Flash sale industry as an emerging business

Gilt Groupe

CEO, Gilt Groupe

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Re: Strategy 2014-2020

The purpose of this report is to understand where the industry is today, and where it is going for the future. Recommendations are also given with respect to strategy going forward for the Gilt Groupe, as one of the industry leaders.

The online clothing flash sale industry grew rapidly initially, but that growth has tailed off recently. One of the major barriers to growth lies in the supply chain, where there is a shortage of merchandise for the deep discount market. Suppliers have incentive to minimize the amount of goods available to this market. However, Gilt is the industry leader with a 30% share, which means that it has the opportunity to forge better relations with suppliers than other companies in the industry. Knowing that supply chain constraints are the most significant barrier to entry and barrier to growth in this industry, Gilt can solidify its leadership position in the business if it becomes the supply chain leader. To this end, it is recommended that Gilt Groupe restructure from a horizontal functional structure to a balanced matrix structure that places emphasis on cross-functional work teams. In particular buyer teams can work together to meet supplier needs to a greater degree than the company’s competitors, giving Gilt a key competitive advantage.


The flash sale industry is an emerging business within B2C e-commerce wherein companies offer discounted merchandise — usually clothing — at deep discounts (IBIS, 2012). Discounts can range from 50-70% off MSRP, which makes the flash sales deeper than most discount stores (Deogirikar, 2013). The industry is young — Gilt was one of the earlier entrants in 2007 — and while it has achieved strong growth to this point, there are signs that the industry is beginning to slow — growth in 2012 was 12.4%, down from 26.3% in 2011. IBIS predicts an average annual growth rate of 11.7% for 2012-2017. The slowing growth in the industry is mirrored by the slowing growth at Gilt:

Source: IBIS (2012)

This graph shows that growth is still fairly strong, but that it is nowhere near the steeply sloping growth from a few years ago. Gilt needs to be able to continue this growth going forward, however, and that is the biggest challenge that the company faces. This slowing growth combines with an estimated 150 new entrants expected by 2017 (versus 100 in the industry today) to mark a dramatic increase in competitive intensity (Brown, 2012). There are several expected outcomes of this new competitive dynamic, none of them good. It is within this context that the report has been prepared.

Industry Overview

The flash sale industry is an emerging niche market within apparel retailing. The flash sales business model consists of online sales. There is no regular merchandise, but merchandise is acquired directly from apparel producers who need to liquidate old stock, samples, and other items that can be difficult to sell to large retailers. These items are put on sale at deep discounts for a short period — at Gilt this is usually 36-48 hours — in order to liquidate the merchandise as quickly as possible. Many companies in the industry use a membership model — Gilt is one of them — wherein the consumer pays to become a member of the site can gain access to the sale goods. Thus, there are two sources of profit — high margin membership and low margin merchandise. If they are not charging a small fee for membership, they probably should be. The breakdown of merchandise sales is as follows:

Source: IBIS (2012)

The target market is females aged 18-44. This group has a high level of broadband adoption, is tech-savvy, and generally more fashion-conscious than the older demographic. Broadband access is one of the key drivers of growth in this industry, an IBIS notes that the number of broadband connections continues to be on an upward trajectory. It was around 100 million in 2007 when Gilt started, sits at just over 200 million today and will plateau around 260 million by 2017 (IBIS, 2012).

Gilt Groupe was an early entrant into the flash sale industry, and today commands a 30% market share. As of 2012, the industry has around 100 players, but the top four players account for 60.6% of the market. The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) of industry concentration is around 1300, making this a moderately concentrated marketplace (Investopedia, 2014). This means that concentration is not a significant barrier to entry yet, but there could be antitrust implications if Gilt wanted to expand through acquisition — buying the #2 in the industry would increase the concentration to the ‘high’ level, getting the attention of the Department of Justice.

Industry Forces

A good way to understand the desirability of an industry is to examine the forces that drive profitability. Porter’s Five Forces model is a good way to do this. The five forces are the bargaining power of suppliers, the bargaining power of buyers, the threat of new entrants, the threat of substitutes, and the intensity of rivalry within the industry.

The bargaining power of suppliers is one of the most interesting elements of the industry. Right now, it is the buyers who are driving the industry’s growth. The benefit of the industry to suppliers is rapid liquidation of stock, but this is a service that is provided by a lot of different operations, including discounters like Marshall’s, not just the flash sale industry. Flash sales might be more desirable for many companies in the fashion industry, but there are options for suppliers. That means that they have some bargaining power. Furthermore, many suppliers would prefer not to have excess stock — liquidation to a company like Gilt essentially costs these suppliers money. With many new competitors in the flash sale industry, the bargaining power of suppliers increases (Porter, 2008).

