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Turning browsers into buyers

For maximum sales impact, online fashion merchandising must be both proactive and personal to tempt shoppers to spend.

Fashion merchandising has become remarkably fluid in the online world. Product imagery no longer sits waiting on web pages. Instead it flows out to customers via email, mobile and social networking activity, drawing people back to websites or into stores. And being fashion, all this has to happen fast. People are hungry for the latest looks, with clothing confirmed as the most sought-after item in the first British Retail Consortium/Google Online Retail Monitor (for the first quarter of 2011), which measures the growth of online retail searches. But fashion etailers are keen to put product under the noses of online shoppers, rather than rely solely on search, and this seems to be the key to smart merchandising.

“Most fashion etailers will agree that email communication is the biggest driver today, and absolutely key to the merchandising strategy,” says Sarah Curran, chief executive of premium etailer My-Wardrobe. “Direct communication allows you to alert fashion fans to the very latest ‘new in’ items just as they become available. Then, to excite and delight customers further, you can use prior knowledge of their tastes and preferences to edit that content to their needs. This is where online merchandising becomes incredibly powerful.”

My-Wardrobe is emailing twice-weekly ‘new in’ communications to its customers, with content tailored to their tastes, showing which brands and designers the individual customers have expressed a preference for. Further emails that are more tightly tailored to segmented groups are dispatched - showing the exact styles and items individual customers will want to see, with richer content and more styling for them to enjoy.

“Central to the success of our merchandising strategy is the collaboration that goes on between the buyers, the merchandisers and the product writers,” says Curran, who adds that about 30 people are involved in the various stages of selecting and presenting the product online. “We have to be on the money in terms of the product we are buying into, but that commitment and understanding of where items fit into current trends, and are made to look their best in an online environment, has to continue on through the styling, and the editorial that’s built around every piece.”

Customer incentives

Multichannel retailers have the added incentive of using the web as a shop window to drive traffic into stores. John Lewis’s new digital version of its in-store Edition magazine provides instant access to the latest trends with click-to-buy links to ‘new in’ scarves, bags, dresses and sandals. The spring fashion special was emailed to the email database in April and is working as an online capsule catalogue offering a richer experience for shoppers. For example, running along the foot of the digital magazine page are recently viewed products that individual customers might want to revisit.

Louise Salt, category manager for online fashion at John Lewis, says the aim was to provide inspiration through “latest looks” and alert online shoppers to some of the 300-plus fashion brands available at John Lewis, as well as keeping communication personal and useful. “We have to balance between making the site easily shoppable but also being inspirational,” she says. “In terms of merchandising fashion online, it’s important to ensure you do have the stock to meet the demand you create, so timing is everything.”

All these online merchandising techniques are working hard to increase conversion rates, cross-sell, and up-sell, says Tamara Sender, senior clothing analyst at research firm Mintel. “And ideally the technology is driving customer loyalty too, because as long as the targeted communications successfully align with shoppers’ individual tastes, customers will be impressed.” She says British customers are responding well to active merchandising techniques on fashion sites, such as ‘complete the look’ recommendations, ‘outfit makers’, customer reviews, and ‘other shoppers also viewed’ suggestions.

Virtual shopping

Mintel’s recent report, Fashion Online 2011, says 35% of British people are now buying their clothes online, but many people have yet to commit to the channel. “The main barrier continues to be the inability to see and feel an item in person before buying it, with more than six in 10 adults saying this has
put them off making purchases online,” says Sender.

Mintel’s report suggests technology will be used further to help customers embrace online shopping, with click-to-buy from web video, augmented reality, and virtual fitting rooms predicted to be widely used in the coming years. Sender says eBay’s recently launched ‘See It On’ augmented reality feature on its fashion app is a good example of allowing customers to virtually try on items - sunglasses only at this stage.

For most online clothing retailers though, allowing customers to simply get up close to product - see it clearly and with many viewing options - is the priority, and where investment is going. “All the research points to the fact that rich media improves the shopping experience and helps increase conversion rates,” says Max Childs, senior marketing manager for EMEA at Adobe Scene7, which provides visual merchandising software for the web. “By providing zoom functionality, 360-degree views and short pieces of video footage to show products being worn by live models, etailers are helping customers make that vital emotional connection with product, and to feel more comfortable buying.”

He points out that merchandisers can test the effectiveness of visual merchandising technology too: “By testing and using data intelligence techniques it’s possible to find out what the sales uplift will be if you introduce a zoom function or extra views of product. Analytics guidance ensures your online visual merchandising is always cost effective.”

Smart merchandising techniques are also helping customers narrow down the endless choice the web presents - essential for time-poor fashion fans. Web platforms now have ‘search and promote’ tools, which use behavioural analytics aligned with live stock data to make sure the items presented to searching customers are relevant and available. “It could be that a search for ‘red dresses’ or ‘denim shorts’ leads customers to the best-sellers with a higher chance of a sale, or if you are keen to move end-of-line stock, goods can be presented tagged as Sale items,” suggests Childs.

Recommendation is also proving incredibly powerful. Product prompts such as ‘other customers also liked’ or ‘we recommend’ need to be part of the merchandising mix. Young fashion etailer Asos has recently added personalised recommendation technology from online search and merchandising specialist Fredhopper to its website to enrich the shopping experience of customers and increase sales.

The personalised recommendations are based on previous buying history and similar purchases of others, says Asos ecommerce director James Hart. “With more than 35,000 products available, we need a tool where shoppers can see complementary fashion suggestions that are relevant to them,” he says. “This means our customers are exposed to products that suit their taste, which in turn is likely to increase the number of items added to their baskets.”

With such a vast amount of product at their fingertips, online fashion shoppers now expect this kind of navigational help, believes Fredhopper chief executive Joris Beckers. “It’s just like being in a store, with a member of staff on hand to suggest products that will help complete an outfit, and present items that will suit an individual’s size, style, interest etc. A recommendation engine drives smart merchandising. It’s a vital tool in giving the consumer more of what they want, and for the retailer that means higher sales.”

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