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Talking with... Gilt Groupe Founder Alexandra Wilkis Wilson

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With a valuation of more than one billion dollars, Gilt Groupe is one of the most fascinating, innovative start-ups of recent years in the retail world. At the bleeding-edge intersection of fashion, e-commerce, and technology, Gilt has changed the way people shop. First, they brought the sample sale online and with that the urgent and slightly addictive rush to shop to the digital world. And over the last two years, they have continued to innovate by bringing their impeccable shopping experience to the consumer with editorial-worthy apps on tablet and smartphone devices. Behind this powerful, digital, luxury brand are two fascinating and glamorous women. Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, authors of By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Ways Millions Shop. I was proud to recently chat with Alexandra, one of our key presenters at our upcoming Digital Retail Marketing 1/2 Day Workshop in New York City on May 1st, to discuss all things mobile and social, innovative retailers on her radar, and what’s next for Gilt Groupe. 

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Head of National Sales, Gilt City

Before founding Gilt Groupe, you worked in the luxury retail business. What lessons from the world of high fashion have helped you succeed in your current role?

I was very fortunate to have worked for two of the most prestigious luxury brands, one French (Louis Vuitton) and one Italian (Bulgari). My years working for these companies helped teach me the luxury mindset of old world European brands which recognize the need to modernize in some ways yet are not willing to compromise or change in others. Both these brands are incidentally staunchly opposed to discounting, so that also prepared me well for the hundreds of reasons why brands might not be receptive to partnering with Gilt Groupe, at least not initially when we launched in 2007. I am proud to say that over time, we have convinced over 6,000 of the world's most illustrious brands to partner with Gilt. I had many doors slammed in my face and unanswered calls and emails, but I never backed down and continually pushed forward with our vision and how I believed that partnering with Gilt could positively impact diverse brands for a wide range of reasons.

Gilt Groupe was an early pioneer of the flash sale model, but more and more companies are crowding the space. How has the tough competition affected your strategy? What have you learned from your competitors?

I am a tennis player and I always like playing with people who are better than I am. It makes my game stronger. We face competition from all sides, and that is actually a good thing for Gilt. It has forced us to continue to innovate and to surprise and delight our customers as quickly and effectively as possible. Our members have high expectations for what we introduce them to on Gilt. Our team works as hard as we can so that we don't let those customers down.

With the growing popularity of social media and mobile technology, the way people shop has already evolved since Gilt Groupe emerged in 2007. How has your strategy evolved to engage the social shopper?

Our business is constantly evolving to keep up with our consumer demand, our offerings and the world around us. We are having fun experimenting with various partnerships such as with Klout where for a limited time only customers discovered that the higher their Klout score, the higher their discount to shop on Gilt. That was fun and rewarded our customers with the greatest social influence. We also recently had a fun initiative called Pin it to Unlock It with our Gilt Kids business and Pinterest. We at Gilt have fun engaging with the social shopper and we learn from him and her every day. Our Gilt Customer Support team actively engages with customers via Facebook and Twitter. You don't believe me, try tweeting to @GiltSupport and see what you discover!

Everyone is opening email on phones these days. How important is mobile to your business? How has your strategy evolved to attract the mobile, on-the-go shopper?

Mobile has come to play a huge role in our business and that was certainly not the case when we launched in 2007. On weekends and holidays, revenues can be as high as 30% from mobile. Our engineers have developed award winning apps for iPad, iPhone, Android and m-commerce. Our customers are on the go, but that doesn't mean they need to miss out on what we have on sale at any particular moment on Gilt Groupe.

A company like yours must require a rock star marketing team. How do you keep your team ahead of the curve? What do you do to find, keep and cultivate good marketing talent?

We have an A+ marketing team, that is for certain, but in addition to that many of our employees, whether they are engineers, merchants or customer support representatives, have an inherent sense and understanding of marketing and its importance. To stay ahead of the curve, we eat, drink and breathe innovation. We all love to experiment and value internal creativity at all levels. Our company has grown to become a tech company, a powerful retailer and a robust marketing engine. Often people ask me, which of the three are you? My best answer would be all of the above.

You've seen amazing success, growing into a billion-dollar company in just four years. For you personally, what has been the biggest surprise along the way?

I never imagined how much fun and yet how emotional it would be! I feel like Gilt is my child, but then again many of us even beyond our team of five co-founders feel that way. Lucky for Gilt, it has many parents!

Which retail companies do you find most fascinating to watch?

I watch so many retail companies. I can't help it. Even if I didn't work for Gilt, I would watch them. It's what I love. I keep my eye on the department stores. I keep up with the luxury outlet malls in the U.S. and overseas. I need to know what's happening at the bricks-and-mortar off-price companies like: Century 21, Loehmanns, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, etc. I pay attention to what the other flash sale and group buying sites are up to, because I have to. I pay attention to QVC and HSN. But what I find most fun to watch is the retailers whose businesses are 100% focused online including the larger established ones like net-a-porter, ShopBop and Zappos, and then the newer and more innovative ones like Bonobos, and Warby Parker. The subscription world from Birchbox, to Shoedazzle, to Send the Trend is very exciting right now and I follow it closely. There really is so much innovation happening today, and much of it is in New York City which is fantastic. It is amazing and at the same time it is hard to keep up. It is a lot to take in everyday but it's fun and doesn't feel like work!

What's next for Gilt Groupe?

Improved personalization so that all customers who visit Gilt will feel that the site is personalized just for them.