Best e-commerce (and video) 2021: The Armoury
Best e-commerce: The Armoury
Runners-up: Mr Porter, Luca Faloni
Mark Cho and I have been playing e-mail tag for a while. First he had to move the call, then I did, and when we finally connect, he’s in the back of a cab on his way home.
“Sorry about this, I thought I’d be home by now. Shall we wait, or see if the line’s OK here?”
We decide to go ahead. Waiting til Mark gets home will only introduce more distractions, as we discover later.
“OK, so tell me the story,” I say. “How did you start doing these videos that everyone likes so much?” I am referring to the regular - and at the beginning very frequent - videos Mark has been posting on Instagram and YouTube.
Usually showing Mark in the shop, talking direct to camera about a product that’s just come in, or what he’s wearing, these videos have had a very positive reaction. So much so that they were the main reason PS readers voted Mark’s store - The Armoury - the best e-commerce in our recent awards.
Of course, I know the story already. Mark and I talk often, and back during lockdown last year, we chatted about what had spurred him to appear on camera so much.
“Well, basically I’d been in quarantine at home for two weeks, doing very little,” he says, re-telling the story for my tape. “I think I’d spent pretty much all of it in pyjamas, which was great, but not exactly stimulating.
“I’d travelled to Hong Kong from the UK, and when you arrive you have to quarantine at home. They make you download this app, and then you get two minutes to ‘demarcate’ your quarantine area. You basically run madly around your house, putting your phone round all the edges.”
This is the image that stayed with me. Particularly as I knew what Mark was wearing as he sprinted round the house.
“So then, when the quarantine was over, I was itching to do something different. Our shop wasn’t closed, as Hong Kong actually only closed them very briefly - they were good about that. But there was no one around, no customers. So I started playing around with video and lights.”
Mark is a tech nerd, perhaps even more than a menswear nerd, and I had no problem imagining him researching all the appropriate gear, plus the best lights, angles and times of day.
However, it’s also telling that he started doing this because there were no customers. If there’s one thing Mark enjoys the most - and this goes for a lot of current and ex-Armoury employees - it’s being in the shop, talking about clothing to people that are interested.
And this was the approach he took with the videos themselves, consciously or not. “I always imagined I was talking to a customer - whether explaining a product to them, or suggesting how it could be worn. That kept the videos focused too, it meant I wouldn’t just ramble on,” he says.
At this point, Mark arrives home. There is a brief conversation in Cantonese with the taxi driver, in which I only recognise the words ‘stop here’. I recognise those because they were the only words I learnt when I used to travel to Hong Kong. Everyone but the taxi drivers spoke English. But you needed to know how to say you wanted to get out.
I tell Mark this, and he laughs. Then says something disparaging about the driver’s parking skills, before swearing, and expressing hope the driver didn’t hear.
“I think my approach to the videos was different in that respect to yours,” he says. Mark’s walking into his building, and has taken over the narrative.
“Permanent Style videos really aim at being comprehensive, right? At including everything on a particular topic. So you never have to cover that again.” I agree, and concur. It’s why PS videos - just like the articles - can be long.
“You can’t do that with a customer in the shop. You can’t go into that much detail. Also, most videos are more like you’re on TV - speaking to the world in general - rather than just to one (imaginary) customer.”
That means much less preparation is required too. “It’s always been unrehearsed, colloquial, with no list of things I want to say,” Mark says. “That’s probably out of laziness more than anything, but it does make it more like being in the shop.
“I’ve done videos before where I had a list of things to say, but then if I missed anything I would freak out. I’m too much of a completionist. This format was very freeing.”
Personally, I also find Mark’s tone works well on Instagram. After all, most people who see the videos are just scrolling casually through their feed. A casual chat sits well.
This means some of the videos overlap from time to time, but that can be an advantage in a social stream, where no one sees every update. Unlike something intended as a reference source.
Mark is now home, and connection issues take over. The call tries to switch to his home WiFi, and starts cutting out, before becoming very quiet, and then very loud. We go back to mobile data, but the reception is poor. Finally, a room is found with good reception.
