June 29, 2001, 12:00 AM

The opportunities and obstacles of merging high-fashion and e-commerce

Fashion web sites are at risk of being victims of their own style.

Today, it is almost unheard of for a company not to have a web site. Yet visitors to the web sites of Prada, Burberry, Jil Sander and many other fashion designers are greeted with little more than an “Opening soon” or “Under construction” sign.


While mass marketers such as the Gap and Lands’ End embraced the Internet years ago, upscale designers have lagged, struggling to develop Internet strategies that both reinforce their brand strategies and generate revenue.


Ralph Lauren launched its Polo.com site just last November and added e-commerce functionality only this spring. In doing so, it created one of the most successful fashion sites. But Helmut Lang sells only perfume online, and Kate Spade is still directing customers to Neiman Marcus’s web site. Many designers have partnered with online resellers like eLuxury, LuxLook, or Saks Fifth Avenue to fulfill orders. While such resellers do lessen the financial risk, they also lessen the financial rewards.


So for the most part, designers like Chanel, Celine, Louis Vuitton and others are in brochureware mode, where their sites display products but do little more than direct users to local stores or online resellers. If Ralph Lauren can do it, why can’t other fashion designers simply do what the Gap has done for years now?

Creating obstacles


At the heart of the matter is the challenge of creating an effective e-commerce site that doesn’t make a fashion designer appear too much like Amazon.com. The fashion industry often goes out of its way to promote an image of exclusivity and glamour, yet the Internet is anything but exclusive and, due to fundamental technical limitations, anything but glamorous.


While fashion shops were never designed for the masses, a web site is the equivalent of opening a shop in every small town around the world. But the technological limitations of the web create obstacles to taking full advantage of the web’s global reach. A web site that is too difficult to use or takes too long to load can have the effect of frustrating people in every small town around the world. A fashion house can tightly control what happens on the runway or in a boutique. But a web site is a lesson in chaos. Web browser settings vary so much that it is difficult to control what the end user sees. One user may view the text on a site at one size while another may view it at twice that size. One user may have the sound turned off; another may have the graphics turned off. And the biggest hurdle of all is the user’s Internet connection. A slow connection can make for a long, frustrating experience, particularly when it comes to most high-end fashion sites.


But in some ways the fashion industry is creating problems for itself. Based on our analysis of more than 80 fashion web sites, the fashion industry builds heavier-and therefore slower and less user-friendly-web sites than other industries (see chart). Brokerage sites are the lightest; fashion the heaviest. The sum of the graphics and text of a web page equal the total weight of a page in kilobytes. The heavier the weight, the longer the page will take to download.


How long? A user with a 56k modem will have to wait half a second for the stripped-down Helmut Lang home page but a full minute and 40 seconds for Hugo Boss’s home page. The latest surveys show that consumers’ patience for web site downloading has shrunk to an incredible 3 seconds.


The best-designed web site is worthless if users don’t have the patience to wait for it to load or if the competition offers a site that loads more quickly. Although weight may seem like a trivial detail, companies that ignore it often pay for this oversight later in costly redesigns and lost sales. In May, Zona Research released its latest findings on the impact of slow-loading web sites on customer bailout and lost revenues. The report, “Need for Speed II,” estimates that e-retailers lose up to $25 billion a year due to poor web site performance.



Flashy sites



In spite of all the cautionary notes about heavyweight sites, the most prevalent trend in the fashion industry has been the development of highly animated sites. The software tool of choice is Macromedia Flash. It is impressive software, used to create everything from moving type to short films. But just like any tool, it can be misused. Of the most overweight sites, Flash files contribute more than 70% of the total weight of the sites.


But Flash is enormously popular. While mass-marketers like the Gap and Lands’ End avoid Flash, more than two-thirds of upscale sites rely on Flash. According to Michael Bereck, president of Fashion500.com, a company that builds and maintains web sites for fashion designers and sells fashion itself, Flash is the tool of choice in the fashion industry. “Designers prefer Flash because they are concerned about promoting their brand,” Bereck says. “You don’t need Flash for mass merchandising. However, if you’re selling upscale products, presentation is what will set your company apart from the competition.”


Bereck acknowledges that fashion sites sometimes go overboard in their use of Flash, but he maintains that the loss of web performance is offset by the benefits of creating a unique, engaging experience for the user. “We’ve tested both HTML and Flash versions of a site,” he says. “Time and again the designers want Flash.”


The key to using Flash is not to overuse it. Macromedia offers a list of 10 guidelines for building Flash sites that load quickly. The tips include not building files that exceed 40K or creating excessively long sound files. Nearly all the sites we studied violated one or many of these guidelines.


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