Online Retailing Goes Mainstream, Clothes Rule

Discussion
May 15, 2007

By George Anderson

Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, told The New York Times that anyone “looking for a sign that online retailing has really gone mainstream” now has all the evidence they are likely to need. A new study from Shop.org and Forrester Research, The State of Retailing Online 2007, reports clothing has overtaken computer hardware and software to become the top-selling consumer product category (excluding travel) online.

For years, it was suggested that consumers would not turn to online merchants to buy clothing because they could not feel the fabric, see how items appeared in the light or try on items to be sure they fit. The experience of shopping for clothes, it was reasoned, played a central role in the decision to purchase.

But, $18.3 billion in sales in 2006 suggests that many American consumers are quite happy to try on clothes at home and if they don’t fit, return them to the online merchant that made the sale. In fact, Americans are so comfortable in buying clothes online that Shop.org and Forrester predict that sales will grow to $22.1 billion this year, equal to 10 percent of all apparel purchases.

“Apparel retailers have overcome a number of hurdles to encourage shoppers to buy clothing and accessories online,” Mr. Silverman said in a press release. “Retailers are doing such a great job online that in some cases it’s easier to find and buy clothing on the web than it is in a store.”

While the dollar sales of clothing have surpassed computers, the report does suggest that consumers still remain more reluctant to purchase apparel when compared to other products. For example, 41 percent of all computer sales were conducted online as were 21 percent of books and 15 percent of baby supplies.

Still retailers believe that liberal return policies and advancements in technology improving the display of clothing online will continue to make larger numbers of consumers comfortable with the process.

Troy Brown, general manager of Timberland’s website, told The Times that consumers can view shoes from all angles using a tool that rotates, spins and zooms in on images.

“You can virtually pick up the product, giving you the essence of touch,” he said.

Richard Last, head of new business development for J.C. Penney’s website, said the company was two years ahead of schedule in terms of achieving sales goals and that the company is finding that consumers who once purchased clothing from its catalog are moving online. Many consumers, he said, are using the catalog “as a tool for online shopping.”

Discussion Questions: What do the numbers from the Shop.org/Forrester report say to you about the current and future state of online clothing sales? Do you see any new developments coming that could further improve the sale of clothing online?

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11 Comments on "Online Retailing Goes Mainstream, Clothes Rule"


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Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
15 years 7 days ago
The catalog/online extension analogy is right on. More and more people are successfully using the internet to search and shop for clothing and accessories. What I find interesting is that in my circle of acquaintances there are two primary types of online shoppers: A) the ones looking for the lowest price on an item or brand they are already familiar with, and B) those who are looking to find something special, unique, and totally different from what is locally available. The well documented (on this site) icky fitting room issues at some brick and mortar stores are not a problem for online shoppers. Trying on the clothing in the privacy of one’s own home with normal lighting conditions, being able to match the garment with shoes, scarves, or shirts one already owns, and maybe even get family input is a real plus. When the manufacturers finally get around to standardizing the current “hit or miss” sizing (also well documented in previous discussions here) so that returns are less frequent, you will REALLY see online apparel… Read more »
Kai Clarke
Guest
15 years 7 days ago

This is important not so much as to what it says about online clothing sales, but what it doesn’t say about catalog clothing sales (which online sales are rapidly replacing), and most importantly about online computer sales. This indicates that for the first time that more people are purchasing their computers in traditional brick and mortar establishments as computers go more mainstream, and can be found in not only specialty stores, but even in Wal-Mart. This means that computing has finally hit the masses, and is widely available through traditional retailers, and is no longer a niche product to be purchased online. This also speaks to the longevity of computers and their software. Computers are now purchased for usage over a longer time frame and offer greater flexibility in both home and office environments as they now address music, video, TV, PVR, home computing, business computing and student computing all from one source. This mainstreaming identifies the computer user as more of an everyman rather than a special one.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 7 days ago

The alleged objection that people wouldn’t buy clothing online never made any sense. Before the internet, millions of people bought clothing using catalogs. Online apparel sales volume will continue to rise as long as apparel margins remain high. The only significant obstacle to online commerce for any category: margins. When margins are too low, the customer acquisition cost and logistics charges eliminate the business incentive to sell online. Translation: no category is constrained by consumer demand. The only problem left: some categories aren’t profitable.

Ian Percy
Guest
15 years 7 days ago

It is almost impossible to find clothing that is stylish and different at an ordinary price. No delivery channel is better poised to deliver that combination than the Internet. With good copywriting consumers won’t need to ‘feel the material’ and even sizing isn’t a problem. Men may not buy a suit nor women a formal gown online (at least not yet) but for routine everyday clothes you’ll get as good a fit as in any store.

