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Appliance of science

Although the latest online technology is now within reach of most retailers, an understanding of how to deploy is key.

It’s exactly a decade since the launch – and subsequent closure – of the notorious fashion site, which propelled the dotcom boom headlong into bust. In November 1999 flash technology was in its infancy and few households had high bandwidth internet connections. So, despite investing $185m into the development of flashy graphics and interactive features, only a fraction of the target audience could navigate the site.

Ten years on, selling fashion on the web has entered the mainstream, with fashion multiples Zara and H&M  due to finally go live next year, and just about everyone else mastering the art of online selling.. But assuming we can now access all this clever content, which product presentation features actually deliver conversions and generate sales?

“There was a ferocious content war just before the dotcom crash in 2000, and it’s happening again now,” says Lee Friend, founder of online fashion photography specialist He says that sophisticated compression technology is allowing retailers to send large amounts of rich content to their sites, while costs for installing and running interactive functions like zoom, rotate and video clips, are coming down.

“Online retail is now a very important revenue stream, worth the same in sales as a flagship store, so large investment in functionality and the look of your site is justified,” adds Stuart Grant, commercial director at Mint Velvet, and previously head of merchandising at New Look . “While the online business case for the value clothing sector didn’t stack up before, it does now.”

High street names operating online such as Marks & Spencer, Matalan and New Look already offer multiple garment views and tools to zoom in and pan across products to scrutinise fabric, stitching, button and collars. 360-degree rotational images are proving popular with high end footwear and handbag retailers.

Independents, too, are finding their niche, with Sarah Coggles in York, Kent-based Bagga Menswear and Nine Fashion in Swindon creating stimulating online selling environments and growing sales. 

“While most large online players have gone down the route of lots of menus, style tips, gift lists and multiple search tools, we’ve tried not to overburden our customers with information,” says Sarah Coggles owner Mark Bage. “It’s possible to find and buy items in three clicks. We looked into rotational images, but have found that four good shots of a shoe or jacket is just as good, and we can guarantee images load in a nanosecond.” has built up an active online audience of 60,000 in four years, turning over £3 million on its site this year.

Bagga’s latest concept of stocking a tightly edited range in store but giving customers the chance to browse and buy from two internet terminals on site could be a vision of the future for indies. Owner Dave Lomax believes offering full collections online suits his web-savvy market, and could make efficient use of retail space if rolled out in the future.  Customers are buying more thanks to product recommendations on too. These suggested ‘add-ons’ are generated by Peerius software, and account for 15% of sales from the site. In a three month period after installation of the software, the average order value rose 23% while the conversion rate was up 40%.

Jake Brumby, co-founder of Magic Toolbox, which supplies JavaScript image zooming and enlarging tools, says smaller players can now afford to create the customer experiences aspired to, at a fraction of the cost. “It can cost less than £40 to download the software you need to do a lot of this work yourself, and digital cameras can take really high megapixel shots. A few years ago it would have cost thousands of pounds to achieve simple zooms on product images.”

High rents and service charges also make online retailing an attractive proposition, says Rikki Hunt, director of Nine Fashion.  “It costs £20,000 to £30,000 a year to run a good website, but you’re looking at £80,000 for a store, with potentially the same return,” he says. Nine’s website launched in June this year, and already generates 10% of sales.

Hunt says the days of paying web agencies huge fees for designing your site are over, and that Nine’s searching and product viewing tools have been built in-house at little cost. “We do think it’s worth investing in quality photography,” says Hunt. “We employ two local models, and a professional photographer every time there’s a new range to shoot. We haven’t gone for catwalk clips yet, but we aspire to that further down the line.”

M&S, Next and GIVe are following a massive trend in online fashion by introducing video content. “On the site you can select your favourite designer, watch their catwalk show and shop directly from this video content,” says Laura Summers, online marketing services manager at BT Fresca, whose web clients include Coast, Whistles, Mint Velvet and designer mini chain Matches. Summers adds that catwalk clips can generate more traffic, drive up conversions and reduce returns. achieved double digit conversion rates after integrating over 1,500 online product videos using AdobeScene7 and picked up the IMRG ‘Best Use of Rich Media’ award last month. “The implementation of such a large number of hosted videos was a huge undertaking but we’ve seen benefits in terms of customer engagement, improved conversion rates and higher sales,” says Mark Newton-Jones, chief executive of Shop Direct Group, Littlewoods’ parent company.

But catwalk clips come at a cost. “You’re looking at an extra £300,000 to £400,000 a year for a large retailer to put in catwalk clips,” estimates Friend at “To cut down on bandwidth use, some retailers are running it for a few weeks, then taking it off.”

Sarah Curran, chief executive of My-wardrobe, says a pitfall for late online adopters is failing to understand the complexity of balancing usability with interest. “Often images going onto sites are flat and clunky and don’t do anything to reflect the experience of shopping in-store,” she says. “Every product needs to be photographed, styled, have copy added, and be made as accessible as possible. We use video to add energy and movement, but you also have to make it simple to use. It’s possible to ‘click to buy’ straight from our video clips.”

My-wardrobe is also about to launch its latest gadget – video clips that are individually tagged so that customers can select several and create their own personal catwalk show. “The idea is to view all ‘winter wedding’ clips or all ‘day dresses’, which will be a great experience, and also aid buying decisions.”

Looking ahead video will become more interactive, says Max Childs, EMEA marketing manager at Adobe Scene7. “JC Penney is working on interactive catwalk clips that you can pause and then rotate the models and zoom in at your leisure,” says Childs.

Rich content must be transactional, urges James Brooke, director of 10CMS, an on-demand rich media solution. “A big new area in searchandising is building outfits, but most importantly is providing a simple way to then buy those assembled products,” he says. “Clients of ours including Tesco, Jimmy Choo and AWear are constantly looking for ways to increase basket size, through interesting lifestyle content, while simplifying the checkout process.”

Ten years ago was beaten by technology; today, it’s at the fingertips of fashion retailers. But the key to success is understanding your customer and deciding what will make them tick – and click.

Six of the Best – Product Presentation

Video clips of modelled garments

User-friendly ‘roll-over’ zoom function

Rotating images controlled by your mouse

Lingerie modelled by a woman your size in the world’s first virtual fitting room

Snowboard boots can be rotated to see all angles

Create your chosen outfit and see it modelled

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