Why User-Generated Content and Insights Drive Apparel Shopping Experience for Consumers

According to Forrester Research, just 15 percent of apparel purchases were made online last year compared with 65 percent of computer purchases, proving that fashion is still one of the last e-commerce holdouts. This shouldn't come as a big surprise as shoppers looking for apparel products are interested in fit, feel and size — characteristics that can be more difficult for consumers to access while shopping online.

So how can apparel companies encourage consumers to shop more on the Internet?

Take a page out of Amazon's book
If apparel companies want to stand out online, they'll not only have to contend with their traditional competitors, but with Amazon as well. In the past few months, Amazon has been ramping up its apparel offerings, and Morgan Stanley predicts that the e-commerce giant will own 19 percent of the industry's market share by the year 2020.

Amazon's overall success — and its predicted success in the apparel sector — is driven, in large part, by ratings and reviews. More than half of consumers cite a large volume of helpful reviews as one of the reasons they start their purchase journey on Amazon. And an impressive 99 percent of Amazon shoppers consult reviews once they're on the site.

But the good news is that apparel retailers can effectively compete with the e-commerce giant by providing a differentiated customer experience, driven by comprehensive product information, including ratings and reviews.

By leveraging feedback from past customers, merchants can provide online shoppers with the relevant product insights that they'd be able to get in a brick-and-mortar store. For example, a shopper can use reviews to gauge whether a pair of shoes will fit properly or if a blouse will hold up in the washing machine before committing to an online purchase. Armed with this information, shoppers can make a confident apparel purchase online, which will result in improved conversion, fewer returns, and more valuable insights that can be used to improve products and the customer experience.

Make review collection a priority
Having a solid stream of reviews on your website will not only foster and improve the customer experience but also increases your site's visibility on search engines, increasing the likelihood that consumers will click through to your product pages. We've found that once an apparel product in the PowerReviews network starts collecting and displaying reviews, that product will experience a 49 percent increase in traffic. Additionally, we know that on average, a product will be ordered nearly 44 percent more often once it starts receiving and displaying reviews.

While there are a number of different practices to collect reviews, we find that the most effective way to solicit feedback is to send post-purchase emails asking shoppers to review recently purchased products. In fact, approximately 60 percent of all reviews are written as a result of these emails.

In addition, because many apparel shoppers buy multiple items in a single transaction (i.e. pants, shirts and socks), we recommend following up with a short, simple email that allows a customer to review all of their purchases on a single page. By using this method, apparel companies can increase their review collection rates by up to 400 percent.

Finally, since apparel items move on and off the shelves quickly, it's key to generate reviews as quickly as possible. Consider collecting information at the time of checkout by asking customers a simple question: "Why did you buy this product?" This makes it easier for your customers to provide feedback and can increase your review coverage by as much as 58 percent. Plus, this additional content can help you drive more traffic, sales and insights.

Use feedback to reduce return rates
Apparel companies often grapple with a large volume of returns because it's difficult for shoppers to determine how a product will fit once it arrives at their doorstep. A survey from Body Labs found that 23 percent of all clothing purchased online gets returned, with most consumers citing an incorrect fit as the main reason for returning. While there is no solution to eliminate returns altogether, you can reduce them by ensuring that shoppers know exactly what to expect from a product.

For starters, ask your ratings and reviews provider if they offer an easy way to capture size and fit information from your consumers and display it on your product pages. This will help increase buyer confidence, providing shoppers with an additional tool to make the right purchase decision.

In addition, make sure to include visual content on your product pages, such as photos and videos. Don't just use professional images; instead, allow shoppers to submit their own images as part of their reviews so that future customers can see what a product looks like in "real life" on different body types and with different accessories. Not only will images help convert shoppers (40 percent of Centennials won't purchase a product if there are no photos of people using it), but visual user-generated content will also help consumers to make well-informed purchases, reducing the likelihood that they'll return a product.

Matt Parsons is chief customer officer at PowerReviews, a company that develops and markets consumer engagement technology for brands and retailers.