November 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Apparel & Accessories

(Page 4 of 4)

One of the biggest challenges facing apparel retailers, besides creating a “Wow” factor for their sites, is giving their catalog better representation than just showing a picture of each item. Classic Girls Getaway feature rings the bell on both points.

Shoppers can mix and match blouses, skirts, pants and hand bags, and drag and drop them onto a virtual model. What creates the “Wow” factor is that the model and the created outfit can be placed in several locales, such as the country, the city, the seashore, and so on. Fun images, such as a dog and a picnic basket, can be added to the scene to create a true getaway feeling. The chosen scene can be e-mailed to friends to put the outfit and getaway into perspective.

“The basic need of apparel shoppers is to see how the item or outfit looks, regardless of the sales channel,” says Chad Dorion, senior strategist for retail consultants Kurt Salmon and Associates. “Where the store presents a controlled environment for achieving this goal, the web is like the Wild West to shoppers. To capture the interest of online shoppers, they have got to see the item in a hands-on way.”

This is especially true of shoppers age 35 and older, who shop online but prefer the hands-on feel of the store. “Talbots does a lot of business with this customer segment and creating an online environment that connects and motivates them is going to be a big boost,” says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD Group.

In addition to creating a more customer-centric environment online, Talbots’ acquisition of J. Jill in April 2005 creates an tremendous cross-marketing opportunity for suggesting items to Talbots’ shoppers that can be found in J. Jill and vice versa. J. Jill is known as a web savvy retailer, which is expected to help Talbots project its brand image more effectively on its site. “J. Jill can educate Talbots about what connects with shoppers online,” adds Cohen. “Online is a great place to smooth out the ridges in the overall merchandising strategy.”

So far, it looks as though Talbots has learned this lesson well.
Service with sole

To capture shoppers online a retailer could pour money into marketing and promotions. Or it could spend that money on delivering the best possible customer service and on driving that mindset through the entire organization. The latter strategy has paid off big for pure-play shoe retailer

In September the 7-year-old company hit $1 billion in lifetime gross sales. Its 3.6 million-plus unique monthly visitors-60% of which are repeat customers-drove sales up 101% last year; this year it’s aiming for 62% growth and sales of $600 million. “As long as we focus on providing the best service I believe we have a good chance of hitting that target,” says CEO Tony Hsieh.

The customer is the reason for virtually everything does. For example, while the site’s heavily-laden home page has taken some hits from design critics, customers like it just fine. And they should, since they designed it-the site’s appearance and functionality have evolved directly in response to customer suggestions over the years.

Zappos fills orders from its warehouse continuously. It’s more challenging than batching fulfillment around one daily shift, but, “this way, when an order comes in we can get it out to the customer as quickly as possible,” Hsieh says. Zappos also keeps customers happy by staffing its call center 24-7 and putting its toll free number at the top of every page. And it gets the attention of shoppers-and retail analysts-by keeping one key offer at the center of its strategy: free shipping; significantly, on returns as well as outgoing orders.

“The driving force behind Zappos is free shipping both ways,” says Lauren Freedman, president of The e-Tailing Group. Freedman also notes Zappos’ robust product selection, search results that flag shoppers on which styles are new, and site messaging encouraging fans of particular brands to sign up for e-mail alerts when new styles from that brand arrive.

“They are targeting the shoe addict and putting anything that’s new right in their face-that’s good for that audience,” Freedman says.

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