June 29, 2001, 12:00 AM

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

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A good example is the Celine site. Celine makes extensive use of Flash, so much in fact that the user must sit through an animated “splash” screen before arriving at the home page. Approximately half of the high-end designers we studied use splash screens as a means of introducing the user to the company. But most users would rather skip the introduction. Splash screens may be interesting the first time one visits a site, but returning visitors must sit through the screens all over again. If you want to encourage repeat visitors, don’t build obstacles. And if you include a splash screen, make it easy for users to skip the intro. Some sites don’t even allow users to opt out of the introduction.


When users finally arrive at the home page of the Celine site, they are presented with a brief fashion show, complete with models walking down the runway and music playing in the background. It may seem natural for a fashion site to recreate the experience on the web. Unfortunately, the Internet can’t do what television can do. Celine attempted to do things with the technology that the technology doesn’t fully support. For example, even while using a high-speed cable modem, we found ourselves waiting for pages to load. When they did load, the movements were choppy, the sound far from realistic. And it didn’t present a flattering depiction of the models; this is a result of web designers keeping the picture resolution as low as possible to minimize file size. The result is a site that tries to do too much and ends up accomplishing much less.



Through the thicket



The Internet can be very confusing. Every web site is its own world with its unique navigation system and related quirks. People visit sites with goals in mind, the least of which is learning a new navigation system. So the less complicated your site, the better the chances that people will find what they want and buy it.


We set out to view the clothing collections of two designers: Hugo Boss and Helmut Lang. The Hugo Boss site first presented us with a splash screen where we had to choose our language. After selecting English we were taken to a page, where there was no text, only a scrolling array of photos.


Only after rolling our cursor over the images did we realize that each image was a link to a different subsite, such as the Hugo home page, the Boss home page, or the Hugo Boss corporate page. After selecting the Boss page, we arrived at yet another animated splash page. Still, we saw no navigation system. After much fumbling around, we found a clothing collection. But even there we weren’t quite sure if we were viewing the entire collection. We also weren’t sure if we could easily find our way back again.


Then we went to the Helmut Lang home page. The home page loaded in a fraction of a second because there were no images to display, just text. We selected a link to the fall 2001 collection and came to a page where screen shots for the entire collection were displayed.


The collection page was enormously overweight because it displayed the entire collection on one continuous page, but it did have the benefit of allowing the customer to see everything with no further clicks. While we would have liked to have seen clothing descriptions, we preferred this Flash-less presentation because we got exactly what we wanted and after only two clicks. By contrast, the Hugo Boss collection took us upwards of 25 clicks to find.


We encountered numerous fashion sites where the simple process of viewing an entire collection could have taken an hour given all the Flash files involved.


One fashion site that gets high marks is Polo.com by Polo Ralph Lauren LLC. The site is clean and inviting and, in fact, looks a lot like other e-commerce apparel sites, with an easy-to-navigate layout. It weighs in at a svelte 82K, even lighter than the Gap site. It offers the full range of products and includes such features as clicking on color swatches to change the view of the product.



Setting a weight limit



We recommend that you keep your home page under 70K.


We arrived at this number by taking the average weight of more than 300 of the most popular sites on the Internet (91K) and subtracting 20%. This weight limit ensures that your site remains slightly faster than the pack.


This weight limit is still twice that of Yahoo! but lighter than most high-fashion sites. Arriving at the ideal size for a web site is a complex matter. Designers must look at their customers, their competition and other web sites.


Once you set a weight limit, you may be surprised how much easier web site management will become. Instead of just guessing at when you’ve inserted too many graphics onto a page, you’ll know exactly where you stand.


Your organization will begin to approach web development as a zero sum game. If you add something, you’ll have to subtract something. This discipline may be challenging to enforce initially, but it will prevent the inevitable flood of added product lines and announcements from dragging down your site.


Finally, keep an eye on the pack. Other sites may be getting lighter (thereby making your site heavier) or they may be getting heavier (giving you room to expand and still remain underweight).


You must always know how your site ranks against all major sites for your users will surely know as well.


Most fashion sites are at that awkward stage of imitating rather than innovating. Sites tend to look alike or attempt to replicate the real-world experience of a fashion show or a boutique. But there will be more sites that take chances, like the Helmut Lang pages; sites that challenge accepted notions of what a fashion site “should” look like.


Fortunately, the fashion industry specializes in creativity.

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