A multi-channel model is now at the heart of every fashion retailer’s strategy, with the online channel increasingly touted as the answer to flat or declining high street sales. However, as fashion retailers join the ecommerce and mail order specialists online, the market is becoming increasingly crowded. Organisations that had hoped to achieve high compound annual growth rates from their online business are realising that continuous growth requires continuous improvement.
As shoppers’ mailboxes (both physical and electronic) are being deluged with direct marketing material, the cost of new customer acquisition is steadily on the rise. Retailers will have to work hard to boost online footfall, particularly as they can’t rely indefinitely on increasing the proportion of their existing retail customer base that shop online.
So, as direct marketing and promotions become less effective, just how are retailers going to entice new customers, increase frequency of visits and drive greater sales revenue through the online channel?
The answer can be found by having a look at the websites of the fashion ecommerce specialists netaporter.com and asos.com. These companies have online businesses that are larger, faster growing and more profitable than almost any other clothing and footwear supplier and yet they have no history of mail order or a large store estate to help them build a customer base.
One distinguishing characteristic of these businesses is that they have built websites that are enjoyable to browse and are constantly refreshed with new content. Whilst the majority of websites follow accepted guidelines to streamline the user experience, minimise clicks and deliver a fast, utilitarian service, these successful fashion sites recognise that their customers are looking for something more.
They understand that people are spending hours every week browsing the internet looking for entertainment or information. These potential customers are attracted to interesting content on sites that are updated frequently and provide far more than lists of products with thumbnail images and prices.
Many successful mail order businesses have learned the value of sending their customers material that is part magazine and part catalogue, often referred to as ‘magalogues’. Net-a-porter and Asos have simply applied these techniques to their websites. This is not to say that straightforward navigation of product hierarchies through to product lists aren’t a major feature of their websites, but that customers are also offered additional frequently updated content that is more akin to the trend pages of a fashion magazine under headings such as ‘get the look’.
Enticing the customer in this way is proving successful for the pure play ecommerce vendors and is starting to be adopted by some of the larger fashion retailers such as Top Shop and New Look, who are then backing up the on-site experience with magalogue-style direct marketing.
All fashion retailers have many brand related ideas and stories that they want to share with their customers. Often, an interesting web page will simply contain three or four product images and a couple of sentences that draw attention to a theme; perhaps product related (such as shape, colour or material) or maybe a seasonal, cultural or sporting related event. Customers are then invited to buy the products displayed or to click on a link that will take them to a list of products that are related to this particular idea.
However, there are some significant challenges associated with the creation and management of this content and most website management tools are not suitable for creating and managing magalogue content. So what do retailers need if they are going to create this engaging material without incurring significant additional costs or undermining the reliability of their website?
If organisations are to deliver regular updates to their websites they have to empower their marketing and ecommerce staff with the appropriate tools.
Website management software should allow non-technical staff to create new pages and product categories with graphical drag and drop functionality and automated link creation. The creation and scheduling of website changes can be controlled with automated workflow and authorisation procedures as appropriate.
Organisations have the option to preview how their whole site will work by previewing it at any date in the future. This enables retailers to check not only the look and feel of specific offers and messages but also to make sure the site behaves as expected.
Furthermore, a well integrated system will automatically remove a feature product or entire category as soon as the stock is sold. At this point alternative pages can be automatically introduced to provide new customer offers.
Fashion retailers need to stand out from the crowd if online growth targets are to be achieved in this increasingly competitive marketplace. If retailers are to attract the online footfall required to drive additional revenue, the website needs to become a ‘must visit’ destination. With modern, purpose built tools, retailers can create the innovative, up to date and compelling content that will allow them to properly engage with their customers.
• Simon Hanson is product management director at Prologic, a supplier of software, IT services and consultancy to top brands and high street names in the fashion & lifestyle sector.