With its commitment to buy flash-sales site Zulily for $2.4 billion, shopping network QVC seems to have plucked the women-and-kids-focused retailer from a downward skid.
After all, while that price reflects reflects a 49% premium over Zulily’s share price on announcement day, it’s also still below its share price on the day it went public at the end of 2013.
What does the acquisition mean for Zulily, QVC, the flash-sales model, and retail innovation in general? Retail Dive takes a look.
What the pairing means for Zulily
The acquisition comes at a time when Zulily was zipping down a slide, with sales and its share price both falling fast. The retailer hasn’t been immune to the general downfall of the flash-sales model, where goods are available for a limited amount of time in order to create a sense of urgency that, for a while there, would stimulate sales.
And Zulily suffered from a problem that flash-sales sites have found difficult to solve: slow and frustrating fulfillment. Many such sites, including Zulily, don’t buy their goods until a sale happens. That has added weeks to fulfillment times, in an era when consumers expect their orders to arrive as soon as the same day.
Not only that, but Zulily’s Draconian return policy (allowed on very few items) and steep shipping fees have earned the retailer loads of complaints on chat rooms frequented by moms. After all, while Zulily is focused on young mothers and young children, pregnancy only lasts so long, and very young children grow quickly. Some customers found that their orders didn’t arrive until they were no longer needed.
What it means for QVC
But that millennial mom focus remains Zulily’s strength. It's a unique one for flash-sales and e-commerce in general. And that’s where QVC comes in. The shopping network is working to shed its "bored old insomniac" reputation and appeal more to millennials, especially women, and boost its e-commerce. Zulily provides an excellent platform for that. And, probably because of their unique consumer base, Zulily does appear to be doing better than most flash-sales sites.
The synergies of the two companies have been noted before, by none other than Zulily CEO Darrell Cavens himself. Cavens has favorably compared Zulily to QVC, telling the Wall Street Journal last year: “QVC is very much about discovery-based shopping. If you're out there and you've got something in mind, it's highly unlikely you'll turn on QVC and wait seven hours for that to come on,” Cavens said. “So it's very similar to Zulily. If there is a product your daughter absolutely loves, it's likely we're not going to have it today. Customers coming to our site don't know what they are going to get.”
What it means for retail innovation
But Zulily's rescue by QVC could be the death knell for the flash-sales model and perhaps even, argues Dan Primack in Fortune, for other tech-based retail innovations.
“If public equity investors begin to view Zulily and its peers as cautionary tales, then we could see even fewer IPOs for highly-valued tech startups. And that’s saying something, given how few of them we’ve seen so far in 2015,” Primack writes. “The IPO window for such companies isn’t closed, but today’s Zulily sale may well have narrowed it a bit.”
The bottom line
Zulily may be able to give QVC an opening among the Millennial mom set, which hasn’t completely given up on it. But it is safe to say that, for Zulily, the acquisition is something of a rescue mission.
Aside from the frustration that even its fans feel from its out-of-step fulfillment and return options (or lack thereof), Zulily has found it hard to pick up new customers who would come back around for more. And it hasn’t really tapped the fan base it does have to find out how to change up its merchandise or its models—an approach that Modcloth, for one, has employed to great effect.
"Zulily's problem is it's not sticky. Clearly they weren't getting a lot of return business," says Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at retail consultancy RSR Research. “This is QVC's core. This is what they do. They create community. If you don't know why you aren't getting repeat customers, you can leverage this community to help you figure out what you're doing wrong."