Doran Robinson previously worked for healthcare information technology vendor athenahealth.
Few product categories have pickier customers than apparel has. Some said apparel sales would never take off online. But the apparel retailers in this year`s thriving Specialty/Apparel and Accessories category prove them wrong.
Guess what: They will buy apparel online
Internet Retailer`s Best of the Web 2005
Few product categories have pickier customers than apparel has. The wrong fit, fabric, or look will instantly consign an article of clothing back into a shoe box or onto the dressing room floor. It`s one reason that, early on, some said apparel sales would never take off online. But the apparel retailers in this year`s thriving Specialty/Apparel and Accessories category prove them wrong.
Saks Fifth Avenue stores deliver upscale customer service wrapped around top-end fashion, and its web site follows the same formula. At SaksFifthAvenue.com, customers can communicate with fashion experts online, find a selection that equals the stores`, and get information on how designer brands fit, the latest fashion trends, and access to online trunk sales from leading designers.
Luxury apparel retailer Neiman Marcus` web site similarly replicates much of what distinguishes its stores. "Their web site is truly reflective of the brands they sell," says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-Tailing Group Inc. "The graphics, product imagery, service, everything says high end." Neiman has used the web to push its brand into new territory: the company reports about half of its online sales are to customers outside regions served by its stores.
And it isn`t just fashion aficionados who`ve embraced the web as a way to shop. Apparel retailer stalwarts such as Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean report the web as a fast-growing channel. In addition to its utility as a sales channel, Bean uses LLBean.com as one way to get feedback on products and service from its customers, with a window for customers to enter and send comments spread throughout the site.
Such continual input has helped build a site so well-tuned that Patricia Seybold Group senior vice president Susan Aldrich uses it as the standard to illustrate what she calls the four Es of e-merchandising-emphasis, environment, excitement and education. "L.L. Bean does a good job with all of them," Aldrich says. That keeps Bean`s e-commerce sales growing at the rate of about 30% a year, positioning web sales to overtake catalog sales--the foundation of the 90-plus year-old brand--within a few years, Bean has disclosed.
Eddie Bauer`s web site played a key role this year in communicating the brand`s new commitment to style and fit. EddieBauer.com makes the web site`s importance clear with new features such as its fit guide and a "shop by fit" option that lets shoppers sort tops and bottoms according to cut and style. The site took the fit message even further this fall with a video jeans guide, which lets shoppers launch video clips of models wearing different styles of jeans.
What this year`s category winners have in common, whether outfitting shoppers for a night on the town or a trek through the woods, is that they`ve figured out how to compensate for the online channel`s chief impediment to sales--shoppers` inability to touch or try on clothing before buying--and instead play to its strengths.
Success in the bag
When you`ve got a winning formula for selling a product over the Internet, it is tempting to let well enough alone.
But the "if it`s not broke, don`t fix it" mentality doesn`t exist at eBags.com. There, executives know that online shoppers are a demanding group that expects new features, merchandise and functionality from online shops.
"EBags.com is innovative in a practical sense--it`s not afraid to try new things and spend money on innovation--but management is smart not to waste money," says Lauren Freedman, president of The e-Tailing Group.
Among new features is a section that allows frequent shoppers to view only the merchandise that is new since the last time they shopped. That may be helpful given that ebags.com sells 12,000 totes from 230 brands.
One of the new features planned for the site is better coordination between merchandise sold on eBags.com and Shoedini.com, a spin-off online shoe store. After the first of the year, shoppers at Shoedini will be able to call up merchandise from eBags.com to match with Shoedini products. That would allow women to match handbags with shoes or students to match shoes with book bags.
"We`re always looking at how we can improve the site," says Peter Cobb, co-founder and vice president of marketing. "On each page of our site, we have a link that says `How can we improve this page?` Customers let us know what changes they`d like. We get 50 to 100 comments per day."
Successful existing features include a sophisticated search function that allows eBags.com`s customers, for example, to specify which airlines they frequently fly so they can be shown luggage that meets carry-on requirements for those specific airlines. Customers looking for laptop computer cases can specify the brand of laptop they have and get product suggestions, or they can just key in the dimensions.
EBags is also known for one of the top ratings services that typically includes reviews from hundreds of customers. Additionally, shoppers are asked if they found reviews helpful and the reviews are ranked so that the most helpful ones get top placement. Shoppers can also prioritize reviews by their own criteria--for example asking only to see reviews that were negative.
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**Internet Retailer Top 300 Guide est., 2003
It`s about the fit