through its network of offices and operations across the U.S., Europe, APAC and joint ventures with Alibaba in China and Symphony Investments in the Middle East. YOOX – a name derived by the combination of the male (Y) and female (X) chromosomes linked by OO (denoting the infinity symbol) – merged with NET-A-PORTER in 2015.

“I love businesses that are well diversified. The Outnet is a less expensive platform for high-end brands, because they’re previous season, and NET-A-PORTER are the current must-haves. When the YOOX NET-A-PORTER merger happened, it was about leveraging the know-how of YOOX and leveraging the know-how of NET-A-PORTER, Mr Porter and the Outnet. YOOX, with the Infinity, tends to be very data driven, NET-A-PORTER tends to be very curation-driven. When the two come together with an intimate understanding of acquiring the right customers, it makes it the perfect marriage of brands. All of a sudden, as an office in the Middle East, we become able to promote local talent, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and are able to take the best of curation and apply it,” she said.

A massive consequence of Covid-19 was the supply chain bottlenecks all over the world that resulted in urging businesses to consider local sourcing and manufacturing options. However, one of Nisreen’s key goals has always been (even pre-Covid) to promote local designers and provide them with a platform to showcase their talent. However, her approach isn’t purely local-for-local – she intends on taking them global.

“I found an open door towards two things – bringing global to local, and also taking local designers global. A lot of platforms take local to local, but local to global is where a local designer can really make a difference as otherwise they will always remain in their small circle.  We are a small market and population. What we really need is for their products to be sold to a U.S. customer,” she said.

But its not just individual Middle Eastern designers, but also the overall Middle Eastern fashion scene that she aims to bring to the global map. “This year I am excited to be taking Ramadan, which is usually a localised event and making it a global event. This is exciting for us as we feel like the Middle East is making its own mark,” she said.

Big news in the market

Recently, the group announced the launch of its first marketplace in Europe reflecting a broader transition to a hybrid operating model, designed to enhance the customer experience, expanding its brand and product offerings on the site. We heard on the grapevine that the YOOX headquarters has chosen the Middle East as the next market where the concept will be introduced, so we asked.

“The headquarters has trusted us to be the second market to have a marketplace after Europe. We will launch in September/October. But we made a very strong case for local designers and we wanted to be closer to the customer,” she said beaming.

How exactly is this going to be different from the existing model? Currently, the Group buys all the items from the designers and brands upfront and then sells it on their platform taking ownership of the items. This is advantageous to the brands and designers as they get paid a lump sum irrespective of what eventually gets sold on the platform, which they can then use to fund their next collection. With the new marketplace model, brands and designer get to list their products on the YOOX marketplace, and they only get paid when their item is bought by a customer.

“As a businessperson, if you buy all the stock, your cash is always tied up in the stock. Also sometimes, we need to find out if the designer is going to do well. So we invite them in as a marketplace, which means they list their own products, we market it for them and they market it too. We work with them on the logistics and it gets delivered to the customer,” she explained.

“The consignment model is difficult for designers as they are relying on the items to be bought when they are trying to fund their next collection. Because that means a lot of items will be returned. We need a balance between the two,” she added.

When customers become clients become comrade

Apart from a revitalised focus on local sourcing, Covid-19 also urged businesses to change their approach towards customers and how they communicated with them. YNAP has always seen its customers as clients who they strive to build strong relationships with, which go way beyond just pushing products to them. The camaraderie between customers and YNAP employees grew stronger during the pandemic.

“When Covid-19 hit, a big part of our business was clientelling. Our personal shoppers were previously calling our Extremely Important People (EIPs) and selling them things. But at that time, people were not in a crazy buying mood. The approach then was to go soft, be measured, and not be tone-deaf of what the clients were going through,” she said.

“We changed the conversation and our approach was to simply keep in touch with them. Our team started having these phone parties where they started going through the client’s wardrobe and would start a decluttering exercise or would double up as their consultants or stylist. And this worked really well as people were looking to be inspired,” she said.

One may wonder (as I did) that if the approach of an e-tailer was not to overtly sell or push products to its consumers, then how exactly was the business making any money?

“I am a businesswoman first and I have never been in the business of losing money,” she quipped. “We saw a lot of our investment pieces, jewellery and watches (collectibles), and shoes and bags being sold, which wasn’t expected because at the time they were at home. But because we were inspiring them, they knew the time was going to come when they could wear them and they were investing in items they could wear forever.”

Despite YNAPs highly curated brand portfolio, it very much is a tech-company that allows data, with a tinge of intuition, to govern its decision making processes and technology to drive enhanced customer journeys and experiences. However, the beauty lies in how the experience of shopping from YNAP leaves customers feeling like a part of an intimate community with like-minded people who believe in sustainability, purpose, and conscious purchases. This reflects in all of its individual websites – including the recently launched localised website for the Middle East – and all the content that it puts out with the intent to inform, educate, include, and be relevant to its customers.

As our photoshoot was coming to a close, Nisreen was holding a NET-A-PORTER cloth cover made out of sustainable material, admiring a beautiful sequined Elie Saab jumpsuit, while talking to me about the future of NFTs and Metaverse in retail, a conversation we had the first time we met at the Middle East Retail Forum. And at that time, I couldn’t help but notice how Nisreen Shocair embodies YNAP so effortlessly – in being purpose-driven, promoting curated-fashion from local designers, while being a futuristic visionary in thought and action.

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