With more ways to shop than ever before, our expert panel finds that giving customers what they want is becoming even more challenging.
How does the consumer shop for fashion today? In a world where a transaction can be done at high speed during a TV ad break on an iPad or, at the other end of the spectrum, during a leisurely store visit, how can retailers best serve customer needs?
Businesses ranging from formalwear seller Hawes & Curtis to Topshop joined Drapers at the Covent Garden Hotel in London on May 1 to discuss these questions using the findings of Drapers’ latest Customer Insight Report, which can be downloaded here.
What became clear is that, as consumers become increasingly agile in the way they shop, retailers must provide a shopping experience as mobile and flexible as the customers they serve. However, while the methods and sales channels may have multiplied, the basics remain the same: good service and product knowledge are key to creating sales.
When it comes to spending behaviour, those at the roundtable were unanimous that design remains the top motivation to buy.
“Fit and quality are huge drivers, particularly with womenswear and designer fashion. Design has to hit every metric,” said Gabrielle Hase, managing director of ecommerce consultancy Soleberry Advisory. However, translating such quality online is a challenge.
“The physical aspects of the product are so important in fashion,” said Scot DeLancey, director, department and specialty retail solution management, at technology company NCR.
Lee Whitehead, strategic development director at concessions operator Hallett Retail, concurred. He suggested online “product presentation is very important”, explaining: “Customers want to be inspired. It used to be: ‘How do we get photography costs down?’ Now it’s: ‘How can we invest more?’ You have to inspire as well as inform.”
Beyond inspiration, the more practical elements of online retail, such as conveying size and fit, remain a challenge for retailers in seeking to avoid customers returning goods.
Caroline Sharland, senior marketing manager at discount designer fashion website BrandAlley, said that “with new designers, we have to put a lot more effort into explaining the sizing”.
She explained: “With well-known brands such as Ray-Ban and Ugg, it’s less of an issue, as people know their size. You need to get the right product shots and dimensions - it’s a massive focus for us.”
The power of celebrity endorsements to drive sales is low, the report found. Only 1.6% of those questioned said it was one of the strongest motivators for them to buy. This was unexpected. “I’m surprised, as celebrity endorsements always seem to generate a spike in sales - particularly for brands like LK Bennett and Hobbs, where the ‘Duchess of Cambridge effect’ is off the charts,” said Hase.
Simon Burstein, chief executive of London luxury independent retailer Browns, agreed. He said the launch by rapper Drake of his menswear range in March brought hundreds of fans to the store to purchase the clothes.
Once the online shopper has been convinced to buy, ease and variety of payment is key.
“You need to give the consumer choice,” said DeLancey. PayPal is a popular online option, particularly in central Europe, and the retailers agreed that it was losing any “downmarket connotations”, pointing to US womenswear designer Tory Burch’s adoption of the payment method as evidence.
Online, making the customer journey clear and simple is essential, particularly for mobile commerce.
“Any of the frictions you can remove in the checkout experience helps,” DeLancey continued. Amazon and eBay both received praise for their “pared-down, simplified” shopping apps.
For all the talk of the multiple options now available to the customer, the discussion kept coming back to the topic of service. What does good customer service consist of today?
In stores, Quidco’s commercial director Andreas Andreou said that for high-end retailers, face-to-face contact is still an integral part of the service.
“If you go to a high-end store, you don’t want to go to a kiosk. You want to talk to an assistant, to have your item wrapped and bagged, and handed to you. You still need an experience in store,” he said.
Burstein agreed: “I give periodic talks to staff about this. It’s the personal contact that we provide at Browns.”
As technology evolves, the ability for retailers to harvest data on their customers grows constantly, both in stores and online. All agreed that there is a fine line between aiding and irritating the customer.
Topshop’s lead web analyst, Alixandra Burn, said that when it comes to data personalisation, “the consumer still isn’t quite sure what it means. Not everyone wants to give their data away. It may be because they haven’t seen it done well yet. Customers don’t like to feel like they’re being followed around and measured in some way.”
Sharland warned that by advertising on social media “we’re in [the customer’s] personal space - you have to be careful when pushing sales not to cannibalise yourself. If people are socialising in a pub, you don’t just barge in talking about your brand. It’s the same online.”
Likewise, loyalty schemes must be kept clear and simple, so the customer feels secure in providing details about themselves to the retailer.
“The customer is thinking, ‘I’m giving up my personal information - what am I going to get in return for that?’ The value exchange has to be clear and transparent,” said Quidco managing director, Andy Oldham.
Data gathered through loyalty cards “can make a big difference in making product relevant to customers,” Sharland said.
Burstein felt a loyalty scheme in itself is not enough to bring customers into a store, and take-up of such schemes is generally built on a customer’s previous identification with, or liking for, the retailer operating it.
“It still all comes down to service,” he said. “Working out how to provide that service online is a challenge for retailers. We offer a unique experience in store - if we can offer that at home as well, then that’s a very exciting opportunity.”
Whitehead perhaps had the simplest advice for navigating a multichannel, post-recession retail world: “The future is still really uncertain. Go back to the fundamentals - product, price and the experience. Don’t get caught up in the noise.”