The big issue is ‘trust’ and we’ll soon know which online vendors to count on and which to avoid.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
15 years 7 days ago

Online apparel can be enhanced with fine tuning. Input your measurements and profile (confidentially, of course) and the site suggests styles and colors that look best on you. A virtual personal designer.

Search the database by color, style or occasion. If your site doesn’t already have these features, it’s time for an upgrade now because you’re behind the times.

Also, by making returns easier and hassle free, your site will get more hits.

Mark Hunter
Guest
Mark Hunter
15 years 7 days ago

Eddie Bauer has been an early adopter of using the web to sell clothes and the moves they’ve made helped to build rapidly the consumer’s acceptance of buying clothing online. A few of the moves they made included the ability to return things purchased online to a store, which was significant in helping consumers overcome the fear of buying online. EB was also quick to realize how they could use the web to give the consumer more size options than what they could find in a store, again a major move forward.

As far as next steps go…look for gift wrapped delivery for next Christmas to begin becoming a smart option to buying a plain gift card.

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
15 years 7 days ago

Online clothing shopping makes so much sense. It should overcome the inventory and limited selection problems associated with brick and mortar stores and at a savings. Rising shipping costs are a potential problem but nothing that can’t be overcome with effective marketing. The comparison to the volume of clothing that has been formerly sold by catalog sales I think is very valid. It proves to me that people aren’t opposed to shopping for clothing where they can’t try it on or see and feel the fabric. As has been pointed out, a major key to this working is the ease and low cost of returning unwanted items.

Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
15 years 7 days ago
I never bought that bit about the limitations of online clothes shopping either. Lands’ End has been a pioneer — and a leader — since the early days of the commercial web, and once Talbots got on board, they too seemed to get it in a hurry. Same for Eddie Bauer and L.L.Bean, and for some more fashion-forward sites. I do think the web lends itself exceedingly well to the basics. When a customer knows she needs two more pairs of jeans that have fit perfectly for the last two years and three white turtlenecks, plus khaki shorts for her husband and two sons, she can get it all done in ten minutes on the web, versus spending an hour or more on that ten-minute trip to the mall. I don’t know that the web is quite there yet for higher-end stuff. MyShape.com has a lot of the right ideas, like personalized merchandising based on a customer’s measurements and coloring. But inventories are on the thin side–the spring collection was just about sold out yesterday.… Read more »
Joy V. Joseph
Guest
Joy V. Joseph
15 years 7 days ago

A study conducted in 2000 by E-BuyersGuide.com cited the following as some of the major reasons why consumers were hesitant to buy apparel online.

Sizing Accuracy 27.95%

Returns Issues 18.17%

Unsure of Quality 13.92%

Delivery Costs 13.71%

A lot of these have since improved by leaps and bounds, especially returns and delivery costs, but sizing accuracy and quality standards may still need considerable improvement. A temporary fix seems to be to give consumers sufficient incentive in terms of guaranteeing a no hassle return policy to overcome the sizing issue, but it still does not go to the root of the problem. Technology may help here in terms of simulating fit based on consumers inputting their size in detail, but such technology is not yet pervasive.

Todd Belveal
Guest
Todd Belveal
15 years 7 days ago

This kind of highly publicized validation for apparel sales online will only help increase shoppers’ collective comfort level with the online experience. This should increase trial of current viewing technology and the direct channel overall. This is really a very exciting development and speaks to the great work being done by retailers in the online channel. This certainly also has big implications for the role of the store experience going forward, and if anything seems to imply even greater opportunities to use the store to deliver new spaces that make more radical, emotional connections. Looking forward to seeing this develop!

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
15 years 6 days ago

It’s easy. It’s convenient. It’s usually very service/customer oriented. Online clothing opportunities are now endless it seems for today’s shoppers.

Some recent examples come to mind. L.L.Bean offers free shipping if you use their VISA. Sizes and choices are clearly specified. Returns can be made at any store or via a postage paid label. Coldwater Creek allows you to order online from their stores if you find something in their catalog that is not carried in a store. And you don’t pay shipping if you order in-store.

Recently I bought matching flower girl dresses for my daughter and her cousin in England for a wedding in the states. Everything fit perfectly and arrived in time.

Now that is convenient!

Online retailers want consumers saying “Yes, I’ll do this again.” and it seems to be clearly working.

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