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The Changing Face of Online Fashion Shopping

There is little doubt that online now forms an integral part of the retail experience for many consumers, particularly in Western markets. In 2011, UK online trade accounted for 12% of all retail, the highest in Europe[i], and this trend only looks to increase with the inexorable rise of mobile commerce that recently achieved the milestone of over 5% during Q4 of last year[ii].

Using the internet for retail has become so commonplace that for many, the added benefits of convenience, easy research ability, and price comparison tools outweigh the effort required to physically visit the traditional bricks-and-mortar store.

But is online delivering everything consumers need from a shopping experience? As we move further into the digital age, consumers expect a personalised, tailored and social shopping experience regardless of the medium through which it is conducted.

In order to understand the extent to which retailers are innovating sufficiently to satisfy consumer demand and the expectations of the modern shopper, I have delved into the world of internet fashion…and yes, I should point out that spending long periods of time browsing clothing websites naturally involved a huge personal sacrifice on my behalf…

The Growth of Social Shopping: the impact of social network sites and online communities

Whether conducted online or offline, research indicates that shopping, particularly in fashion and clothing, should provide emotional and social benefits. Although the idea of ‘retail therapy’ is a somewhat over-used cliché, it is true that shopping provides a form of escapism, pleasure and socialisation for many.

However, using a recent GfK survey to compare the two retail channels directly, online shopping polls as the preferred channel with 67% saying that one of the main benefits is convenience/ease and 53% citing time and efficiency[iii].

[iv] Yet the data also reveals that despite its popularity, for many online shopping is a fairly lonely and solitary experience lacking the human interaction and social benefits otherwise realised when browsing stores with friends or family.

To achieve a truly satisfying online shopping experience consumers require something that delivers the convenience and ease that online shopping traditionally offers, whilst simultaneously bringing social, personal and interactive elements to the table, hence the rapid growth of ‘social shopping’. The amount of time that consumers spend on social networks is now starting to come to the attention of retailers. One such example is Fb-mall, a Facebook shopping ‘mall’ introduced last year by social commerce company Payvment that allows the browsing and purchase of millions of products from different retailers.

Social media networks enable people to share their wish lists from popular websites onto their social networking profiles which then appear on family and friends’ news feeds. Such examples could eliminate the dodgy Christmas jumper gift forever; there will be no excuses for not getting you what you want.

In addition to the wider social networks, dedicated online shopping communities are also popping up, providing hundreds of shopping buddies at our fingertips to offer help and advice. Kaboodle.com is a successful example, where members can create and join groups, and personalize profiles, whilst sharing advice, feedback, and product suggestions.

But the movement towards ‘social shopping’ is not entirely focused on utilizing social media platforms. The rising trend of ‘Gamification’ is progressively being used by savvy retailers on the internet, combining women’s growing interest in gaming with their propensity to shop online[v]. Such developments are encouraging shoppers online for more than just rational reasons, with 28% of UK shoppers considering online retail to be a form of entertainment at lunchtime or in the evening[vi]. FantasyShopper.com is one example, where users spend (free) ‘play money’ to build their fantasy wardrobes while members review them and discuss what they find. The site has grown in popularity and claims to have increased its user base by 200% month over month[vii] (and understandably so; who wouldn’t want to be able to create their dream wardrobe where money is no object?).

Crucially though, these sites enable the user to buy the products for real at the click of a button and it is this combination of the emotional and fun side of shopping with the tangible outcome that is proving to be a winner.

Growth of online shopping technologies

When asked what they felt were the main benefits of shopping in store 81%[viii] said that it was being able to try on clothes, a clear limitation to shopping online. However, the growing sophistication of online retail technologies (such as 3D modelling and biometrics) means that this gap between in store and offline is gradually being bridged.

3D modelling and biometrics are being developed to create the virtual dressing room, allowing the internet to start competing with the ability to try clothes on in store. Such an experience is being developed by Microsoft and Kinect developer, PrimeSense. The sophisticated camera behind Kinect can be used to reveal how clothes will fit on the body, evaluating a heat map to see where an item is tight or loose fitting[ix].

However, the widespread use of such technology is some way off, and many of us online shoppers want a more immediate answer to one of the biggest challenges facing internet purchasing – buying clothes that fit. Inconsistency in sizes is a prominent issue, with research showing that for women, almost six in ten (57%) do not know what size to order[x].

Companies are starting to take up the mantle to solve this issue. Style website Dressipi.com finds and recommends clothes based on your own unique style, shape, likes and dislikes, going beyond the usual height/weight routine – ‘The more you use Dressipi, the smarter it gets’. It is also linked to your Facebook and Twitter profiles making it easy to share your finds with friends. Having signed up for the site (purely in the interests of research, of course) I must agree that the sophistication of the site is compelling and my on-going dilemma of whether or not those skinny jeans will fit, is significantly reduced. All of which is supplemented by the weekly emails updating me on the latest styles and offers on which I have come to depend.

So what does the future hold for online…and offline shopping?

The rapid growth of such sites indicates the increasing interest from consumers for engaging and entertaining online shopping experiences through using social and technological advances to make original barriers to internet shopping obsolete. Gone is the solo, clinical online experience; now we have thousands of like-minded shopping ‘buddies’ at the click of a button to advise, recommend and inspire.

However, with many of these strongest innovations sprouting from creative and ambitious start-ups, the real question is whether the larger, established retailers are sufficiently keeping pace. Traditional clothes retailers need to re-think old habits to make sure they thrive in the digital era. Integrating new technologies, many of which this article has explored, into their online collateral or partnering with those companies which are leading the way in the digital shopping experience will be critical to secure their relevance.

Nevertheless, bricks and mortar cannot be alienated from these innovations. Consumers continue to place value on having the opportunity to visit physical retail space; – 87%[xi] of consumers typically visit offline stores during their purchase journey, and 23%[xii] buy clothes in stores accompanied by others at least once a week.

As a result of broader changes caused by digital media, retailers must begin integrating their online and in-store activities as a result of the broader changes caused by digital media, using shopper-focused as opposed to product-focused perspectives. What shoppers want is the ability to move seamlessly between online and offline, enjoying a personalised and intuitive shopping experience tailored to their needs. This is no small request, but with technology fundamentally changing the way we shop, there is a need to address this desire.

Sources

[i] The Guardian- Online retail sales hit £50bn Jan 2012{need web address}

[ii]http://www.theretailbulletin.com/news/percentage_of_online_sales_through_mobile_devices_breaks_5_barrier_01-03-12/

[iii] GfK Omnibus Data Feb 2012

[iv] ibid

[v] http://www.brandingmagazine.com/2012/01/18/game-on-how-gamificion-can-help-brands-interact-with-women-consumers-online/ –

[vi] Mintel Inspire: Let’s Make a Deal- new Mintel Inspire trend shows discount hunting to be a competitive sport).

[vii] http://techcrunch.com/2012/01/23/fantasy-shopper-becomes-one-of-europes-hottest-startups-with-3-3m-from-accel-and-nea/)

[viii] GfK Omnibus Data Feb 2012

[ix] http://adage.com/article/digitalnext/technologies-change-shop/232197/

[x] www.mintel.com/…/online-fashion-clicks-with-brits-as-market-increases-152-over-past-five-years –

[xi] UK consumer habits change- www.warc.com data sourced from shopper centric

[xii] GfK Omnibus Data Feb 2012

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