France’s leading private sales web site Vente-Privee may have chosen a precarious time to launch in the UK, but founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon says the potential is there. He tells Lisa Berwin why.

Jacques-Antoine Granjon looks more like a rock star than a company director.

His office in Paris is crammed with more artworks than can fit on the walls. With long wavy hair, a leather jacket and jeans, Granjon is not a stereotypical retail chief – but then Vente-Privee, the hit French online private sales business he has founded, is not your typical retailer.

Granjon started out in retail at the age of 22 as a wholesaler, buying about 20 million overstock pieces a year from brands such as Burberry, Adidas and Reebok and selling them on to discounted brand shops in France. But by 2001, the business model had begun to fail. The big discount retailers wanted to go directly to the brands and, at the same time, a lot of the smaller retailers were falling by the wayside as shopper habits changed.
“Girls who in the 1980s bought from discount stores were now buying from H&M and Zara,” says Granjon. “One of the futures was to do nothing – not so good; one was to open a big retail discount store – and I don’t like having retail shops.”

As he faced these seeming dead ends, he struck upon the concept for Vente-Privee, which will launch in the UK in full this week. Vente-Privee is a private sales web site selling discounted overstock. Its mainstay is fashion, but it has also sold wine, cars and even apartments. Customers are invited to join the web site by other Vente-Privee shoppers, because brands tend to be happier to sell pieces to a business that operates in a discreet, controlled fashion.

“We decided we would take all our own pictures [for the site] and do high quality sales and ask people if they want to subscribe, all good brands and good quality, and that is what we did,” he says.

Despite what he admits was a slow start, the French business now expects sales in excess of 500 million (£386 million) this year, up from just 1 million (£771,981) four years ago. It employs more than 1,000 staff and five new people join the business each week.
The site soft launched in the UK in July. It also operates in Spain, Germany and Italy and Granjon believes its international markets will be able to equal Vente-Privee’s French sales.

Early attempts at international expansion, however, went less than smoothly. “Two and a half years ago we launched in Germany, but we decided to close it after six months,” recalls Granjon. The infrastructure was not in place and its postal service was far from perfect. He says: “We thought: ‘We are going to disappoint people.’” He swiftly closed it down.

Granjon will also only launch where there are enough strong brands to bring on board. To Vente-Privee, its relationship with its brands is crucial.
In-house, the company creates trailers for each sale – there are up to five a day on the French site – which it makes from scratch in consultation with the brand, doing the filming, photography and music itself. The music Vente-Privee creates has in fact become so popular that it has now released two CDs of its most popular tracks.

Although quirky and different, Granjon insists Vente-Privee is not revolutionary. “We are not creating a market, we are creating a new tool that gives advantage to the brands and the consumer,” he says. He adds that it is “better to sell on Vente-Privee than in an outlet store”, where product can sit for a long time. “We can sell in a day what they sell in a year,” he says.

In the UK market, Vente-Privee’s arrival faces growing competition from online private sale sites such as Koodos and Brand Alley. “More companies are doing this now,” Granjon concedes. “In France, we are the leader but have 90 competitors. At our quality you can do maybe one nice sale, but to do over 1,500 sales a year? It is very complicated and the barrier to entry is very expensive.”

He is pragmatic about his entry in the UK, describing it as a “major” market for the e-tailer. “We could fail completely by not understanding what the brands want,” he says. “But I think that if we keep doing what we are doing, they won’t even care that we are French.”

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Age: 46
Family: three children
Hobbies: include diving and art. Granjon is a keen art buyer

CAREER HISTORY
2008: launched Vente-Privee in Italy and the UK
2006: first trial in markets outside of France
2001: founded Vente-Privee
1985: set up wholesale business