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EDITORIAL What’s the point of stores as fashion sales move further online?

What makes stores relevant in an online age?

It’s now easier to buy fashion online then ever – and if customers buy and regret, it’s never been easier to return the order. Fewer shoppers are now heading out to stores to try items on – and multichannel retailers are feeling the pain, as we see in our reports on four fashion traders who have reported results this week. 

Of the four, the only one reporting unalloyed growth is the pureplay, Boohoo Group. Multichannel retailers H&M, Bonmarché and River Island are all seeing store sales fall even as their online growth continues. H&M and River Island are affected by the technical – and financial – challenges of making online systems work effectively alongside their stores. As GlobalData analyst Emily Salter says, commenting on River Island, such investment is vital. Salter says: “Investment in digital capabilities is essential for River Island to compete with the likes of ASOS and boohoo.com as they quicken their delivery speeds and bolster their use of technology to increase customer satisfaction in the crowded young fashion market. Operational improvements should enhance the compatibility between its instore and online services so it is able to adapt to changing consumer demands. This will better position River Island to increase sales as spend shifts to online shopping, but a strong brand identity and brand proposition remain vital to appeal to shoppers.”

This investment needs to happen, in other words, for retailers to adapt to the way shoppers want to – and indeed, will – buy. Even once these major system overhauls are completed, development will still need to happen, continuously, as shopping behaviours continue to change. River Island, H&M and Bonmarché are effectively catching up with retailers such as Boohoo  – even as Boohoo invests still further in its own processes. But ultimately multichannel retailers that can make online work alongside, and inside, their stores stand to benefit from the sales that they make in-store, since shoppers do spend more when they buy across channels – and the evidence suggests they still do want to go to shops. When it comes to fashion, it’s easy to see that many utility, or reordering, purchases are easier online – but when shoppers want to buy something they haven’t already got, or to buy something for a special occasion, they’re more likely to want to see what it looks like on first.

This week we’re reporting on how fashion retailers are adapting as consumers shop but the lessons they’re learning apply to businesses across sectors. It’s just a few months since Carpetright chief executive Wilf Walsh warned that retailers across all sectors, including his own, make a mistake when they believe they are not ’Amazon-proof’ – the fashion retailers we report on today are seeing that for themselves with the growth of Amazon Fashion. Today, we also report as Amazon Business sets out how it is aiming to apply its Earth’s most customer centric company mission statement to B2B.  

We also report as an IMRG report says missing a delivery window is costing everyone, from the retailers to the carriers and the customers, a collective £1.6bn a year.

Today’s guest comment comes from George Allardice of Barclaycard Payment Solutions who considers how retailers can combat basket abandonment while at the same time giving shoppers a hassle-free experience. 

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