When it comes to categories of products sold, apparel & accessories is the biggest kid on the Internet retailing block. E-retailers in this category account for 80 of the top 500 retail web sites, according to the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.
The category, however, also has one of the biggest hurdles on the web: merchandise that shoppers really like to feel, hold and try on, actions impossible to achieve via an Internet connection.
But that`s not stopping the apparel & accessories e-retailers named to the Hot 100 from using web tools and technologies to come as close as possible to helping shoppers "feel" merchandise and have an online experience similar to one they would have in a store.
Coach.com, for example, has introduced Try It Online, a site feature designed to help dampen worries shoppers have when purchasing a handbag online. Shoppers can use the Try It Online feature to see where the bag falls on their body. They enter their height, and the web site displays a model of similar height wearing the handbag.
Compared with handbags, shoes present a much bigger challenge to e-retailers looking to reassure shoppers buying online. 6pm.com lets customers soothe each other`s concerns. The site offers a Fit Survey, where shoe buyers say such things as whether their shoes "felt true to size," "felt true to width" or provided "moderate arch support." Shoppers can review the survey results when considering a shoe purchase.
At Gap.com, a Quick Look web tool enables shoppers to magnify any part of a product image by mousing over it, giving shoppers as close a look as they could get in a store. "It lets people know what it would be like if they were actually holding it in their hands," says Scott Kincaid, a consultant at Usability Sciences Corp.
Other Internet retailers are not just focused on giving shoppers the feel of merchandise, they`re also making online shoppers feel more like they`re in a store.
JCrew.com, for instance, boasts a personal shopper program that brings shoppers and retail associates together online. And Swell.com encourages conversation about surfing via e-mail that unites customers and Swell staff.
Time to shop
At 6pm.com, the emphasis has always been on bringing value to price-sensitive customers. And this is a web site that knows how to help its customers find the best deal.
When serving the price-sensitive buyers, the most important thing is to "help customers find what they are looking for at the best value," explains Lisa Vagge, project manager. That`s why San Francisco-based 6pm.com has worked hard on developing filters and sorting features so customers can closely describe what they are looking for and find shoes that closely resemble that description at the best price.
"We`ve spent a lot of time listening to what our customers want and we are trying to help them quickly find what they are looking for at the best value," Vagge says.
Others notice it. "The navigation is excellent," says Mark Lee, founder of Charlottesville, Va.-based The Mark Lee Group. "You can get to the product you want with minimal clicks. The site is clean with great photographs and product detail."
Lee likes a feature called "Fit Survey" that shows what percent of survey respondents believed this shoe "felt true to size," and how many thought the shoe "felt true to width" and provided "moderate arch support."
Since being acquired by Zappos.com this summer, 6pm.com has not given up its attention to helping customers find a good deal on shoes as it has further expanded its selection of value-priced shoes, Vagge says.
And while Zappos has gotten some cost efficiency by moving 6pm.com to the Zappos platform, the company continues to run the two online shoe stores as separate sites, with Zappos emphasizing high-end service and 6pm positioned as the more price-sensitive site.
One feature at 6pm that has gotten a lot of attention allows customers to match shoes and handbags online. However, it could be in for revision. "That feature is in flux right now," says Vagge. "We think it is a feature that our customers want, but we are still experimenting with the best way to present the matches." Back to top
Strike up the brand
Abercrombie & Fitch, based in New Albany, Ohio, maintains its place in popular culture as the only source for a certain kind of teen cool. The Abercrombie.com shopping experience is almost as immersive as stepping into an A&F; retail store. Click "A&F; Playlist" and crank up the tunes. Pick out a pair of jeans and get suggestions of a top and scarf to "complete the look," just as if an in-store brand associate were at your elbow.
At AbercrombieKids.com, a companion site for the younger set, visitors can watch a movie on ski racing, starring an athlete who could be, and perhaps is, one of Abercrombie`s preternaturally beautiful models. Kids can also download wallpapers and screensavers to make their computers look like a G-rated A&F; catalog. And, of course, they can buy clothes, though building brand loyalty is the primary goal on the kids site. As with Abercrombie.com, the home page is a large black-and-white glamour shot of one of the catalog models, though fully clothed (unlike the bare-chested hunks at the older kids` site).