The state of fashion retail: stores strike back!

Much was made about the rise of online shopping this past holiday season. Amazon, specifically, had a great season but in general online sales increased by 11% over 2015, with mobile sales rising by 23% according to Adobe, who measures 80% of all online transactions from the top 100 U.S. retailers.

Yet in a recent mall visit, even with all this growth in online shopping, it’s clear that retail isn’t dead or dying, at least not for fashion. Some stores are making significant changes to keep up with the ease of online shopping while trying to tackle online retailers where they’re weak. A few changes I’ve noticed: 

  • Selection and curation: I see these two as two sides of the same issue. On one hand online stores have an infinite selection. On the other hand, without significant and smart filtering (which most don’t have) the vast selection without any curation is overwhelming. For example, Nordstrom has over six thousand dresses and 9 different filters. That’s more than most but it can still take users too much time to find what they want (too much means that they’ll give up.) There is also the chance that they’ll filter out exactly the dress they want because of a wrong classification on the retailer’s side. I’ve seen this many times when filtering creates an unusually small amount of results. It turns out that the filter applied only brings up those items that have been tagged with that characteristic, which, it turns out, is not all the items that could have matched it.
A typical dress page on Norstrom comes with these comments on size:  Sizes 0-4 run small; sizes 6-8 are true to size; and sizes 10-14 run large. The sizing is unique (just like you), so choose your best fit after taking a look at our size chart.

A typical dress page on Nordstrom comes with these comments on size:
“Sizes 0-4 run small; sizes 6-8 are true to size; and sizes 10-14 run large.
The sizing is unique (just like you), so choose your best fit after taking a look at our size chart.”

Contrast this with a store, where the selection has already been somewhat cut down to fit the store’s size and items are displayed in style and age based departments to help shoppers find the group of items that most interests them quicker. Add a salesperson who knows the store’s product line and takes the time to understand what the shopper needs can cut that time down even more. The accessible, knowledgeable, in-store personal stylist hasn’t been really replicated by online stores and retailers are quickly picking up on that. Many that seek to help customers out almost right away, leading them to the products they’re interested in and keeping tab while the customer is in the fitting room, bringing more styles and more sizes.  Some overcome the store’s limited selection problem by offering to ship products that aren’t in stock at the store for free.

  • Fitting room at Bloomingdale's, with customizable, flattering lighting with evening, office, and outdoor settings.

    Fitting room at Bloomingdale’s, with customizable, flattering lighting with evening, office, and outdoor settings.

    Fit: Speaking of size, the topic of fit is the Achilles Heel of online clothing stores. Sizes given by stores are misleading, to say the least. The typical product page will have the item of clothing in 4-5 different views, with most of them showing the item as worn by a tall, size 4 model. If you’re one of the lucky people with the same body type as the model, then you can predict how an item will fit you. If not, you can resort to clicking to a size chart and measuring yourself, trying to figure out what to do if your hips match a medium but your waist matches a large. Ask any woman how hard it is to buy t-shirts online (women’s fit sizes vary greatly by brand, style, and fabric) and she will give you multiple examples of how it has gone wrong. In stores, fit can be determined right away, and some stores are even upping the ante by upgrading their fitting rooms with more space and better lighting. They’ve realized that this is an advantage they should exploit.

  • Immediacy: With Amazon trying to drop shipping times to less than a day, and in some special cases a few hours, it’s reasonable to believe that instant gratification is no longer a drawback to online shopping. Yet what works for Amazon, who are leading the fulfillment game, is not quite there yet for other online retailers, where shipping times are at least a few days. If a customer wants an item today, a store is the best option.
  • Hassle: In an ideal world, online shopping should be hassle-free. A click, a short checkout, and voila, the item is on your porch within a week. If only that were always the case. Shipments are delayed, delivered to wrong addresses, not delivered and sent back, or stolen. Then, if the item doesn’t fit,  or its color is wrong, or the hemline shorter than expected, it needs to be returned, either to a store or by arranging pickup or drop off, hopefully without additional charges. This is specifically relevant for clothes:  Americans return $260 billion in goods each year, and 80 percent of those are clothes or accessories, according to MarketWatch.
  • Personalization: Online wins this one simply because they know who the customer is from the moment they click to their site. Online retailers know the shopper’s size, color and style preferences, and all previous orders. Stores have to rely on good salespeople to get the job done. It’s interesting that I haven’t seen stores try to match the shopper with their customer database at any point before checkout, where they’ll either ask for a loyalty card, email address, or phone number. Why is this not determined beforehand, when the customer is looking around, or better yet, in the fitting room? If my Victoria’s Secret saleslady knew my previous purchases she could make recommendations of updated styles of my previous purchases in just my size. Personal shoppers at high-end stores do this, but that’s with a limited client list.
  • The beautiful flower/plant section at a new Anthropologie store.

    The beautiful flower/plant section at a new Anthropologie store.

    The experience: This is something I see more and more not just in fashion stores but also for outdoor gear and beauty. Some of the newer stores are putting a lot of effort into decor, scent, simulated environments, and even in-store cafes. The goal for retailers is to make the in-store experience fun and make the customer come in and linger, but it works only for high-end brands, not big-box retailers.

The bottom line is that brick and mortar stores, especially the high-end, are putting resources where they make a difference, investing in design and hiring better salespeople. Not all stores have realized this yet. On that same bra-shopping expedition, I stopped at 3 other stores before Victoria’s Secret where there was no salesperson in sight to help narrow down the selection and help with a fit. Yet the stores that do get it, that are getting it, are making shopping a better, faster experience than online.

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