No Returns? No E-Shoppers

By most accounts, last year’s holiday season was an encouraging time for e-tailers, especially those Web sites that managed to make gift buying hassle-free.With the exception of online clothing merchants.

For some reason, American consumers still can’t see their way clear to buy clothes on the Internet. In fact, according to Accenture, 80 percent of online shoppers who tried to buy clothing at brick-and-click Web sites reported dissatisfaction with the experience.

Of those who had trouble, 72 percent said they would not be back. The most common complaint was that customers were having difficulty finding information about discounts and return policies. Frustration with moving around the Web sites also ran high for clothing shoppers on the Net.

Additionally, almost half of the dissatisfied customers reported that shopping online for clothes did not provide any real bargains.

Digital Threads

Clothing companies simply don’t get it. It’s not enough to simply transfer an entire product line to the Internet, toss up some fancy animation and announce the launch. Customers need some coaxing — and some coaching — in order to buy clothes via the Web.

Recently, Ralph Lauren went online with Polo.com. Although it’s too early to tell how loyal Polo enthusiasts will be, chances are the site will be successful. It’s easy to navigate, easy on the eyes, and includes all Polo “classics.”

On the Label

The recognition factor may be Ralph Lauren’s ticket to success. Those who wear Polo clothing generally know what they want to buy. It’s not so much a matter of shopping online as it is ordering online.

The same might be said for Gap.com, especially since the site offers users the convenience of returning merchandise at any one of its many stores across the United States.

Even with those built-in advantages, however, a trip to the Polo site does not begin to compare with a trip to the Polo store in Manhattan, where elegantly attired doormen greet you and expertly trained salespeople guide you through the experience.

Similarly, a trip to Gap.com can’t match the impulse to buy that kicks in when you see a colorful window display at the mall.

Hard Sell

Moreover, not every online clothing merchant has the advantage of an established brand name. Most clothing Web sites need to rely on the basic instinct of Web visitors, who arrive with little or no intention of buying unless their interest is raised by a particular deal, such as a competitive price or a marketing incentive.

These shoppers want to know the returns policy up front. If there is no easy way out of the purchase, Web shoppers are not likely to buy. No easy return means no initial deposit, in a manner of speaking.

With this environment, it’s not surprising that sales gimmicks, marketing hooks and imaginative functionality abound. However, much of the techno-flash is likely to backfire.

Window Dressing

Landsend.com, for example, allowed me to create a virtual model, supposedly of myself. Once I entered my measurements and body type, an animated figure appeared on the screen. The technological “mini-me” was supposed to encourage me to buy some clothes.

Instead, mortified by the image presented, I instantly clicked away. A virtual dressing room hurt rather than enhanced my experience of the site.

Even the sunniest projections for online clothing trade have not predicted a growth spurt in online clothing sales. Jupiter Communications projects that by 2003, online apparel sales will reach about 9 percent of total clothing sales. That’s the same percentage that catalog-based clothing sales enjoy currently.

The lack of customer fire has industry observers scratching their heads: Why is the public so reticent to buy digital duds?

Touchy Points

It could have something to do with that doorman at Polo. We like being pampered during the shopping experience, whether that means a doorman in Manhattan or the opportunity to visit the food court of your hometown mall.

Consider Nordstrom.com, a stellar e-tail site. The site is easy to navigate, offers expertly reproduced photographs of quality clothing, and includes prominently placed and easy-to-understand return policies. So what’s the problem?

Those who have shopped Nordstrom’s brick-and-mortar stores know there is no way the experience could be reproduced online. The business was built on exceptional, personalized service.

Where else could you try on a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes, while one salesperson lays out five pairs of socks for your consideration and another serves you coffee from a silver coffee service? Try to match that experience on a computer screen.

Woes or Wooed?

Conventional wisdom suggests that for e-commerce to infiltrate mainstream America, consumers need to be convinced to shop online for the necessities. If America adopts the Web as the place to buy clothes and groceries, then the online sales channel will succeed.

As one who has bought a fair amount of clothing online, here are a few areas that might fuel the fire for Internet apparel sales:

  • Keep text to a minimum, and emphasize clear, compelling photographs.
  • Give the customer a reason to buy online, such as products and promotional pricing not available in the associated brick-and-mortar store.
  • And, most important of all, post return policies on the home page. In fact, if at all possible, overcome consumer worry about exchanging and returning the clothes bought online. The ease with which new clothes can be sent back for a different size or color is a lot more important than a flashy Web site.

Bells and whistles are great, but if they don’t contribute anything to the shopping experience, don’t bother.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


1 Comment

  • As a Retailer travelling down the e-road I found the article pertinent and refreshingly honest.

    Various merchandise categories have differing needs and the challenges with apparel on-line are huge.

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