“Order shoes on the Internet, without trying them on? That’ll never work!” The feedback that the university friends Robert Gentz and David Schneider received in response to their business idea was, let’s just say, restrained. Their timing could have been better, too: Zalando was founded in fall 2008 – just a couple of days before the start of the financial crisis. In the early days, the small team worked from a shared apartment on Berlin’s Torstrasse that had been turned into an office and warehouse. Everybody got involved.
The founders’ private cellphone numbers became customer hotlines, and they took all the packages to the post office themselves. By offering free delivery and up to 100-day right of return, Zalando set new standards in online retail. The customers liked it – and this little team of people grew so quickly that they were soon forced to find new office space. Around two years after the company was founded, Robert and David convinced another university friend, Rubin Ritter, of the potential of their business idea, and he joined them as the third member of the Management Board.
Finally, the adventure really got under way and Zalando conquered its first international markets. Following its successful launch in Austria and Switzerland, The Netherlands became the first non-German-speaking market in 2010 – and it taught a valuable lesson that would come to define the future strategy. Our “Scream with joy!” TV advertising campaign, which had proven a big hit in Germany, was not at all well received by Dutch audiences. It even won an award for the year’s most irritating advert, twice in a row. So what did we learn from this? Even if some markets border each other geographically, they can be worlds apart when it comes to the tastes, desires and expectations of customers. Service and communication have to be adapted to suit local conditions. Zalando is now active in 15 European markets, offers its customers more than 20 local payment options, collaborates with different regional logistics service providers and speaks 12 languages, not only in its online shop but also in customer service. After all, we want everyone to understand us.
The Requirements Are Growing
As the number of customers increases, so do requirements regarding logistics and technology. To ensure that we can even more effectively meet the diverse demands of our ever-increasing customer base, Zalando has expanded its international logistics network. What began in the cellar belonging to a shared apartment now includes a network of four fulfillment centers in Germany and at international locations in France, Italy, Poland and Sweden.
A Start-up at Heart
For our customers in 17 European markets, buying products in Zalando’s online shop is a fun experience thanks not only to our convenient delivery options and services. Innovative and inspiring technology plays its role, too. Over the past few years, Zalando has attracted more than 2,000 tech experts from all over the world. Despite the company’s current enormous size, it’s the curiosity and start-up spirit of the early days that is still in the foreground. In the Innovation Lab or during our Hack Weeks, employees have the opportunity to put their ideas into practice in a non-work environment and test out new technology.
At Zalando, we nurture an active culture of testing. We try out lots of things and even take risks – provided that they are calculable and we can justify them. So what is it that motivates us, day in, day out? We want to offer our customers real added value – ideally by taking more unconventional approaches.
Zalando Has Grown Up
With our strategic focus toward an online platform, our view has also changed of who Zalando customers are. We are evolving from simply a fashion retailer to an online platform – or, rather, an operating system for the fashion world. Through numerous different channels and by offering a diverse array of services, Zalando already connects all the major players in the fashion industry – from end customers, through retailers, brands, stylists and factories, to advertisers.
We are no longer a Berlin start-up, but a European company – Zalando SE. Zalando employs more than 15,500 people from more than 130 countries and is headed by management board members Robert, David and Rubin.
And what’s more, the original office on Torstrasse has been reopened and is now home to small project teams working on innovative services and testing out new technology.