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When virtual isn’t reality...

Sales are soaring and businesses growing, yet etailers are still grappling with the problem of merchandising online.

Ecommerce has been the saviour of the retail industry in many ways, with retailers reporting double-digit growth online, as their bricks-and-mortar stores have often experienced a decline. However, while online sales of clothing, footwear and accessories soared 23% in 2011 year on year, according to etail trade association IMRG, behind the scenes retailers are still facing plenty of challenges.

One of online’s biggest limitations is that consumers can’t touch the merchandise. When shopping in-store, consumers can glide their fingers over rails of clothes to feel the fabric – a sense etailers can never really translate into the online world.

Luisa De Paula, buying and merchandising director at premium etailer My-Wardobe.com, says this is a key limitation, particularly when a garment’s trump card is the fabric.

“If a collection is expensive because of the fabric and the consumer is not familiar with it then it can prove difficult,” says De Paula. “If it’s all about the fabric, it doesn’t work well for us online.”

For example, she says that if a pair of jeans is expensive due to the fabric then they can be difficult to sell online. However, she adds that if it’s a well-known brand, such as J Brand, then it’s not an issue because “customers know and trust that brand”.

Mark Woods, creative director at etailer Very, concurs: “Premium fashion lines can sometimes translate poorly online due to the difficulties in displaying the quality of the fabrics and cuts.”

Toby Bateman, buying director of premium menswear etailer Mr Porter, stipulates what elements work well when selling online, saying: “Colour and pattern work particularly well in an online environment.”

Sizing is another challenge online and one of the key reasons why shoppers return their purchases. Deryane Tadd, owner of St Albans womenswear indie The Dressing Room, says the fit needs to be perfect. She adds: “I will often try a brand out in-store for the first season and then decide if it is right to put online once I’m sure of the demand, fit and quality of the product.”

Lee Friend, creative director and executive producer of online photography studio Fashot, warns that selling a product with a ‘wrong’ fit can prove to be expensive.

“Five years ago customers would have bought a dress and if it didn’t fit they would have just kept it. But these days they’re returning them,” he says. “For a luxury retailer, that can be very expensive. If it’s a £400 dress, they can’t just put it back online, it has to go through a returns process and then will have to be discounted.”

Etailers also face issues with the presentation, argues Rob Feldmann, chief executive of private Sales etailer BrandAlley. He says that because his site sells a high volume of products every day, it has to work quickly, meaning that “sometimes the mood of a collection can be lost”.

Woods agrees. “We pride ourselves on offering our customers interpretations of catwalk looks as quickly as possible,” he says. “Often, speed is the crucial factor for our customers, which can mean that we are sometimes forced to import and upload imagery direct from our suppliers. We then shoot the product on a model when we have a sample available.”

Funnily enough, models can also detract shoppers from snapping up online purchases. “Including models’ faces can actually put people off from buying the merchandise,” explains Friend.

Feldmann goes on to explain that customers often get too involved with what the model looks like, rather than the product. As a result, BrandAlley no longer uses models’ faces in its product shots, a move it claims has led to an increase in sales.

Retailers are continually experimenting to discover alternative ways to bring products to life on their websites, whether it’s through a zooming functionality, allowing products to be rotated or including catwalk videos.

Very has invested in video over the past 12 months, developing its own video studios to create catwalk, product and celebrity videos in-house. Woods says the use of video has helped reduce returns “by showcasing products from every angle”, and increased conversion rates by about 2.5%.

Augmented reality (AR), which enables consumers to view animated 3D images of products on their smartphone or tablet, is also gaining momentum. It may be early days for the technology, but it does help to give a clearer idea of what a product will look like.

New Look describes it as a “way of bringing products to life and engaging customers”, having used it so customers could view behind-the-scenes videos of brand ambassador Kelly Brook, while Asos and Very have also tapped into the technology.

However, some industry experts are sceptical of the technology, casting doubt on AR’s return on investment. Friend argues that while it “adds colour”, he’s dubious about whether it can truly increase sales.

Feldmann is realistic about the options available. “Sometimes a fantastic-looking collection does not translate online,” he argues. “There can be many reasons for this, such as when trying to capture certain colours or where there is a lot of detailing in a product. There is only so much a zoom functionality and studio lighting can do.”

Woods adds: “Ultimately you have to accept that certain pieces will simply never look sexy online. In those instances, we will invest more heavily in telling the story of the product through descriptions of the fabric and fit, via demonstration videos and by tapping into and sharing customer reviews.”

My-Wardrobe.com has a few little tweaks underway to help improve online sales, such as increasing the size of images and making tighter crops on footwear shots “so there’s less of a whole outfit and more of the shoe”, explains De Paula.

However, the actual styling in the product shots can be more crucial than any technology, she argues. “It’s not about innovation, it’s more about styling and putting things together that will help bring the look to life.”

Styling also plays a key role at Mr Porter, says Bateman. “The way we style each of our products enables us to put any item with its ideal partner outfit and therefore better convey even the trickiest fashion pieces.”

While there’s no one winning solution when it comes to online visual merchandising, there are some interesting ideas afoot.

Very is developing virtual fitting rooms, likely to launch next year, while BrandAlley is looking to introduce software that tells consumers what size they are in any shop. For example, if a customer is a size 10 in Marks & Spencer, they can find out what size they are in any other store.

It’s just these kind of tools that may prove to be a retailer’s trump card.

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