The bargaining power of buyers is suprirsingly high. The industry caters especially to buyers who are seeking deals — in some respects the deal is more important than the actual good in question, which is seemingly irrational. Brown (2012) identified bargain fatigue as something that was slowing down the growth in the industry, and it relates to this phenomenon of the deal being more important that the good. For the consumer, if everything is a deal, then the deal is not special. Consumers who are fans of flash sales are likely to sign up to multiple flash sale sites, and this creates a barrage of emails. Marketing messages blend into each other and the consumer begins to tune them out — again, they stop caring about deals because the deals are not special, and begin to tune out the offers unless it is a product they genuinely need (Yi, 2013). Consumers therefore are becoming more rational. It is also worth noting that the flash sale fatigue is not just limited to fashion — while Gilt competes only in fashion, consumers receive flash sale marketing from a wide range of companies using this business model (Sachs, 2012).

The threat of new entrants is quite high. Starting a site is very easy and low-cost, as evidenced by the millions of sites with e-commerce functionality. The most significant barriers to new entry are in the supply chain. Flash sale sites require inventory, getting goods from suppliers that can be sold at deep discounts. There are discount chains, and a large number of flash sale sites, all competing for what ultimately is a sliver of the fashion market. As fashion marketers improve their information systems and management, they are aiming to reduce their inventory that would be unsold and have to go to the discount market. Thus, the biggest challenge to success in the flash sale industry is to secure inventory. For a large company like Gilt, this is an opportunity because its track record of success makes it more attractive to sellers, but it is also a threat because it has to provide enough merchandise to justify membership for tens of thousands of users.

The threat of substitutes is also quite high. There are two reasons for this. First, there are many ways to acquire clothing, including other discount retail stores. Second, if the main attraction for many consumers is the deal itself, that basically means that flash sales are discretionary spending, and compete with all other discretionary spending, including deals on non-fashion items. Convincing consumers to spend discretionary money on clothing deals is quite a bit more difficult than convincing them to spend their clothing budget at Gilt. Consumer behavior is an important variable in the true competitive field of this industry.

Within the industry, rivalry is expected to be high. There are 100 firms in the business, with another 150 on the way, but growth is slowing and the growth in supply is not matching the growth in the number of retailers. This means the players in the industry are going to engage in intensive competition, not just for customers, but for supply chain partners as well. Winning the supply chain war is going to critical to success in this industry, perhaps more than dealing with customers.

Overall, there are reasons to be concerned with the flash sale business model. Most factors are unfavorable. Bargaining power is fairly low, there are many alternatives for customers to spend their money, and there are expected to be a lot of new entrants into a market that is seeing slowing growth and supply chain constraints. With a high-volume, low-margin product, it will be difficult for firms going forward to maintain the volumes needed to cover fixed costs. Already, some major players in the industry are shifting their business models away from flash sales (Berk, 2012).

Implications for Gilt Groupe

Despite the doom and gloom, the flash sale industry is still growing, and Gilt Groupe is still growing. There will always be consumers who value a bargain, and if the industry remains/becomes unfavorable then many competitors will either exit or rethink their plans to enter. In particular, if competitors have difficulty accessing steady inventory supplies, they might exit the industry. IBIS (2012) note the revenue volatility can be quite high in this industry, especially for smaller companies that do not always have inventory they can discount. Larger companies in other areas of flash sales, like Groupon, have managed to enjoy some success largely because they have enough inventory supply. This means that Gilt Groupe needs a strategy to ensure that it has competitive advantage in its supply chain, because that is how it will have competitive advantage overall. Of all the things that Gilt can do to help itself succeed, supply chain dominance is the most important.


It is recommended that Gilt focuses effort on optimizing relationships within its supply chain. Ultimately, supply chain partners do not care that much what Gilt sells the merchandise for, or whether Gilt turns a profit; what they value in a partner is someone that will buy from them consistently. Gilt, as the largest player in the fashion flash sale industry, can offer that. However, there are ways that Gilt can enhance its attractiveness to suppliers.

Gilt should restructure its organization to an organizational design that is better suited for its business needs. As a young company, Gilt has built itself up with little regard for optimizing its organizational design, and presently has a horizontal functional structure, which is very basic and traditional, but does nothing to enhance its business. Supply chain is just one of many divisions, given roughly equal weight within the company. This model is acceptable for a start-up, but at this point Gilt is facing an increasingly challenging industry environment. The good news is that Gilt has the ability to dominate this market. Operating from a leadership position with a 30% share is operating from a position of strength.

