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Guest comment. Online commerce: the saviour of high street fashion

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by Alex Blaney

There’s no mistaking the seismic shift towards ecommerce that is having a profound effect on purchasing habits globally.

Historically the luxury end of the market, of which fashion plays a significant part, has been slower to adopt the digital as they cite its inability to recreate the touch, feel and build quality of the product. This is true, but it is something that can never be truly replicated. Accepting that fact is absolutely fundamental.

Nothing digital can equate to the sensory stimuli a customer experiences as they shop. No ‘digital fitting room’ can replicate a real one. No mouse click or mobile screen is advanced enough to convey the tactile density or weight of expensive fabric. No matter how well you merchandise an online store, create looks and suggest cross-sells, online commerce cannot accurately simulate the experience of physically shopping.

So why attempt it? Well because none of those elements in isolation can accurately represent the shopping experience in the real world. Online is the same.

Shopping for luxury goods online is much more complex than just digitally ‘trying something on’. In the physical world the changing room is way down the customer journey, it’s the equivalent to the basket. The shopper has HAD the experience before that. They’ve had the experience as they walked in the shop, heard the music, chatted to the assistant, browsed the rails, discounted 99% of the offering and selected an item (or items if you’re lucky). They engage with the brand first, the shop itself, the window display, the models, the assistants, the other customers. The clothes and the price tags are a factor, but the environment is first and foremost in the brand engagement.

Success in online fashion means NOT focusing on recreating the shopping experience, but assessing where the digital world can augment and improve it. Viewing the channel as a conduit to ‘surprise and delight’ is the way forward. Seeing it as an independent channel is a frequent failing for fashion brands and it is to their detriment.

The success stories in this depressed climate are few and far between. In the fashion sector during the period 2007-2010, however ASOS, Net-a-porter and All Saints have exhibited 50%-70% growth. They achieved this through embracing online innovation and combining it into their service proposition.

I’m not just talking about creating a mobile app (although as an example, a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Tealeaf earlier this year shows that 47% of consumers expect the customer experience to be better on a mobile website than in-store?) nor am I harping on about ‘social commerce’. We all know the stats about Facebook referrals, and the Mark Zuckerberg quote (“if I had to guess, social commerce is next thing to blow up”). There’s no need to guess. Social commerce will be huge. Not because of Facebook though, but through the simple fact that the closer you are to your customers the more likely they are to engage. Mobile commerce is in their pocket. Social commerce is not only in their pocket but it’s simultaneously in the pockets of all their friends and families.

But calling it social commerce is a poor differentiator as it implies there’s something else involved. The social? Soon there will be no such thing as ‘social’. It’s happening already, social is everywhere. It’s part of the online space. The social network is THE network. ‘Liking’ something IS referring. There’s no separation between online and physical networks. A user’s contact with friends and family through Facebook is comparable – if not better – than by phone or face-to-face. The division is intangible.

The brands that take ecommerce seriously are prospering because they don’t see a division in any channel. Our experience is that those brands that embrace all channels with equal fervour witness better success. Strength comes from the complete approach.

This is particularly true in high value fashion brands where brand authenticity and key visual references need to transcend the media they are conveyed on. Get this right and users/consumers see only cohesion. Underplay any aspect and the cracks are instantly noticeable. Tacking a URL onto an advert, but not concerning yourself with the online content it represents is criminal, as is starting a Facebook page, but neglecting its management. These are your brand touch points and if you invent them customers will use them. Better still they refer quicker through them – but be warned – as a brand if you occupy the privileged position to have customer engagement, be authentic to yourself as a brand. Say what YOU want to say. That’s what your customers expect and why they fundamentally respect you. Cheapening yourself or doing something inappropriate is self-defeating. Responding to every comment or piece of feedback might not be the best idea. Gimmicks, offers, poorly thought out media will destroy your brand loyalty.

Any channel is a conduit to your customer, but neglecting it or failing to invest appropriate time and attention will likewise result in lack of customer interaction or attention. Then you’re only one step away from giving everything away discounted or for free.

For too long digital has been viewed as a separate channel, outside of the main marketing mix, worthy of its own ‘web/online/ecommerce’ department but tucked away and viewed as ‘techie’. This suits the geeks, it suits digital because it is fundamentally more founded in binary than sensory, harder to define, therefore integrating it into the world of the emotional or the touchy-feely is a difficult task. But partitioning right now is wrong. There is no scope for division; look outside onto the high street, the world economy is failing. The consumer is bereft of expendable cash, Groupon suits them perfectly, price comparison apps empower them instantly. The high street consumer’s language is of eBay and Facebook. They are enabled by the immediacy of mobile, digital and social. Brands need to operate simultaneously in the physical and digital world. There is no time for partition, consumers engage with a brand holistically instantaneously switching between mobile space, web space and the personal space. Limiting this interaction to one or two channels devalues and dilutes the experience. Their brand engagement is not partitioned. So brands must also follow suit.

Hence the grand title to this piece. Digital is a bonafide channel; ostracizing or just paying lip service to ecommerce and the digital realm is the first nail in the brand’s coffin. Ignore it at your peril. But likewise digital commerce must be integrated further into the service proposition and must respect when it cannot replicate physical experiences. Working together in a truly integrated manner, cross-channel with one message is the language of the future, but then surely that’s simple. Isn’t it?

Alex Blaney is creative director at Session Digital

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