November 21, 2009, 12:00 AM

Apparel / Accessories

More than just beauties, these retailers have brains, too

Witty copy. Unique business practices. Useful tools. The apparel and accessories retailers included in this year’s Hot 100 are far from carbon copies. Each is selected for a different reason. But they all have one thing in common: They’re smart. Readers will find a strong business case for each of the tools, design elements and business strategies these retailers employ.

Take, for example, teen apparel retailer The site loads up on artsy images and foregoes long product descriptions because it knows teens would rather see pictures of outfits than read about them. And, recognizing that many adolescents are still looking for fashion guidance (just not from their parents), offers a Shop By Outfit tool to show teens how to put together an ensemble that straddles the fine line between funky and frumpy.

Meanwhile, high-end, invitation-only apparel site, evokes an entirely different vibe-one of luxury and sophistication. Gilt bets that shoppers who are willing to dish out $1,000 on a dress know a thing or two about fashion and probably don’t need help putting together an outfit. And so Gilt focuses on showcasing the quality of its products with high-resolution images and rollover zoom that illuminates every last stitch.

Shoppers turning to, an apparel retailer with roots in Britain, are likely looking for something they can’t find at their local U.S.-based shopping mall. Thus, the site plays up its British heritage with cheeky copy, product names and descriptions that evoke an English air.

Shoe and accessories retailer SimplySoles caters to the discerning shopper who seeks unique, hard-to-find shoes and demands high quality. It differentiates itself by going the extra mile to help shoppers find the perfect pair of shoes. SimplySoles’ staff try on European styles themselves to determine U.S. sizes. And the retailer frequently sends its loyal, repeat shoppers two sizes to try, charges only for one, and encloses a return label for sending back whichever pair doesn’t fit.

This year’s apparel and accessories retailers are much more than pretty e-commerce sites. They are savvy merchants that take the time to understand their customers’ needs and develop tools, features and business practices to meet them.
Hands-on from afar

It’s difficult culling through various fabric swatches to find what you’re looking for without the actual tactile experience-particularly for fashion novices. But multichannel retailer 1154 Lill Ltd. has designed its site,, so that customers can customize a purse’s exterior, interior and strap fabrics, and see detailed images of what each fabric looks like and how a particular bag would appear with the selected fabrics. To make it easier for customers to gauge the actual size of each purse, the site shows a model carrying the bag. If customers have questions about anything, such as whether one fabric might clash with another, they can use the site’s live chat feature, or pose the question to the retailer’s active Facebook community of nearly 4,300 fans.
Signature style

Barneys New York brings its sophisticated style to with a black, white and red color scheme and category headings in the distinct handwriting of its long-time creative director Simon Doonan. “We aim to mimic as much as possible the experience of being in the Barneys New York flagship store. It’s an upscale, luxury shopping experience,” says Larry Promisel, vice president, e-commerce. Instead of a list of categories, the site presents varying images of products such as shoes or handbags. Products displayed on sub-category pages offer a QuickLook feature, added this year to make it easier for shoppers to get more information and add items directly to their carts. Barneys also added content such as designer biographies and videos, and plans to introduce a new blog, Barneys Babble.
A bit of Brit

Apparel retailer has its roots in Britain, so it’s only natural that its U.S. retail site,, brings a bit of England with it. Witty copy charms from the get-go. The description for one dress, for example, reads: “Scientific studies conducted by the Boden Institute of Wellbeing have shown that exposure to bold, floral prints reduces stress in winter.” Shoppers also get a taste of the U.K. with words like “rucksack” for backpack and with product names like the Carnaby trench. In addition to being downright fun, the site has some useful tools. Boden shows availability for items by size and color, and goes so far as to list them as in stock, low stock, out of stock or the number of weeks’ wait. And an outfit maker tool lets visitors view pieces on a virtual model.
A certain look

With the Septem-ber redesign of Brooks, the apparel retailer sought to capture the high-end look and customer service of Brooks Brothers’ stores. It started by increasing the site’s resolution to 1024 pixels to accommodate more content. In came high-resolution images, mouse-over zoom, detailed product information, customer reviews and videos showcasing features of best-selling products. The retailer retained its Create Your Own Shirt feature that allows users to design a customized shirt by choosing the fabric, collar, cuff and fit. The feature is geared toward customers who already know what they want. “This gives them the ability to do self-service and not have to go into a store when they already know what they want,” says Brian Dean, Brooks Brothers vice president, direct.

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