November 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Apparel & Accessories Bringing merchandise and the store to online shoppers

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Selling something online as emotionally charged as a wedding gown can`t be easy. But has found ways to use technology that gives customers more information than they can get in a store.

Take the "dress your wedding" feature. Brides can view online their proposed gown, bridesmaids` dresses and colors, the groom`s wear and that of his attendants. Brides can even visualize their proposed wedding party against various backgrounds—such as beaches, parks or traditional reception halls.

"The brides can visualize the entire look of their wedding before their wedding day," says Carol Steinberg, vice president of e-commerce.

On the site, a bride can see what a gown would look like with various options, such as sash style or color and the types of sleeves and trains. Once she selects a dress, she can go into a store for a fitting or order selected styles online.

While most brides prefer to place the order in a store, an increasing number are ordering online. Enough that David`s Bridal, a multi-channel retailer based in Conshohocken, Pa., this year introduced a line of bridal dresses available exclusively online. The site plans to introduce a line of online-only bridesmaids and party dresses later this year and expand the online selection to include prom dresses in 2008.

This year, the chain made its site more interactive by allowing brides to submit bridal stories via text, pictures and videos. These features will extend to prom goers in 2008, Steinberg says.

So much extra content "reinforces the sense of authority" that David`s Bridal projects, says Mark Lee, founder of Charlottesville, Va.-based consulting firm The Mark Lee Group. Additionally, Lee says, the use of partners, such as travel sites for honeymoon planning, "is a clever way to keep people coming back to the site during the many months of event planning." Back to top

10 and counting celebrated its 10th birthday last month, making it a relative veteran among apparel sites. But it`s not getting stodgy.

"We`ve been taking advantage of advances in web technology to provide better usability and a more engaging customer experience," says Will Hunsinger, vice president of the online unit of San Francisco-based Gap Inc. "We want to make it very usable so customers can look at our apparel with our editorial point of view of how to put it together, but also quickly and easily get it into the bag and purchase it."

The home page features Editors` Looks—eight distinct styles for young women, each featuring several items that go together, such as jeans, shirt, sweater, scarf and shoes. An arrow on the right slides the next style into view, letting the shopper flip through as though thumbing through a fashion magazine.

Product pages have been redesigned so that rolling over a color swatch changes the color of the garment being viewed. Each page also displays colors and sizes available, price, fabric, and product care information. "This gives the customer everything they need to make a product decision," Hunsinger says.

Other notable site features are Quick Look, which magnifies each part of an image as the user mouses over it, and a shopping bag that displays each item that`s added without the shopper leaving the product page. also added site search this year, a feature many sites have had for some time.

One fan of is Scott Kincaid, vice president of usability practices at consulting firm Usability Sciences Corp. The ability to magnify color swatches for each garment with Quick Look provides a real feel for the material, he says. "It lets people know what it would be like if they were actually holding it in their hands" Kincaid says.

One complaint: clicking on the Quick Look text that pops up when mousing over an image produced more information on the item but not the magnifying glass effect; that came from clicking on the item itself. Not everyone will get that, Kincaid says. Back to top

No question, it`s the look is the online equivalent of magazines like Vogue or W, with stunning still photography of trendy apparel and shoes worn by high-fashion models. "On the web we let the iconic images of Guess? do what they do best," says Steve Nicholas, assistant director of e-commerce operations at Guess? Inc.

Guess? has added more product images in the past few months, as many as six per item, responding to customer requests, Nicholas says. And since late in 2006 it has switched to photos of models, instead of mannequins, to provide a better sense of fit.

"In the business we`re in, fashion forward, sexy, runway-inspired apparel, the fit would obviously be very important," Nicholas says. He says the additional images and use of models has reduced return rates and increased customer satisfaction, based on on-site customer surveys.

While Guess? is happy to sell items online, the Los Angeles-based company recognizes many customers will want to try on an item like a brass-buttoned Whitney Rocker Coat before paying $158 for it. Thus, a key goal of its web sites is to drive customers to the company`s 365 stores in North America, branded Marciano, Guess, G by Guess and Guess Factory.

Nicholas says 82% of visitors to have made at least one purchase in a company store in the past year, versus 34% who have bought online. "Those statistics are pretty telling that we`re doing a good job of what we`re trying to do, showcase the latest fashion and drive online visitors to the stores for the full brand experience," he says.

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