January 3, 2005, 12:00 AM

Is time running out for store mannequins?

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American Eagle, for example, has dialed down its former mass catalog mailing into a smaller direct mail piece to focus more of its marketing online. It’s done such an effective job of selling jeans on the web that its 800-plus North American stores are now looking for a way to implement in-store the jean guide developed for online use.

While it doesn’t disclose sales by channel, the web is growing faster than its stores, American Eagle says, in part because its web team has worked to make AE.com a major destination for jeans among its youth audience with features like the guide. Launched last July, the jean guide helps online shoppers organize and process a very large amount of information on product attributes such as fit and wash, to guide them quickly toward a purchase decision.

“We needed to break it all down for customers so they would be able to understand the hierarchy,” says McCormick. AE.com does that for women, for example, with the presentation in the jean guide of four different fit styles. Shoppers can move from a fit style selection to narrow the field based on type of denim wash, or vice versa.

The rest of what goes into the fit story is the rise of the different styles of jeans, and the fit guide presents that information in a side-by-side comparison showing styles ranging from low rise to ultimate low rise, with measurements supplied for each. Shoppers can also go deeper into the guide to view a selected jeans fit and wash on a model from the front, side and rear. Or they can simply choose to shop by viewing the whole jeans assortment, presented all at once. “We wanted to make it interactive, but structured and organized in how we sell to customers,” McCormick says.

At its stores’ request, American Eagle is now looking at how to present the same information and selection process in-store. “It had to be clear and concise and organized because of how we present the information online, but the stores liked it so much that now we really have one point of view on how we present this information to our customer,” says Dave Brumback, director of operations at AE Direct. “It’s a good example of how something we have done online has really impacted the overall branding in a positive way.”

Doubling jeans sales

AE.com isn’t the only apparel retailer to look to the web to carry the ball on a complex message on fit and style. In August, Eddie Bauer launched an online video version of its own jean guide to support a fall jeans collection marked by a new attention to fit and fashion. That month, denim sales doubled those of the previous August.

American Eagle, Eddie Bauer, Land’s End and others point out that the expanded sizes available on the web are another key driver of apparel online; in fact, that’s a common theme among apparel retailers having both a store and a web presence. More retailers that have been primarily store-based will now either direct customers to access the web site in the store to order the exact size and color combination they want or even order for the customer online right at the point of sale terminal and arrange to ship the item to the customer, a service Gap stores provide.

“One advantage web and catalog customers have had is that their inventory is in one place, while for store-based retailers, that’s been an age-old problem: they’ve got that pair of size 10 shoes in the system, but not always where the customer is. The web turns that out-of-stock situation into one that completes the sale,” says Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president at Retail Forward.

While some consumers who don’t currently shop for clothing online are unlikely to do so no matter which shopping tools or blandishments they’re offered, there’s another group that could be persuaded, given the extra degree of confidence that better online visualization can provide, Whitfield contends. That’s why Michelle Hornsby, senior Internet and merchandising manager for Frederick’s of Hollywood, anticipates a sales lift on Fredericks.com from the zoom and color swapping capacity it expects to launch with provider RichFX Inc. early this year. At Frederick’s, the product story is in fine details and color, two attributes on which industry reports suggest better images can move the sales needle. According to data from Retail Forward, for example, the conversion rate among shoppers using zoom capabilities to enlarge product views is about 55%, while it’s about 50% among shoppers using online color-swapping functionality.

With unusual shades of lingerie such as guava, iris and periwinkle, “I’m confident that with the ability to show some of our most exotic colors and help the customer see what she looks like in that color, it’s definitely going to affect sales,” says Hornsby. Rich FX also will be supporting zoom “hot spots,” giving online shoppers the ability to greatly enlarge views of selected product image details, which Hornsby says is critical to displaying key product attributes such as lace and stitching.

Tailored marketing

In addition to an assortment that expands on what’s available in Frederick’s stores or in any single Frederick’s catalog, the web allows Frederick’s the flexibility to tailor marketing to what Hornsby says is a different type of customer. “The catalog shopper flips through the catalog and if she sees something that interests her, she might pursue it. The online shopper is less passive in her selection; she knows exactly what she’s looking for,” Hornsby says. “Once you gain an understanding of that customer, you know how cater to her needs. And online, you can change to meet those needs continually.”

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