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Everyone can benefit from net gains

Retailers who have had a tough time of late in the branded fashion market will have mixed feelings about the impending arrival of new etail sites to serve the sector. Will these make life even tougher for bricks-and-mortar retailers, or are they a potential new opportunity in this market? The answer is probably both.

Later this month John Lewis will expand its online offer, House of Fraser will launch a transactional site next month and Next's Branded Directory will arrive in October. Added to that, online specialist Asos.com is revamping its website and adding more premium clothing lines from the end of this month.

Funnily enough, it didn't seem that long ago that many in the industry were saying no one would buy clothes online. Consumers wouldn't be able to try them on, wouldn't be able feel them, wouldn't be able to see the true colour and therefore wouldn't take the risk.

Those making such arguments seemingly forgot that consumers had been happily buying clothes from mail order catalogues for many years where the same potential buying barriers exist. Now online clothing sales are predicted to double by 2011 and reach £2.93 billion, according to Mintel.

While there were some high-profile casualties of the initial etail rush in the early 2000s, a few pioneering companies proved that it is possible to sell clothes online and, more than that, it is possible to sell very expensive clothing online too. Net-a-Porter arrived in 2000 and quickly established itself as the premium online boutique, selling high-end brands such as Chloe, Moschino and Missoni, as well as more directional up-and-coming designers. The reasons for its success? Much like any store, it offered great product, service and environment.

At Net-a-Porter, online stylists advise you on fit and outfit-building and the site looks great, with plenty of pictures and added value through editorial content. When you make a purchase, someone calls you to tell you the product is on its way so you can ensure you're in to receive it, and when it arrives it's beautifully packaged.

I'm not necessarily expecting the same attention to detail from these new arrivals, but service will be key. The one thing all these retailers have going for them is the necessary infrastructure to offer a website that works well, backed up by reliable service. The question is, have they missed the boat? Some think so, believing the online market is already saturated.

There's perhaps some truth in that. As well as specialists such as Asos and My-wardrobe.com, there are some excellent branded fashion etail services run by independent retailers such as Psyche and Matches, to name just a few. So do we need any more?

On top of that, some brands don't want their product to be sold online. But I suspect as they see etail sales shoot through the roof, and as premium brands, such as Louis Vuitton take the plunge, they may soften their stance.

If Mintel is correct that the market will double in the next four years, clearly there's an opportunity here. But it doesn't necessarily mean that only the big-name retailers will be able to profit from it.

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