Amazon. Amazon. Amazon. That’s all you ever hear these days. You hear the brand’s name so often you almost forget what the word “Amazon” even means. When Jeff Bezos landed on the name for his then-internet enterprise, he chose it because it conjured up imagery of a place that was “exotic and different.” A lot like Sears was back in the day.
Once upon a time, Sears was America’s largest, most iconic retailer and one of the original disruptors to the apparel market. It’s “Book of Bargains” mail order catalogue was the brand’s unique selling point and buying bible. As they can with Amazon, customers could order a vast array of products from the catalogue, everything from carpets to cars. If you named it, you could order it.
But in 1993, Sears closed its catalogue division and consequently began to lose its identity. Stores became barren and run down, resulting in a loss of footfall — a key contributor to the unfortunate situation the retail colossus finds itself in today.
The apparel market is currently projected at $103.66 billion, making it the single biggest product category in the United States. Roughly 27 percent of apparel sales in the United States are online, which demonstrates the prominence of ecommerce in this sector, however, 32 percent of all online shoppers for apparel will complete their purchase in store. Which begs the question: If ecommerce is so popular when it comes to apparel, then why are customers heading back to the stores to finalize their purchase? The answer is largely due to customer experience.
Many American retailers are struggling to keep up with customers’ established expectations of convenience and ease. It’s the Amazon effect in full swing, and consumers now have little tolerance for retailers that make mistakes. Today, buying clothes is no longer just about quality, but about immediacy and ease of purchase.
Amazon is continuing to stock apparel from large name brands and independent sellers alike, creating a pick n’ mix shopping experience for all of us. Customers can purchase the same or similar items at a more competitive price and with prime delivery, said item can even be delivered on the same day. With apparel, commerce makes for fast and complex-free purchasing with customers easily able to buy multiple items across sizes to try on in the comfort of their own homes and, if necessary, return — completely hassle-free.
Early ecommerce was hampered by incredibly poor user experience and a drawn-out payment process. Even today, some sites continue to struggle, so much so that while apparel browsing is popular on smartphones, desktop is the preferred method for transacting. Similarly, consumers are no longer loyal to a single brand, preferring to shop in an omnichannel fashion. A consumer can also be an “omni-browser,” looking for a certain product in-store whilst on their phone researching a better price. Recent research shows that in order to retain customers, it’s crucial for the apparel industry to understand how to emotionally engage with its customers. In C Space’s Customer, Experienced. report, which lists the best customer experiences of 2018 (according to customers), we investigated the apparel brands that excel when it comes to delivering excellent customer experiences. Here are a few of note, and why.
Nordstrom (ranked fifth) is the cream of the crop, according to our report. Famed for its excellent take on customer service and its “nothing is too much” attitude, Nordstrom rewards its customers’ loyalty with constant incentives, free shipping on everything, price matching, personal shopping at no extra cost and an open return policy. With that in mind, it's no surprise that Nordstrom has managed to uphold such a loyal customer base. The brand appreciates that their customers are taking time out of their day to shop at their stores and they’ve forged a stress-free and enjoyable experience. Everyone is made to feel like a VIP no matter how big or small the purchase is, according to our survey. Nordstrom puts customers’ needs first and as a brand, it makes the overall shopping experience worth it.
Nike (ranked 19th) is seen as a trailblazer in customer experience channelled through its branding and messaging. Nike encourages customers to be the very best they can be, and this messaging has enabled it to evolve as an aspirational lifestyle brand rather than a simple sportswear retailer. Customers feel good when shopping at Nike, not only because the merchandise speaks to their needs and values, but because of the emotional connection they get from making the purchase, believing that purchase is going to better themselves and, like the messaging states, make them the best version of themselves. Furthermore, everyone can shop there. You can be a professional athlete or amateur gym goer — it doesn’t matter because each products speaks to its customers’ dreams and desires.
Although the market has proven uncertain for several brands — Nine West, American Apparel and Gap, just to name a few — retailers can survive these difficult times. For the apparel market to succeed in delivering better experiences for customers, it needs to go back to basics. Simply put, retailers will flourish if they provide customers with the social and emotional fulfilment they desire.
Robert Howie is Managing Director, Retail, C Space.