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To stand out on the web, specialty and apparel retailers must offer more than just strong brands. They must also pay attention to the details of what provides a winning formula through customer service and a pleasant shopping experience.
To stand out on the web, specialty and apparel retailers must offer more than just strong brands. They must also pay attention to the details of what provides a winning formula through customer service and a pleasant shopping experience. One thing that the 12 online retailers in the Specialty/Apparel and Accessories section have in common is the attention they pay to the details that make their web sites excel in meeting the needs of their customers.
Serving a market niche well means finding those customer needs and meeting them with a high level of customer service-and innovation. Take Western Warehouse, which sells Western wear through 29 stores and WesternWarehouse.com. When it realized its web site lacked the services necessary to support its customers’ strong demand for cowboy boots, it reached into its own resources to devise solutions. Now it’s the only online boot-seller with a custom boot-configurator-built in-house as the first of its kind on the web. “The custom boot feature is a good example of how the Internet is well-suited to aggregate demand and offer a unique service to consumers over the world,” says Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president of consultants Retail Forward Inc.
No one does a better job of offering custom-fit products than Lands’ End, which pioneered the technique on Lands-End.com and continues to expand it. Lands’ End never ceases to improve the shopping experience, most recently with improved navigation and expansion of custom fit to women’s shirts.
At footwear retailer Zappos.com, surging sales are the result of its high level of customer service and broad selection. By saving costs where it can on in-house technology developments, including a system of providing shoppers with real-time inventory updates on each SKU, Zappos can afford to offer free shipping on all orders and returns and has more than doubled the value of the inventory to give customers wider choice of styles and sizes.
Bluefly.com, which sells designer apparel brands at discount prices, has attained the unusual in offering both function and fashion through a site design that emphasizes both a fashionable image and an easy way to shop for particular sizes. And intimate apparel fashion leader Victoria’s Secret has improved the function if its web site to push cross-selling of complete outfits and wardrobes in multiple apparel categories.
When it comes to testing new ways of merchandising, eBags.com is constantly innovating while monitoring and responding to customer preferences. Just as others in this section, like HotTopic.com and Timberland.com, go the extra mile to design a shopping experience around their knowledge of their customers’ interests.
Where fashion meets (web) function
That’s the modus operandi for Bluefly Inc.’s Bluefly.com. Based in the heart of the fashion district in midtown Manhattan, Bluefly has managed to weather the boom-and-bust cycle of the dot-com era. And though still facing financial challenges in its sixth year, it has emerged as an Internet retailer that has pulled off an unusual feat in apparel e-retailing.
“They’ve learned how to combine fashion and site functionality on the same web site, which is a neat trick,” says Neil Stern, principal of retail consultants McMillan/Doolittle. “Web sites that focus on fashion usually don’t have good functionality.”
In September, Bluefly launched a redesigned site that emphasizes a consistent feeling of high fashion along with ease of shopping. “We created more desire around the product,” says CEO Ken Seiff. Key to that strategy is the use of images of models throughout the site to show off brands like Gucci, Prada and Hugo Boss on a white background, adding a sense of clean elegance, he adds.
In the past, Stern notes, a weakness of Bluefly was to entice shoppers with attractive fashions, only to disappoint in cases where a shopper couldn’t find her size. The redesign lets customers search by size, brand or category, or even by product popularity based on past sales.
And now there’s more to shop for. Bluefly recently added about $3 million in merchandise, increasing its number of styles by 25% to 12,000. And it hired former Spiegel Catalog Inc. CEO Melissa Payner-Gregor to fill the new position of president, a perch from which she’ll bring in more styles and price points to attract more customers, Seiff says. Payner-Gregor’s help comes after Bluefly has recognized an increase in the number of returns that it attributes to a general rise in prices.
But Seifff expects all the improvements at Bluefly to build on a recent trend of increasing order size from both new and repeat customers. For the first half of this year, average order size rose 6% to $172. “Cross-sells and up-sells are generating more business today than ever,” he says. “Our average order size now is more than two units per order.”
Still dealing with losses-it lost nearly $4 million net for the first six months of this year-Bluefly nonetheless keeps producing an upside. September sales rose 50% year-to-year, Seiff says, adding: “We’re anticipating it to be an even bigger and better holiday season.” m
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