Jacques-Antoine Granjon has been in business for 28 years, and in 2001 launched vente-privee, an online company that organises exclusive online flash sales for high quality brands seeking to “destock” last season’s products.
Granjon is not a typical businessman. He sports a flowing mane of chestnut hair that reaches far beyond his shoulders. He prefers boots to brogues. And he’s more likely to be seen in a necklace than a tie. Similarly, vente-privee is not a typical business: ‘sacrifice’ and ‘success’ go hand-in-hand. At the heart of vente-privee is a paradox: how can you sell destocked luxury items at a discount without cheapening the brands involved?
Granjon’s solution to this paradox is to establish a sense of worth by sacrificing one of the key benefits of the Internet: its ability to democratise access to products, services and information. Often referred to as ‘strategic inconvenience’, the limited information available to visitors to the vente-privee website that are not yet registered helps maintain an element of value and preciousness for the brands it sells and creates a feeling of discovery and intrigue for customers. “All that was invented on vente-privee wasn’t done thinking about the customer, but thinking about the brand. A large stock of unsold items can destroy the image if they’re sold in any old way. These unsold items must be channelled and that’s the essence of my business.”
“Everyone thinks vente-privee is a private club as we want to add value to our members, the brands and the community. What is true is that it’s a club to prevent search engines from coming to my site to look for brand prices and put them on Google, which would damage the image of the brands. It’s a club because the sales event is hidden. It can’t be exposed on the outside in order to protect the brands.”
At the heart of Granjon’s concept of ‘strategic inconvenience’ is an insight into how desire is created. We tend to value things more when we have to work to find them. It might be easier to find cheap luxury items through Google, but where’s the fun in that? Particularly when it comes to luxury items, we want to be teased. We want to be tempted.
“Amazon, the e-commerce giant, currently represents need: you need something, anything, and you go to Amazon. And in ten years, it will be a question of answering even greater needs, from the low end to the high end. I plan to be the opposite of Amazon. I’m going to create desire and create desirable events. To succeed on the Internet, two things are necessary and Amazon is based on them: a very large range of products and an extremely high level of customer service. I have a very large range of products and I have a high-level of service for customers and brands. vente-privee is desire, Amazon is need.” This is not a niche strategy. vente-priveé’s sales are €1.3 billion, of which France accounts for 80%. There’s still plenty of room to grow. But Granjon isn’t in a hurry. The story of vente-privee is a long one and is as much a personal tale as a story about business.
It’s the story of a guy who lives in France and wants to be independent. He doesn’t want to work in a ‘structure’ because he doesn’t fit into one and doesn’t want to take orders. He doesn’t know how to do everything, but he does like to surround himself with competent people. Above all, vente-privee is an adventure involving people. Julien Sorbac was my partner from the beginning, Mickael Benabou joined us four years later and my brother-in-law Xavier Court fifteen years ago. Even my wife Eleonore has been working with us since 1994. I have always thought of this company as a human adventure, with shared enjoyment, freedom and independence, with an economic goal at the start.”
It becomes clear in our discussion that the enjoyment of freedom and independence comes at a price. Adopting a policy of ‘strategic inconvenience’ requires a tremendous amount of tenacity. vente-priveé’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed over the years. Potential competitors have been queuing up to knock the business off its perch, typically with the same idea: ‘if vente-privee has managed to build a successful business by making life inconvenient for people, just imagine how much opportunity exists for a similar business that offers convenience instead’.
“The copiers started to show up in 2007, they observed what we were doing and found it rather easy. There were 500 copiers throughout the world in the space of two years. They took two years to create their business and arrived on the market in 2009. Some people have a short-term vision and pull out in front, but those with a long-term vision are the final winners. You need to be a frustrated pessimist. A businessman who’s too optimistic can be naïve. But naïvety doesn’t belong in a company because, to my way of thinking, only the paranoid survive. I am always paranoid and on the defensive. I have a motto, the Latin saying: “Capitolium saxo proxima” (A fall from grace can come quickly). You can be on the pinnacle like a powerful senator and then be hurled to a shameful death... from the very same place.” Granjon’s formula for avoiding such a tragic and dramatic fall from grace is a characteristic combination of simplicity and contrariness in an industry so frequently accused of frivolity and faddishness.
“What is important is why we do things. Success is achieved through the realisation that you should never forget what is essential and why you are doing something. I am not someone who would sell his company because I think we can still do much better. In the 2000s I asked myself: how can I ensure the long-term survival of my business? I came up with wrong tracks and dead ends. It’s the same with life; it’s a labyrinth. All the changes in my company are tied to a constant search for integrity, a search to find how to do as well as possible in my business. The success of vente-privee is based on constancy.”