How to overcome the feelgood factor
Clothes retailers and manufacturers have to overcome a ‘can’t see it can’t feel it’ resistance among consumers to buying online. Undeterred by early failures they are developing web-based experiences that sit happily alongside their other outlets.
|Marks and Spencer||Benetton|
The Marks and Spencer brand has long been a magnet for foreigners – I know Americans who used to route their journeys via London just to take in the Marble Arch store. It should therefore be a natural for online sales – yet a web store was not launched until late 1999 and it is, frankly, a mess. The buying process is hindered by over-broad categories, unclear language, indistinct photos, slow loading and an over-emphasis on fashion statements (people go to M&S to buy clothes, not make fashion statements). The site seems to have been built by marketing people who do not understand the difference between a physical shop – where so much information is obtained from the clothes themselves – and an online one, where you have to spell out every last detail.
But a bigger weakness is tucked away in the shipping section. “Marks and Spencer can deliver to customers anywhere in the UK, except the Channel Isles,” it says. Not much good if you are an underpant-starved American or, since M&S has just announced it is closing its continental network, Frenchman or Spaniard. Now surely is the time to change that – a desperate audience is waiting to be served.
Online clothes selling has not had a terrific press. Boo.com, the Europe-wide sports clothing retailer, was the first high profile dotcom to collapse in Europe. One of its problems was that it had invested in complex viewing technology to overcome a fundamental problem – that you cannot feel or try on clothes before you buy them online. That was undoubtedly one reason why Marks and Spencer was so slow to sell on the web and also why C&A makes not attempt to sell on its remarkably pointless site (www.c-and-a.com).
Maybe they are right; maybe you can’t sell clothes online? If so, other companies have not got the message.
The clothing market is astonishingly complex, with a web of manufacturers, distributors, ‘labels’ and retailers all around the world. Disintermediation is a huge issue, but one that is complicated by the fact that it is often impossible to tell the difference between a manufacturer and a retailer. Marks and Spencer does not make clothes itself, Benetton does. Yet both are in the business of selling branded clothes.
Jeans are arguably the easiest clothes to sell online, because they are the most standardised. The drag here has been channel conflict, not customer resistance. Levi had an attempt at selling direct to Americans from its site a couple of years ago, then gave up. It now pushes US visitors to the online stores of Macys (www.macys.com) and JC Penney (www.jcpenney.com). The European part of Levi’s is even more equivocal. Under “How to Purchase” it makes some amusing offline suggestions (“Walk to store >> hand over cash”) but also, discreetly, directs you to two dotcom retailers. What does this suggest? That Levi’s is deeply concerned about irritating its existing outlets, but is also determined to experiment. The two dotcoms – the Swedish Zoovillage (www.zoovillage.com) and the Dutch Score (www.score.nl) are unlikely to be seen by established retailers as much of threat. Though they deliver across Europe, they do not give international buyers much comfort. The Score site, for example, is almost entirely in Dutch.
Where channel conflict is less of an issue, there is much activity. Retailers themselves form one group: Macys and JC Penney’s comprehensive sites show that for Americans at least, online selling is just part of the service. Benetton, both a manufacturer and retailer, could in theory damage its own shops, but has now decided it is worth the risk. As with many long-established sites, this one has become simpler but more effective over the years. Five years ago it featured a virtual tour of the factory and electronic postcards. Now it is much less fancy, but does have a highly effective online shop call theex.it. Not that Benetton calls it that, of course: “theex.it takes the navigator on a trip that will define their own style through an innovative browser experience”. The experience would certainly seem innovative to many frustrated online shoppers. Though the range is not large, the shop has been meticulously executed, with online discounts, excellent pre-sales support and, Marks and Spencer please note, three language versions and delivery in Italy, Germany and the UK.
Benetton tackles the ‘can’t see it or feel it’ problem by letting visitors both rotate an image and zoom right in to view the texture. Not bad, but if you want to see the future, visit Lands’ End. This US-based mail order retailer is well positioned to sell online. Its site is not pretty, but it is formidably functional. Here you can check for “Overstocks” sold at a discount – a cunning way of making you return regularly. You can order a colour swatch, talk to a Lands’ End agent live and, best of all, create a ‘virtual model’ of yourself. Tell the site your height, weight, shape, shape of eyes and head, colour of various bits – and a Virtual You is created. As you spot an item call up the virtual model, see what you look like dressed in the clothes – and click on “Buy”. A brilliant sales journey that counters most of the objections online clothes buyers are likely to raise. What’s more, you can use it anywhere: Lands’ End says it will deliver anywhere in the world. A message for Marks and Spencer, perhaps?
First published on 06 April, 2001