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A future shaped by the web

There’s no denying the importance of online, with most retail innovation now coming from this channel.

It still makes me smile when I think of all the naysayers who told me, in the aftermath of the dotcom boom and bust around 2001, that clothing and footwear would never take off online because customers would still want to touch and feel the goods (some were still telling me this as recently as 2005). My response was that it had worked in direct mail for decades, so what was the difference to buying online?

Look online now and many of the biggest success stories are in the footwear and clothing space. In fact, according to the IMRG Cap Gemini eRetail Sales Index, clothing, footwear and accessories are three of the top four categories for growth online.

So what’s driving this growth? Firstvof all it’s become far more convenient for consumers to buy fashion online. Most retailers now have good propositions around delivery and returns. Take Schuh and Zappos who offer a 365-day returns policy and free delivery both ways.

The combination of this and technology such as Fits.me and its robotic mannequin that drives Thomas Pink’s virtual fitting room, is also making it easier for customers to decide to buy online.

Online is also driving immediacy. ‘I’m going out tonight, and I need it now,’ demand customers. Web delivery specialist Shutl’s 90-minute delivery proposition that Aurora Fashions was one of the first to implement, and click-and-collect that Ted Baker and many others now offer are meeting this need.

All of the above empowers the customer as it enables them to choose how they shop.

The web has also fuelled the birth of an increasing number of innovative pure-plays and new business models.

These include JoeButton.com.au and Shoesofprey.com.au, where you can customise every aspect of a shirt at the former or create bespoke designer shoes at the latter.

And who would have thought that bespoke suits would work online? In the UK, we’ve got A Suit That Fits, which is a truly innovative model for selling bespoke tailoring online. The sale of thousands of suits every year would suggest this model is working well. Modcloth.com has a ‘Be the buyer’ feature on its website, where customers get to vote on potential new styles and comment on what they would do to improve them before they actually produce them.

Styles such as these sell 2.4 times better than lines that haven’t gone through this process. You won’t find this in any high street store.

At the highest end of course there are the doyennes of haute couture and luxury, Net-A-Porter. It has created an online environment that is on a par with any high-end bricks-and-mortar store. And it has replicated this with its move into menswear with Mr Porter.

With Asos set to become the first £1bn fashion pure-play within the next couple of years, I think it’s fair to suggest that while fashion may have had a slow start online, it’s now setting the standard for online shopping experiences and it’s where we can expect to see most of the innovation in the years to come.

  • Martin Newman Founder and chief executive of etail consultancy Practicology

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