November 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Apparel & Accessories

This year’s category winners in Apparel & Accessories succeed by giving online shoppers something beyond what they’d get in a store. Among them are retailers leading the way in the use of new applications that leverage the web’s unique properties to expand on the customer experience.

Internet Retailer Best of the Web 2007

Shop for a toaster online today and any savvy site will have specs and pictures at the ready to help one decide without ever setting foot in a store. Buy a coat, however, or a handbag or pair of shoes, and the gap between being there and having to depend on the product information offered on a computer screen can loom large.

This year’s category winners in apparel & accessories succeed by bridging that divide and, in fact, giving online shoppers something beyond what they’d get in a store. Among them are retailers leading the way in the use of new applications that leverage the web’s unique properties to expand on the customer experience.

For example, a web-enabled installation at Polo Ralph Lauren’s flagship Madison Avenue store this summer gave “window shopping” a whole new meaning with a touch-sensitive store window featuring tennis wear that enabled passers-by to shop from outside the store by simply tapping on the window glass. And Nordstrom’s new Flash-built designers’ collection feature helps inject a big dose of the excitement associated with high fashion into

But launching out-there applications that enchant shoppers isn’t the only way that the category leaders win online. As others demonstrate, oftentimes the tool that delivers the best results is an ear tuned closely to the customer. Talbots, for instance, is becoming an online powerhouse with the help of merchandising features such as shop by outfit, new at Talbot’s, and live chat-a method to build on the personal kind of service customers seek in Talbots stores.

And pure-play marches to the lead in the shoe space online with a strategy that skips wow-factor bells and whistles in favor of site improvements driven almost entirely by customer comments. The result is a formula that keeps shoppers coming back: free two-way shipping, a huge selection, and search, sort and shop functionality that gets shoppers to what they want, fast.

“It’s how our site has evolved,” says CEO Tony Hsieh. “Anything we add on our web site is generally from customer suggestions.”
Getting outfitted for TV

Winning in online retailing doesn’t always require engaging graphics punctuated by videos and music-although that can help, especially if the targeted audience is teens and young adults. What is profoundly important is providing the fundamentals of retailing: products that appeal to the customer base in an easy-to-shop environment. When a retailer excels in both of these areas, it can spell the kind of growth like that being experienced at, the retail site of American Eagle Outfitters, hitting close to $200 million this year.

American Eagle added to an already graphic-rich, interactive site this year by launching “aerie Tuesdays on CW.” Aerie, its new line of intimate apparel and sleepwear for teen girls and young women, is sponsoring Tuesday night showings of the “Gilmore Girls” and “Veronica Mars” on the CW television network. displays clips of the TV shows and American Eagle’s sponsoring commercials, which feature AE customers discussing the TV shows and AE apparel. makes extensive use of Flash technology to provide interactive mouse-over navigation to reveal product details and displays of outfits-a merchandising tactic that supports young online buyers who like to coordinate outfits but don’t always take the time to navigate throughout a site to find them. also lets online customers shop to the same music played in its stores by clicking on tracks from the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, N.E.R.D. and other groups.

With all of its online entertainment and interactivity, however, American Eagle still sticks to the fundamentals. It has been careful not to overwhelm visitors with content, making it easy to navigate the site and complete a purchase, says Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president at consultants Retail Forward. “American Eagle does a great job of honing in on its core audience of teens and young adults, but they also do a good job of providing features like a holiday gift guide that’s good for others who spend money on, like parents,” she says.

So in addition to all the pizzazz, it’s making sure it’s giving its targeted customers-and their parents-a shopping experience that keeps them coming back.
In step with shoppers

One of the most frustrating experiences for online shoppers is entering a term into site search and turning up results that guide them to the wrong product. More often than not, if a shopper can’t hit the right search term in a few tries they will abandon the site. Understanding that consumers often don’t know fashion industry terms for shoes, Famous Footwear has spent the past year expanding the dictionary of search terms on its web site to make it easier for shoppers to find exactly what they want.

“Footwear shoppers are savvy, but they don’t necessarily know industry terms such as slip-on loafers being called moccasins,” explains Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group. “Famous Footwear now has a vocabulary in its site search that matches that of the consumer, and that’s extremely beneficial.”

The upgrade in site search is part of a broader cross-channel marketing and merchandising strategy Famous Footwear calls “More Shoes, More Ways.” The intent is to create closer ties between the web site and its stores. The retailer averages 458,000 monthly unique visitors.

“We want to make certain we communicate this message regardless of the media or channel,” says Jennifer Stack, vice president of relationship marketing for Famous Footwear. “We also want our stores to realize the web site is a friend, not a foe.”

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