Online fashion is extension of the high street

The fashion industry can strengthen the identity and reach of its brands by giving retail websites a ’touch and feel factor’ that replicates the in-store experience, according to research exclusive to Marketing Week.

Online shopping has become less stressful than its high-street counterpart. To avoid the crowds, queues and the disappointment of a coveted item being sold out, many consumers have taken to the comfort of their homes to make their desired purchase in a few clicks of a mouse.

But many consumers are still put off shopping online because of uncertainty over what they are buying, according to research by GSI Commerce shown exclusively to Marketing Week. Looking specifically at online fashion, GSI Commerce polled 1,092 UK adults to explore consumer attitudes towards the retail experience.

The majority of factors that stop people from buying clothes or accessories online relate to being unable to physically touch and try on items in order to assess the size, fit, colour and quality of the garments.

GSI Commerce international vice-president Hosein Moghaddas says: “There is still that negative element about shopping online because you don’t have the touch and feel factor that you get in the store.”

In fact, 69% of respondents say that being unable to try on clothes before buying them dissuades them from making online fashion purchases, while 53% say they don’t like the fact that they can’t examine the quality of the material. And being unable to return unwanted items to a physical store is a turn-off for over a third of people.

Moghaddas says there are several features that retailers can introduce to reduce customers’ fears of shopping online. “On the positive side, there are means that are emerging that help retailers get around shoppers’ uncertainties, such as better quality photography, the ability to highlight different colours, and tools to ‘build a look’,” he says.

In the research, 75% of shoppers say they would be more likely to buy if they could collect or try items in store, or if the website offered enhanced product imagery and reviews.

Respondents also say they find search filters useful when browsing fashion on websites, with 65% saying they want to be able to categorise product searches by size, colour and availability.

Shoppers also want to be able to see clothes in detail, such as being able to zoom in to an image (64%) or see products from all angles (57%).

Online fashion retailers that do not offer these features are missing opportunities, says Moghaddas, because the more information a customer can take in about a product, the more likely they are to buy, and to spend more.

Multiple images

“When the customer cannot physically touch the item, they should at the very least be able to view multiple product images,” he says. “And the days of showing just one flat photo are gone. The key is also to use photography more effectively – it’s important that if you are buying a bag, for example, you can see how big it is.”

Nearly half of those surveyed like “quick look” hover box windows and 31% are keen on “build the look” tools. One-third say style or colour matching suggestions are helpful.

Although feature-rich websites can make a shopper feel more comfortable purchasing clothes and accessories online, Moghaddas warns that these capabilities should be available without making the customer view a separate page or wait a long time for it to load. With every click customers are asked to make, the more likely they are to discard a transaction before completing it, he says.

Online retailers should introduce such features only when their technology capabilities are up to speed. Moghaddas adds: “Although tools such as 360-degree views and video technology can be extremely effective, over-using them can make a website slow and increase drop-off rates, which will be felt on the bottom line.”

Websites should also try to draw as much of the social aspect of real-life shopping to the online experience as possible by offering peer-to-peer recommendations, social networking facilities and customer reviews. More than half of those surveyed say reviews and ratings are important, and 25% say personalised product recommendations, based on shoppers’ purchase history and profile, would encourage them to buy.

“Unless they are particularly loyal to the brand, customers will always question a retailer that claims that a particular skirt goes with a top,” says Moghaddas. “They’re far more likely to respond and believe it when they see another shopper saying that it does.

“In the value fashion sector, where consumers demand greater reassurance of product quality, consumer reviews and ratings have a proven impact on product sales – in some cases a product with a one-star rating will sell more than an unrated item.”

Making the online shopping experience come to life through enhanced product imagery and information is important, as is social networking. But being able to mix and match how customers can shop will also make their lives easier, such as being able to use a bricks-and-mortar store to collect or return online purchases, says Moghaddas.

“Multichannel drives multichoice. Buying an item online, and being able to return it back to a [physical] store is a good example of being multichannel, but few retailers do this,” he claims.

“Most retailers don’t have the inventory systems that will allow for that, even though the technology is available. This could change a refund into an exchange, and there is the chance of an additional purchase because it is encouraging a visit to a [high street] store.”

Giving people the option to order out-of-stock items online on a computer within a physical store, as well as more efficient delivery of items, can break down the barriers many people have towards buying clothes and accessories online.

Other offputting factors about online shopping include paying for purchases to be delivered, which discourages more than two-thirds of people from buying via websites, while 24% say inconvenient delivery schedules are also a barrier to shopping for fashion items online.

Having previously had a negative experience with a website can also play a significant role, with 79% saying they would be reluctant to buy from an online retailer again if they ordered the wrong-size garment.

GSI Commerce’s study indicates that if fashion retailers are unable to provide an intuitive online shopping experience, coupled with flexible collection and delivery options, they face the risk of potential customers deserting them in favour of rival websites.

Online retail is not just about offering a mechanism to generate more sales, it also strengthens a brand’s identity and reach, says Moghaddas. “Online isn’t just about transactions – being online is a part of marketing, and reaching a population that you wouldn’t normally be able to reach just through stores.”

The Frontline


Christine Williams, head of e-commerce, Oasis

In April, we started doing surveys online and the feedback we have received from customers more or less verifies what we were already thinking of doing. The feedback shows we should be developing the site to meet the needs of our customers, such as more product images, video and information, which makes sense because it helps replicate the in-store experience as much as possible.

Similar to the research by GSI Commerce, we saw a demand for “click and collect”, so we have just introduced that service. Customers will be able to go into stores and have items delivered to their homes. We are launching this alongside other fellow Aurora Fashions retailers Warehouse, Karen Millen and Coast.

We have videos [showing the clothes on a catwalk] on our site, but this tool only covers about 100 of the dresses available. We recognise the demand for it and are now looking to offer it for every product. The conversion can be much higher on products that feature a video.

Towards Christmas, we are looking to introduce variable delivery options, such as giving a cheaper option on longer delivery times, as well as a 90-minute and same-day delivery option.

Another feature we have seen a high demand for, similar to this research, is outfit building and style advice, which we do a lot of through our enewsletter and features on our homepage. We’ll have more flexibility to do that once our in-house studio is up and running.

We are also looking to introduce ratings and reviews before Christmas, to allow customers to comment on individual items. This will give us some new insights towards what customers think of our products and we can then begin to develop our product range to support our views.

Melissa Littler, marketing director, Brand Alley

I found this report very interesting because it shows how savvy customers are in wanting more and more of the best features of all shopping worlds.

We have done some research in the lead-up to redeveloping our site and the results do match up quite closely. We want to make our site as easy as possible to navigate, be inspired by, and buy from. Our members are very empowered – our profile is predominantly working women – and they want to have a great designer lifestyle at an affordable price.

There has been no specific feedback to say our customers want more videos of products, but when you are introducing new brands, it’s good to give as much visual stimulation as possible. This applies especially to new designers, where you want people to be able to appreciate the look and feel of the clothes. We are also working on enhancing our product images and descriptions.

We are rolling out a new social media strategy, which is very much Facebook and Twitter-led. But we are bringing that into our site with forums so that people can talk about outfit recommendations to each other.

From the first purchase, we want people to enjoy the Brand Alley experience. We are constantly reviewing our returns policy to make the experience as easy as possible. We have invested a lot in our customer service team, so if anybody has a query about an item they are considering purchasing, they can phone the number on the site. We train our customer service team to answer these questions confidently.

People join Brand Alley to get a designer lifestyle at an affordable price. We are now looking at ways to expand this positioning by also offering homewares and holidays on our site.

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