The recommendation is to move to a balanced matrix structure. The balanced matrix structure operates project groups underneath of the functional structure. It does not require a high amount of reorganization from the functional structure currently used, but emphasizes cross-functional project teams in order to tackle major problems within the organization. An example of a balanced matrix structure for Gilt would be:

This chart shows how the balanced matrix structure would work for Gilt. The company would have cross-functional buyer teams that consist of people from several different functional divisions. In particular, there would be supplier relations people, merchandising and IT sales, and they would work together to identify and meet the needs of the key suppliers in the industry. Such teams would have the objective of working with the biggest suppliers to bring them on board with using Gilt as their main outlet. There would be targets for both the number of clients and the volume of business. While it would probably be illegal to have these clients sign exclusivity deals given the market-leading position for Gilt, such a strategy could be employed in some way, if only to squeeze a few competitors out of the market. The legal department will want to advise on that.

The key to this recommendation is that currently supplier management is an ad hoc process. But there are major suppliers within the industry whose goods will regularly appear at flash sales. Many suppliers, however, have reservations about using the industry, for example many might prefer to avoid deep discounts on their brands. Certainly, many suppliers of premium goods want to have fairly tight controls over the discounts that are offered. By optimizing supply relationships, Gilt can offer the discounts on the brands that are most attractive consumers, while also finding a way to meet the needs of key suppliers (Tellis & Zufryden, 1995). Gilt’s size will help it to do this better than the competition, and that can create a significant barrier to entry. Noting that one of the biggest threats to Gilt is that the industry is facing a glut of new entrants at the same time as growth is slowing, finding ways to be a the retailer of choice for the best suppliers in the industry is an essential element of success. Raising the barriers to entry is a tactic that will serve Gilt well in the long run.


Shifting organizational priorities is important for Gilt at this stage of its growth. As growth begins to slow, there is the risk that the entire industry will become mature. For Gilt, the opportunity is now to restructure the organization in preparation for this. Gilt’s current organizational structure is very basic, and within it there are barriers to success. By shifting to an organizational structure with a balanced matrix, Gilt can retain much of its current structure at the higher levels, but develop cross-functional buyer teams that will be better able to meet the needs of key industry suppliers.

This shift in the organizational design is the most important strategy that Gilt can undertake right now. The shift will allow Gilt to leverage its current position as industry leader to shore up its supply chain and create more barriers to entry, perhaps preventing this glut of new arrivals into the industry. Gilt can do this now while the industry remains only moderately concentrated — if it tries to do this when the industry is more concentrated it might face antitrust action.

The buyer teams will help Gilt to deal with the biggest challenge that the industry is facing right now, which is a supply shortage. There is little doubt that buyers still want flash sales, even if growth in the industry is slowing, but firms in the industry need a steady supply of good merchandise in order to retain their existing customers, continue to attract new ones, and to generate enough revenue to cover fixed costs. For Gilt, a change in organizational structure will help it to gain competitive advantage in supply chain, because while its smaller competitors are trying to build their brands and their websites, Gilt will be able to focus on supply needs, in addition to its competency in meeting the needs of customers.


Berk, C. (2012). Time for flash sales to adapt or die. CNBC. Retrieved May 4, 2014 from http://www.cnbc.com/id/47507737

Brown, M. (2012). 5 ways the flash sale industry is changing. PFS Web. Retrieved May 4, 2014 from http://www.pfsweb.com/blog/5-ways-the-flash-sale-industry-is-changing/

Deogirikar, P. (2013). Online flash sales: Second wave of e-commerce or next bubble? IIMB Alumni Association. Retrieved May 4, 2014 from http://www.iimbaa.org/IIMBAA/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=350%3Aonline-flash-sales-second-wave-of-e-commerce-or-next-bubble&catid=24&Itemid=134

IBIS (2012). Online fashion sample sales in U.S.. IBISWorld In possession of the author

Investopedia. (2014). Herfindahl-Hirschman Index. Investopedia. Retrieved May 4, 2014 from http://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hhi.asp

Porter, M. (2008). The five forces that shape competitive strategy. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved May 4, 2014 from http://hbr.org/2008/01/the-five-competitive-forces-that-shape-strategy/ar/1

Sachs, A. (2012). Flash sales entice bargain-hunting travelers. Washington Post. Retrieved May 4, 2014 from http://seattletimes.com/html/travel/2018088994_weblashsalestrend29.html

Tellis, G. & Zurfryden, F. (1995). Tackling the retailer decision maze: Which brands to discount, how much and why. Marketing Science. Vol. 14 (3) 271-299.

Yi, J. (2013). The rise and fall of flash sales. E-Commerce Rules. Retrieved May 4, 2014 from http://ecommercerules.com/rise-fall-flash-sales/

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