A day in the life of: Web fashion chief revels in a disaster-free Christmas

Nick Robertson has had some bad luck in his times as an online retailer but 2006 has been a very good year. By Susie Mesure
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The Independent Online


Nick Robertson can afford to feel smug as he lunges out to hit his alarm clock. It's pitch black outside and the high street is still fast asleep. But he knows there is a high chance that somewhere in the UK someone is having a sneaky pre-work peak at Asos's website, wondering if there is enough time to bag a new party dress before the next Christmas do.

If he is feeling particularly curious, Mr Robertson, Asos's chief executive, can reach out to his Blackberry and dial up the sales chart that is as addictive for him as online shopping is for his company's customers.

In fact, it's the morning after the directors' Christmas lunch the day before. Seeing as the lunch turned into dinner, which turned into late-night drinking, Mr Robertson wouldn't be human if his first thought wasn't actually of caffeine and a big breakfast.


Despite the heavy night, Mr Robertson is at his desk in Asos's Holborn head office within the hour. He drives in from Fulham, where he lives with his wife, and he likes to beat the traffic. There's less than two weeks to go, but for the online fashion retailer, the Christmas countdown is shorter still. Anyone looking to buy a psychedelic Pucci-inspired shift dress as worn by Nicole Ritchie in far sunnier climes than ours as a present for their beloved will need to get clicking, because orders placed after Monday 18 December won't get there in time for the big day.

If that doesn't rock your boat, how about a Lurex silver kimono dress in the style of Paris Hilton? Or a backless metallic black number last seen on one very tanned and slender Kate Moss?

If you haven't clocked Asos's number by now - and if you're a day over 15 and even vaguely sceptical about the internet, then don't even bother, Mr Robertson doesn't want to know you - the web-based company's raison d'être is to bring celebrity fashions to the masses at prices that make even Top Shop look expensive.

"Ninety-six per cent of 15-year- olds have bought online. Get your head round that. And you know what, their perception of stores isn't based on what the high street has given them for 100 years. It's based on online," he says.

For him, the beauty of the internet is that it rips up the retailing rulebook. "You can be whoever you want to be on the internet because you're not operating within tightly defined four walls."


The air may be heavy with hangovers, but it would take more than a few late nights to dampen the spirits of the buzzy, young crowd that work at Asos. After Christmas was cancelled last year - the company's brand new giant warehouse was just yards away from the Buncefield oil explosion - there is everything to prove this time round.

Bad timing has dogged Mr Robertson since he co-founded the firm with Quentin Griffiths in the 1990s. The site was launched in June 2000, one month after the spectacular collapse of the online clothing retailer boo.com and just as the bottom fell out of the internet world. Worse was to come: he chose October 2001 to float, one month after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. And as for Buncefield? The explosion occurred on 11 December, Mr Robertson's first wedding anniversary.

He spends much of the day looking for wood to touch, but so far 2006 is looking like his year. Sales are flying, and shares in the company - which astonishingly is the only pure-play quoted retailer on the London market - have shot to record highs in recent days. It is now worth more than £80m, up from £2.5m at the start of 2004. On top of that, against the odds it snowed last Friday, just in time for the Robertsons' second anniversary weekend in Chamonix, where the Asos boss has bought a ski pad.


It is barely a couple of hours into the morning, but already the day's sales chart is looking extremely healthy. Asos has taken £40,000, or 10 per cent of that day's targets. A trip later to the warehouse reveals that the company is hitting all of its projections, and there are gaps aplenty in the racks. Recent figures showed that Asos.com grew by 94 per cent in its first six months. Its revenues are doubling every month at the moment, and Mr Robertson, who hails from a strong retail pedigree - his great grandfather was Austin Reed, he of the eponymous chain - is feeling bullish. "I genuinely think we can keep going at 70 to 80 per cent a year for the next two to three years."

He is not worried a jot about the march of the big retail boys such as Marks & Spencer on to the web. "All they've done is say, 'I've got a shop on the high street, and now I'm going to put that online.' Great. Tick the box. If that's all they're going to do, that misses the opportunity that is online retailing. That's why I'm not worried about the high street, I'm really not."

He sees the potential in being able to create an online fashion powerhouse, that can do the lot, from sell those copycat celebrity fashions at knockdown prices - "Top Shop made £100m last year at the expense of poor girls who want to look good. They've been ripping customers off for years. We're 20 to 25 per cent cheaper for exactly the same product" - to designer brands such as Chloe. "We're looking at what's good for the customer, which is that they get the opportunity to shop for a whole range of fashion, from discounted brands, to premium brands, to luxury brands, to value own-label, to premium own-label. Whatever it is, the economics of the internet allow you to do that."

The big focus for next year is adding celebrity brands, such as T-bags, as sported by new-best-friends Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, and launching TV clips offering fashion advice that can be watched on its website.


Mr Robertson isn't big on meetings: he doesn't need to be, as the office is so small he can practically shout to anyone he needs to contact. One exception are the meetings he has with the wonderfully named "continuous improvement department", which "just does change". Top priority is improving its range of delivery options and overhauling the website, the one and only shop in its empire. In particular, he steers clear of most meetings with the group's fashion buyers. "I know where my limitations stand, and selecting fashion is one of them."

Today he's off to the warehouse in Hemel Hempstead for an update from Unipart, the company that has handled Asos's logistics since early this year. Touch wood, he says, this should help it to avoid a repeat of Christmas 2004, "a horror story", because the group could not keep up with all the orders it was getting.

Despite only moving into the new site in autumn 2005, he reckons the warehouse will barely last one more Christmas before he needs to seek yet bigger premises. A nice problem to have for a growing business, although warehouse moves are always notoriously tricky for retailers.


Back in London, and it's just too tempting not to look at that sales chart again. Mr Robertson, who started Asos with money from his brother Nigel and Andrew Regan, the man behind a notorious £1.2bn failed bid for the Co-op in 1997, gets an e-mail every time an order is logged, yielding him a goldmine of marketing information. The only reason Asos recovered so quickly from the blip that was Buncefield was because it could e-mail all its 1 million-odd registered customers and tell them it was back in business. It recently launched a magazine, which it sends out to everyone who places an order.


It has been a long old day for a man with a hangover. Luckily he is so new to the industry - Asos's roots lie in a product placement company that got goods such as Carlsberg into programmes like EastEnders - that come the evening he doesn't have many work commitments. So it's back to Fulham, to walk the dog, for dinner with his wife. After all, he is still making up for that first wedding anniversary fiasco.

Skiing to success

Name Nick Robertson

Job Chief executive, Asos

Age 39

Education Canford School, Dorset. Left at 18.

Career history Briefly "ski bum" in Meribel, France. Started out at the ad agency Young & Rubicam. Later joined Carat, the media-buying company. Co-founded Entertainment Marketing, his product placement firm, in 1996, and started Asos four years later.

Married 11 December 2004, no children - yet.