When Selling Apparel Online, Combine Creativity With Functionality
Nothing beats slipping into a crisp pair of new jeans. Even if you're just trying them on for size.
That's the challenge facing e-tailers who sell clothes online: How do you make the online shopping experience as fulfilling as the real thing?
Because consumers enjoy spending time in stores, browsing many items and, most importantly, trying them on, online retailers are faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of not only attracting and retaining consumers but, more importantly, making them click "add to shopping cart" or "store locator."
But how, exactly, do they manage to do that? Well, there's a variety of ways and, through my experience as an online project manager for an interactive marketing agency, I've had the chance to witness a few of them first hand.
For classification purposes, I generally divide online retailers into two main categories: e-commerce/revenue-driven and branding/marketing. While both categories aim to market their products effectively enough to result in overall sales, they do so in different ways and for different purposes.
The success of e-commerce-driven sites recently was measured by the 10th annual Shop.org survey prepared for Forrester Research. The study of 170 retailers showed, "Americans last year spent more online on clothing than they did on computers for the first time in history." The report found that sales in the apparel, accessories and footwear category reached $18.3 billion in 2006. Although this number pales in comparison to $73 billion from the travel-related e-commerce industry, the simple fact that it has surpassed computer ($17.2 billion), automotive ($16.7 billion) and home furnishings ($10 billion) is a testament to the effort online clothing retailers have made in recent years to attract consumers.
Conspicuously absent from the survey, and difficult to measure, is the impact non e-commerce apparel Web sites have on overall sales. Contrarily to e-commerce Web sites, these shopping experiences are focused on branding and marketing, and are not geared toward generating online revenues. Rather, they aim to entice consumers so sufficiently online, that they are moved to shop at the affiliated brick-and-mortar stores.
To do that, these sites attempt to form a relationship between the consumer and the brand through a uniquely creative experience. The goal is to immerse and engage the user in the essence of the brand, thus creating brand loyalty.
There's a fine line between the successful and the unsuccessful online retail site. Successful e-commerce often is the result of utilizing cutting-edge technology, providing consumers with not just a shopping experience but with the ultimate shopping experience. To this end, the advent of digital imaging has revolutionized the industry entirely. Companies such as Scene7 provide online retailers with digital-imaging solutions so robust that users now can see their potential purchases in 360 views or images so zoomed-in that the viewer can inspect the seams in a pair of trousers.
While such features are the selling tools, apparel companies have to make sure they stand out from the competition. They have to incorporate creativity with functionality. How are the products displayed? How can they be rotated? Does the item change color when picking a color option? Online retailers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic, Anthropologie and Converse, among many others, are perfect examples of Web sites providing users with great functional shopping tools and a premier shopping experience.
Web sites that provide the ultimate buying experience are those that allow the user to interact with the product or the brand. This experience is the closest to the actual in-store shopping experience. The Giorgio Armani Beauty site is a perfect example of an e-commerce site that balances functional creativity and user interaction with the ease of an e-commerce shopping experience. Puma's Mongolian Shoe BBQ and Converse are other perfect examples of such accomplishment.
As previously mentioned, not all great online apparel Web sites are e-commerce. For various reasons, some apparel companies choose not to sell their products online. Branding/marketing sites are informational, and their goal is not to generate immediate revenue but to create an ongoing relationship with the consumer. Because such Web sites are not constrained by the strict user-experience guidelines governing e-commerce sites, they're able to push the creative envelope while at the same time providing the user with the same shopping tools. Such sites focus on the overall experience and generally are developed using Flash technology rather than the HTML commonly used by most e-commerce sites. Flash adds to the overall experience as it enhances user interaction and allows for more movement and animations. Web sites such as Nautica Jeans Co., Kipling USA, Uniqlo, Diesel and Marc Jacobs are perfect examples. They are beautifully designed sites that showcase the product in very inventive ways while giving the user an immersive brand experience.
Are there sites that manage to successfully incorporate marketing and revenue goals? I would say yes. And they are, I believe the cream of the crop. Adidas, Puma, Nike and Giorgio Armani Beauty provide consumers with the best of both worlds. You'll notice that Adidas, Puma and Nike have multiple sites under one umbrella. They have marketing/branding microsites that showcase the products in the very inventive ways I mentioned previously, while at the same time allowing the user to make instant purchases on a different site reflecting the perfect e-commerce experience.
While fully customized e-commerce sites represent a big expense and are not available to all, companies such as Amazon Web Services, Venda and Google Checkout make it easier than ever to start an online store. This allows little mom-and-pop stores to offer their products on a nationwide level while keeping operating costs at a minimum. In 2007, Shop.org predicts that 10 percent of all clothing sales will happen online. It is without a doubt that we will see an increase in the amount of online retailers, as they all will try to get a share of this $22.1 billion pie. However staggering this number may be, e-commerce Web sites still only represent 4.7 percent of overall retail sales and will not amount to more than 10 percent to 15 percent over the next several decades.
All in all, 360 views, ultra-zoom-ins and high design aside, consumers still seem to think there's something to actually trying on a pair of jeans before paying for them.
Pierre Kremer is a regional manager for New York City-based Internet marketing and Web design agency ID Society. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.