Apparel is one of those categories whose fortunes on the web rise and fall. Sometimes apparel is among the leading categories in sales volume and sometimes it`s at the bottom. But there are some apparel e-retailers who had it figured out from the start and whose individual fortunes are not dependent on what the category does.
In that group is the clear leader in online apparel sales: Lands` End. For the fourth year in a row, Lands` End appears on Internet Retailer`s Best of the Web, testament to the foresight of Lands` End`s management, the company`s stellar online execution and the power of the web in apparel retailing. Lands` End is one of those sites that others learn from. It pioneered on the web, it was the first major retailer to adopt online fitting technology, it was the first to make a business of the online sale of custom clothing, and it`s highly regarded for its excellent fulfillment-a strength it carried over from its years as a catalog operation. The quality of its online execution is so widely recognized that when Sears, Roebuck and Co. bought Lands` End, it put Lands` End executives in charge of Sears` online and catalog operations, over Sears executives. "That recognition of Lands` End`s leadership shows what the web can do with good merchandising and marketing," says Chris Merritt, a principal with consultants Kurt Salmon Associates.
Part of Lands` End online success is the result of its catalog background, where the infrastructure for remote selling already existed. But a catalog background is not a prerequisite for success on the web. Buckle.com, a 300-store chain of apparel for young people, also has found unique ways to leverage the web. For instance, it engages shoppers by asking them to identify emerging trends and say why they think that fashion trend will take hold. It then posts the opinions along with an example from the Buckle inventory, if it exists. It also links the web and the stores in interesting ways. One of the most innovative is to award concert tickets to contest winners online, then require that they pick up the tickets in stores. "It drives excitement both online and offline," says Lydia Pierson, director of e-commerce.
And then there are the sites that are neither chains nor catalogs. They succeed by virtue of focusing on a category and executing well, such as eBags. Depth of selection, creative marketing that ties directly into their products and persistence all add up to profits for the pure-play bag retailer. In an acknowledgement of the inevitable, though, eBags mailed its first catalog last month.
Dude, check it out
The Buckle Inc., with more than 300 stores in 37 states, specializes in selling apparel as a lifestyle to the under-30 crowd. An important part of its strategy is to communicate directly and on several levels with its young, fashion-conscious customers, making Buckle.com a key part of its success. “The younger consumer is very savvy,” says Lydia Pierson, director of e-commerce. And Buckle.com uses several means to both understand and leverage that savvy in ways that aren’t possible in stores.
A TrendWatch program offered on the web site, for example, elicits direct input from the 12-to-24-year-old customer base on what styles they see becoming popular. Buckle invites shoppers to write a note explaining why they think a certain style will emerge, and then posts their comments on Buckle.com. It’s both fun and serious business, Pierson says. The young shoppers make up a playful nickname to identify themselves, and if Buckle has a product that fits their predicted trend it will display it alongside the posted comments.
“It’s a great way for guests to interact with us, and it’s a great way for us to learn about trends,” Pierson says. She adds that TrendWatch comments are forwarded to Buckle’s merchandising experts to make them aware of potential trends. “We take it very seriously,” she says.
Buckle.com leverages its communication with customers in other ways too. It acted on a customer’s suggestion to improve its Send to a Friend service, which enables shoppers to e-mail information on Buckle products. Thanks to the customer’s suggestion, shoppers now can also send links to product images so their friends can see what they’re writing about.
Buckle.com also works closely with Buckle stores to coordinate sweepstakes, such as for rock concert tickets. In several cases, tickets won online must be picked up at a store. “It really drives excitement both online and in stores,” Pierson says.
At the same time, Buckle.com has been working hard to make online shopping easier and more enjoyable. It offers a search function that allows shoppers to search by style, brand and price, and when searching for denim, also by fabric finish. Shoppers can also browse by gender or brand or a combination of the two. A Go Figure section for women offers tips on choosing clothes that complement particular body types.
As part of a recent site redesign, Buckle has upped the quality of its images, adopting 3D technology in addition to its See a Larger View feature. “We like to show the wonderful details on products and get as close to hand-feel as we can online.” says Pierson.