The Complexities of Selling Fashion Over the Internet


Shopping for fashion is unlike shopping for any other product. It is an emotional and social experience. Fashion is subjective to each person's unique tastes, body measurements and habits. Clothes are a means of expression, revealing how people perceive themselves and affecting how others perceive them. Brands create an emotional in-store experience by engaging the customer's senses – sight, smell, sound and touch. All of the qualities that make fashion special for an individual shopping in a physical store are the same factors that make it difficult to translate the shopping experience onto the Internet.

The Internet has revolutionized the shopping experience. In the dawn of e-commerce, online sales of soft goods, ones that do not require a physical product like books, music and movies, transformed entire industries. Unfortunately, it has shut down many bookstores and entertainment retail chains.

The next frontier in retail to be put in jeopardy by e-commerce is electronics stores. The phenomenon of "showrooming," where customers go into a store just to see a product but then buy it online for the cheapest price, has caused a significant drop in sales for electronics retailers.

However, showrooming has had an opposite effect on fashion. People instead look at dresses, blouses, neckties and shoes online but then go into brick-and-mortar stores to try them on and make their purchases.

This difference in consumer behavior is due to the fact that electronics and appliances have hard measurements and performance specifications. These details are easier to describe on a website than fashion because everything is specifiable, leaving no surprise between when the order is submitted and the moment it arrives on the doorstep. Consumers are more apprehensive about shopping for fashion online due to the lack of confidence in how the product will look on them. According to a study from ComCult Research, nearly 50 percent of Internet users would not buy fashion online.

Fashion must be felt by the consumer and apparel must be tried on. Contrary to a flat-screen TV, body shapes are not standardized, and every human is unique in appearance and style. The same garment may look fantastic on one person and terrible on another. In a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers as to why customers avoid buying clothes online, 81 percent stated it was because they're unable to try on the products. It's only in the last few years that innovative products and services have surfaced to transform and improve the online experience to support fashion.

To compensate, online retailers are now offering virtual dressing rooms that provide a variety of fitting solutions. Virtual dressing rooms can measure customers via webcam or customers can enter their own body measurements. Some virtual dressing rooms have preconfigured body types to choose from. Customers can upload pictures of themselves from multiple angles to see a concept image of how the item will look on them. They can even combine different items to create online outfits. The virtual dressing room does not completely replicate a real one; however, it can give consumers a better impression of how they would look, minimizing the risk in clicking the purchase button.

There are online retailers that allow customers to use an item that they already own as a reference guide. For example, if there is a running shoe from a particular brand that the customer already knows fits perfectly, the online shop can compare the fit of that shoe with the prospective one that he's looking at online.
The most common service that online retailers provide is sizing charts. Sizing charts are especially important with international e-commerce because sizes vary between brands and countries. A size small from an Italian brand will not have the same measurements as a small from an American brand.

Online retailers are improving the descriptions of their products, too. Retailers now try to evoke an emotional reference, by telling the story about the origin of the fabrics, how the product was designed or the inspiration behind the piece. Retailers are becoming more adept at the ways they display their products by providing more shots, angles, perspectives — even 360˚ views and the ability to zoom in — to give consumers a better feel for the product.

Previously, retailers only wanted to present an item in the best light, so they would edit product shots to make them more appealing. Now, retailers are learning to display products more accurately in keeping with how they appear in reality. This practice avoids instances where the product looks completely different from how it appears online. Retailers also are turning to videos. Customers can watch videos of the product being worn in a fashion show or everyday scenario. All of these methods help to reassure customers and to minimize the number of returns.

In an annual report conducted by E-Commerce-Center Köln in collaboration with Hermes, 87 percent of respondents said that an easy returns process is important when shopping online. For consumers, if it is too troublesome to return something they bought online, they avoid it altogether. Returns also need to be free of charge. When customers have to pay for returns, they are less likely to make a purchase. Ease of returns can be accomplished through selecting carriers that offer pick up, drop off points and convenient locations.

Brands are moving toward offering a multichannel experience. Customers can order something online. If they don't like it, then they can go to a physical store to return it, exchange it or receive a store credit. Previously, brands just had an online store for the sake of having a presence online, but they did not use it as a strategic channel. Now brands want to create a seamless experience between online and offline. People can order something online and pick it up in the store, which adds cross-selling potential and reduces the challenge of returns. Items can be shipped straight from a store rather than a centralized warehouse, thus reducing shipping costs for the retailer and increasing delivery speed for the customer.

In today's virtual age, fashion retailers need adequate e-commerce tools in place to address the physical limitations that fashion poses. By presenting products more accurately with how they would appear and feel in reality, customers can be more confident in their fashion purchases and brands can mitigate the complexities of selling fashion over the Internet.

Uwe Bald is vice president of international business development for Hermes, a provider of internationalization services to Europe, Russia, China and Brazil. Across his career, Uwe has worked on all aspects of e-commerce, leading major projects for Microsoft, Dell, HP and Ally Bank, among others. Uwe's global e-commerce experience touches all continents, spans 154 countries and involves 32 languages. He is reachable at [email protected].

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