Time feels pressing all of a sudden, and the conversation speeds up. It’s the quick-fire round all of a sudden.
Which videos do you find the easiest? “Definitely the ones about products. After all we’ll have spent months deciding everything about it, so there’s lots of information. And it will be the kind of sales pitch I’ve done a million times before.”
Which videos are the most fun? “The styling ones probably. You get to play around with different pieces, and colours. Although after a while I was afraid those started to get repetitive, because there’s only so many clothes in the shop for everything to go with.”
Which do customers respond to the most? “Probably ‘What am I wearing and why’. I guess that’s always going to have broad appeal, but I liked talking about why I was wearing clothes too, the reasons and motivations. Rather than just the whole forum thing of showing off your outfit.”
How have they changed over time? “I found them easier to do at the start - it usually only took two or three takes. Now it can take five or six. I think I’m just more sensitive to how I want them to come across now. So if I find myself waffling, for example, I’ll restart. I think I also covered all the easy topics at the start. I’m onto the more complex ones now.”
Apparently commercial issues kicked in as well. The team in both New York stores, or running online, wanted product to be available when it was covered in a video. That requirement for more organisation is also why there are fewer videos - usually two or three a week, rather than almost daily.
When Mark spoke at our online Symposium in July last year, more than one reader commented how good Mark looked - his set-up, the lighting. Clearly working this out for his videos has had other benefits. So what are his top tips for doing video well?
“Lighting is huge - getting enough and the right quality. A good diffuser is really important. And you have to accept that it’s going to take up a lot of space. Like, unless you have a lot of space, it’s just going to be hard to get the best possible results.
“You end up with basically a massive shower curtain that sits between your light sources and you. Beyond just a softbox for the light - you need one more layer.
“It’s particularly important for people like you and me that wear glasses. Because if you have a point light source, the shadow of the frame on your face can be really pronounced. It looks weird - raccoonish.
Will he still be able to do all that when there are people in the shop? “Hopefully. I do think filming in the shop is an important part of our identity. So I’m going to try and find a way to build all the lights into our shop fit-out, so it’s more discreet. Then I’ll just come into the shop an hour or two before we open, and do them then.”
I think this professionalism might be the key reason Mark’s videos have been so popular. Yes, in the age of social media everyone is a brand and a publisher. And yes, most people have figured out a way to take decent selfies.
But because they’re not professionals, anything requiring a bit more production is usually poor. And they don’t do other things, like publish consistently, tailor content to viewers, make sure there’s variety week to week. Basically, they don’t do the things a professional editor of a magazine, radio show or TV channel would do.
Mark, as a retailer, always has these things in mind. “Interestingly, that doesn’t feel like a conscious choice,” he says. “It just happens because of what you do every day - talking to your team, talking about new product. It makes you more professional about everything.”
It’s 7pm now in Hong Kong, and I feel bad keeping Mark on the line any longer. Soon, hopefully, we’ll be able to do this in person instead, over dinner, with more time to (literally and figuratively) chew the fat.
Today we finish with Mark’s aims for his new media outlet. “Not size, certainly,” he says. “The views aren’t that big on the videos, but that’s fine. The more I run a business like this, the less I care about the volume of customers and the more I care about the quality.”
That might seem obvious given The Armoury is a specialist, and expensive. But I don’t think it’s typical for online media - once you have the whole internet to aim at, the aim is usually to get as big as possible.
“One thing I like about being small, is also that you get better comments. There are only a few, but they’re nice and from genuinely interested people,” he says. “I don’t know how you cope with the kind of commenters you often get on Permanent Style, who just seem to want to see their name up there, or vent some personal frustrations.”
Let’s prove him wrong. Polite and interesting comments only please.
Thank you to Mark, for our rambling chat. And Mark wishes to say thank you to all of you, for voting for The Armoury as the best e-commerce brand of 2021. He's even made a little video, appropriately.
Here it is.
The videos embedded above are a couple of Mark’s favourites. You can see the whole YouTube channel here.