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Retailers click online

Drapers invited a selection of fashion retailers to discuss the findings of its first Etail Report over breakfast. Here are the hot issues that topped the menu.

People working in the fashion ecommerce sector are among the most open in the industry about their business challenges and opportunities. And those that attended Drapers’ breakfast round table at London’s Soho House in mid-March were no exception.

We wanted their thoughts on the consumer attitudes towards fashion etail identified in our Etail Report, and to examine whether there is any agreement about where ecommerce is heading.

Our first report into buying fashion online - sponsored by online payment provider PayPal and content management platform 10CMS - clearly shows that shoppers from young to old are increasingly embracing the internet to both research and purchase fashion.

But is etail now in the mainstream

of fashion retail? At the round table, Debenhams.com director Simon Forster said fashion etail is becoming more mainstream. But it is still too early to say that everyone who shops in store is equally comfortable shopping online, although those customers who use both channels tend to be better customers, he said.

Forster added that one often-quoted Google figure is that one in two purchases are influenced by online. This supports the findings of the research that show consumers value product presentation online when considering their offline purchases too.

Richard Hatfield, chief operating officer at York premium indie Sarah Coggles, said its website is already equally as important a channel as its two stores: “From an indie perspective our business is split 50/50. And we use the web to drive the brand - it’s a real marketing tool.”

However, he added that though growth is coming through the web at the moment, he would not rule out opening more physical stores.

Warren Bennett, co-founder of menswear etailer A Suit That Fits, which picked up the award for Smaller Etailer of the Year at the Drapers Awards in 2010, agreed that the web and stores are entirely complementary. He said his customers’ journey often begins in one of the etailer’s bricks-and-mortar showrooms: “They are looking to meet us then go online and use the site.” That’s not surprising given that customers may want to be measured by a tailor before ordering bespoke suits online. With this in mind, Bennett said the website was designed to encourage consumers to visit a showroom if it is their first point of contact with the company.

Maximum choice

Just a few years ago it was standard practice for fashion retailers to only offer an edited range of their entire stock on their websites. But this has changed quickly, and the Etail Report shows that 37% of consumers buy fashion online precisely because they feel there is better choice than on the high street.

Some retailers have taken this further by offering web-only collections - Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Karen Millen now offer certain products exclusively through their websites. However, guests at the round table were split as to whether this is a good idea.

Hatfield felt that selling different products online as opposed to in stores is one of the most dangerous things a fashion retailer can do. Countering

this was Debenhams’ Forster, who explained that its fuller web offer is particularly important as a way of complementing the stock at its smaller stores: “Any customer who goes to Oxford Street expects a fuller offer, and online you can have a fuller offer too.”

Forster said even if the range was increased at its Oxford Street store in London, Debenhams would still expand its online range beyond what is stocked there. He added: “If every store has access and can order online, the store should be able to use the website as a back-up selling tool.”

The research also highlighted some differences in the way that men and women use websites to research and make purchases.

Lifestyle retailer White Stuff’s home shopping director Alison Lancaster said that men certainly shop differently, and tend to be more interested in a very direct customer journey to get to the checkout page. This is something she has had to work on with retailers’ web teams in the past. Several guests were interested to see how well Net-a-Porter’s new menswear site Mr Porter will do, with its strong focus on editorial content.

Lancaster also pointed out that perceived best-of-breed standards for fashion websites mean many are starting to look very similar, something she is keen to avoid with White Stuff. “There will be a new era of brand differentiation, and we want to replicate the quirkiness of what’s in store,” she said.

The one area where there was much agreement from all the retailers at the table - as well as PayPal and 10CMS - was that customers increasingly expect a seamless experience across multiple channels, and retailers need to achieve it quickly. 10CMS chief executive

James Brooke said: “Technology only gives you a transient advantage. The long-term advantages come from the brand experience.”

And Phil Raynor, head of ecommerce at retailer Austin Reed, agreed: “Technology is an enabler, but the customer will always be ahead of us.”

Aurora Fashions group head of ecommerce Tom Williams said the big challenge when introducing multichannel services - such as click-and-collect - is creating a seamless customer experience. He said etail innovation must be founded around what the customer wants.

Going mobile

The retailers also agreed with the report’s findings that mobile commerce is quickly gaining traction. This brings a whole new level of integration and customer experience worries for those retailers hoping to exploit the trend.

Footwear chain Office’s ecommerce director Rob Worthington explained that 12% to 13% of his site’s traffic is coming from mobile phones, and already 5% to 6% of transactions are completed on handheld devices.

And a seamless experience between mobile and PC is what consumers will be looking for, said Raynor: “If they are browsing a [mobile] site on the train and put an item in their basket, they should be able to go home and still see it in their basket [on the full website].”

PayPal director for large merchant services Mark Brant said the innovation in both the fashion retail and payment spaces is exciting him, particularly around mobile. He was keen that retailers try out PayPal’s Mobile Express Checkout, to see how user-friendly transactions on mobile devices can become.

For Debenhams strategy and online marketing controller Harriet Williams the pace of change for mobile adoption is important to note. She pointed out that around a quarter of web usage is already on mobile phones, which could be much higher by the end of the year.

And as always with ecommerce, even when you get one challenge under control there is always another on the horizon. Arcadia Group customer experience manager Henry Firth concluded: “The growth of both mobile and iPads is exciting, and getting these experiences right is crucial. However, the big growth opportunity from online lies in expanding internationally.”

The main point to take away from Drapers’ Etail Report is that consumers are broadly very supportive of the investment retailers are making in selling and showcasing their products online. And the general agreement at the debate was that the constant change and customer demands in etail make it a particularly exciting time to be in the fashion retail industry.

The guests

James Brooke & Fergal O’Mullane, 10CMS

Warren Bennett, A Suit That Fits

Hanh Do & Yuliya Petryk, Agent Provocateur

Henry Firth, Arcadia Group

Tom Williams, Aurora Fashions

Phil Raynor, Austin Reed

Simon Forster & Harriet Williams, Debenhams

Julia Ewald, eBay Fashion Outlet

Andrew Carmichael, Marks & Spencer

Michael Wood, Monsoon Accessorize

Nadia Catellini, Myla

Laura Godsal, MyTights.com

Rob Worthington, Office

Mark Brant & Rachel Williams, PayPal

Richard Hatfield, Sarah Coggles

Nikaya Govender, Sweaty Betty

Alison Lancaster, White Stuff

 

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