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CD3966 Coffee shop confesion headerspsdSwoon

How one company is using big data to build a reliable brand

Creating an online-only furniture brand was a risk, but Swoon's strong social presence and analytical approach quickly helped them build a trusted brand.

A quick scroll through the Swoon site is like a time-hop through centuries past. From the bold art deco cabinets to the classic Chesterfield-style sofas and armchairs, its online catalogue oozes with vintage charm. But beside these nods to bygone eras, the company is one of the most forward-thinking in the business.

Each of Swoon’s pieces is the product of careful research and data analysis – responding to up-to-the-minute trends and customer demand. And the choice on offer is second to none, with nearly every product available in a kaleidoscope of colours and fabrics. “Retail is quite challenging right now,” says Swoon co-founder Debbie Williamson. “There’s a lot of guesswork – you’ve got to predict what the new season’s designs are going to be.

“Our design team literally looks at data. We’re inspired by the world around us, and by what we see is popular online – and this means we can react to what the demand is right now. Products appear on our site within 12 weeks of their initial sketches, so we’re four times faster than the market. This approach means we can be very nimble, our prices can be affordable, and most importantly we can create products that people love.”

Reliable and desirable

When Ms Williamson set up Swoon in 2012, the idea of an online interiors business seemed fairly risky. While she had spotted a market for classic designs and beautiful, artisan craftsmanship – inspired by a string of “grown-up gap years” in places such as Central and South America, India and Vietnam – gaining trust in her brand was a separate task entirely. “A lot of people said furniture is a difficult category to sell online,” she admits. “Obviously it’s not without its challenges, but it wasn’t a problem.”

Essentially, if customers can’t see or touch your products, you need to find other ways to show off their quality. “If you present the product well with really good descriptions, really good photography or really good video, people can visualise it in their homes,” says Ms Williamson. “I think nowadays people are a lot more confident buying bigger-ticket items online.”

Cleverly chosen partnerships with leading department stores, including John Lewis and Debenhams, have helped attract new customers; but Swoon’s core following has grown through social media. “The content around a product, whether it’s on Instagram or Facebook, is the key driver,” she says. “And what’s really encouraging is that our customers are naturally sharing pictures of their homes so people can see our products in different environments. I couldn’t be more proud when I see our products in someone’s real home.”

Perfect partners

When it comes to starting a new venture, you have to have the right people around you. Ms Williamson points to her partnership with co-founder Brian Harrison, whom she met in a previous life working at the Telegraph. “We always got on really well when we worked together – we had shared values, but very different skill sets,” she says. While Ms Williamson is the creative brain behind the brand, Mr Harrison focuses more on scaling and growing the business: “I absolutely think I could only have got so far [with Swoon] by myself. Brian was the perfect co-founder.”

It’s possible two heads really are better than one – but these days, there’s little stopping budding design-preneurs from taking the plunge. “The days of writing 30-page business plans are over,” says Ms Williamson. “It’s about identifying an opportunity and testing it. You can test things now for very little money – you can set up a webpage, or do some research on Google Adwords to see if there’s demand for what you want to do.”

Above all, though, it all comes down to your products. “I think I was the customer [for Swoon], ultimately,” she muses. “When you know your target audience really well, you can build a great proposition that really resonates with them."

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