Andrew Hood is nothing if not a realist: “We are an e-commerce business, there are millions of e-commerce businesses.” But he’s also well aware why the luxury homeware brand he co-founded – Amara – has become a global e-commerce success: “We have this desire and this drive and ambition to be better. If we’re not better than our competitors, we just won’t succeed.”
Ironically, this highly-motivated UK company was born out of a period of relative idleness. Andrew had quit his high-powered job in an investment bank and was enjoying what he refers to as, “my gap year.” It wasn’t to last. “I got this ultimatum from Mrs. Hood that either I went back to work or she was going to work. I was apparently cramping her style and getting under her feet.”
Mrs. Hood, otherwise known as Sam, had an idea. Having managed the re-design of her own home and the homes of friends, Sam realised there was a gap in the market for a first class interior design service outside of London, which could also offer the world’s most exclusive brands. She decided to open an interiors shop in her hometown of Chelmsford, Essex.
Partners in style
Sam had started collecting some exclusive pieces of furniture and the Amara dream had begun to take shape: “My first career was in fashion buying. However, over time I discovered that my real passion lay in interiors and interior design.” Luckily, her financially savvy business partner wasn’t far away, as Andrew explains: “I said I’m more than happy to help fund it, and write some sort of business plan. My advice to you is: you will need a website.” So at the beginning of 2005, Amara was formed – Sam set up the shop, and Andrew and their one employee “sat down and tried to figure out how they were going to build and run an e-commerce business.”
From bricks to clicks
“The physical store was immensely important,” said Andrew, “because the store was beautiful and had an enormous amount of credibility.” The store’s carefully curated selection of accessories and interior must-haves helped Amara build its client base, and form partnerships with big names like Missoni Home and William Yeoward Crystal. But the ‘luxury’ market was increasingly becoming about e-commerce. In 2006, the rapidly expanding Amara.com moved to a new home in the Essex countryside. And though the store eventually shut its doors and merged with the online business in 2008, Andrew believes “the store enabled Amara to demonstrate to luxury brands that we were serious, that we weren’t ever going to become a price-led discount type business.” A strategy that obviously paid off because, as early as 2015, Amara were celebrating an £8.8 million year.
Building an award-winning team
So how do you go from being two people with a business idea to an 85+ strong team running one of the UK’s fastest growing home furnishing sites? Andrew has a ready answer: “The culture of the people that work for us here is like nothing I’ve ever seen. This Christmas, my head of customer services was working 14/15 hour days regularly, making sure that our commitment to respond to emails within 24 hours was upheld.” And while other companies pay lip service to investing in young talent, Amara walks the walk: “Up until the last two years, the majority of our workforce was 20/21/22 year olds. You pick people that have the work ethic, that care, that have passion and you train them up.” Amara’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed – in 2015, they picked up the Feefo Gold Trusted Merchant Award for outstanding customer services, for the third year in a row.
Luxury is a state of mind
You don't get to be Ralph Lauren Home’s sole online retailer unless you really understand the mindset of the ‘luxury’ audience. Andrew Hood has a clear view on what makes them tick: “Top end fashion retailers are all extraordinarily good at making the customer feel like a million dollars. When those products arrive, you're wowed by the whole experience of opening that first box, and getting eventually to the product is a fantastic experience. It makes the customer feel incredibly important, and incredibly valued. So we set out to do that, for home.”
Delivering a fabulous experience
Asked what had been Amara’s biggest challenge, Sam Hood said, “Handing the logistics to a third-party was the biggest. Putting complete trust in them with regard to the customer receiving the Amara experience.” Thankfully, their relationship with DHL seems to have worked out. Andrew added, “We made a decision early on that we were only going to partner with whom we perceived to be the industry's best. DHL’s an incredibly trustworthy brand, it’s very recognizable.” Of course the test of any partnership is what happens when things go wrong: “We’re pretty good at placating a disgruntled customer. That needs to extend beyond my team to someone on the other end of a telephone or email that’s going to deal with my issue. And you guys do that.” Then as if that weren’t praise enough, “Our turnover is now twelve times what it was when we started working with you. So you’ve been part of our journey, and helped us grow over the years.”
Good things come to those who wait
Becoming a global brand wasn't easy. And it certainly wasn't quick. Although choosing a global logistics partner was straightforward, they needed a .com address to really expand into new territories. Amara.com was originally owned by a Latvian scientist but after ten years of negotiation, the name changed hands. This allowed Amara to establish itself globally, as well as locally in a handful of carefully chosen locations.
One eye on the future
After 12 years spent representing some of the most prestigious names in luxury homeware, Amara has become a brand in its own right. In 2016, they launched their first self-titled collection – A by Amara. Amara have also found a unique way to celebrate the people who do so much for every brand’s social status – the blogging community. 2015 saw the launch of the Amara Interior Blog Awards, an event that brought together top industry bloggers, leading brand sponsors and an elite judging panel. As for the future, Andrew hasn’t entirely ruled out the idea of another Amara bricks-and-mortar store: “If that became an opportunity, could I be persuaded to have a store in London and a store in New York? Yeah, I probably could.”
From the Essex countryside to Madison Avenue? Well, stranger things have happened in the Amara universe.
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