High-street fashion retailers are catching up with web-only brands by better integrating online and offline services and using social media and mobile to bring customers to stores
The online fashion market will be worth #4.1bn this year, up 26% on 2008 despite a sluggish economy, according to market research company Mintel. It also forecasts fashion will take over from books as the top destination for online shoppers. The challenge for high street fashion retailers lies in whether they can combine their offline and online channels effectively to steal a march over pure-play competitors such as Net-a-porter, BrandAlley and ASOS, the last of which saw sales grow 47% in the six months to the end of September 2009.
Jean-Claude Mighty, ecommerce communications co-ordinator for Aurora Fashions, which owns the Coast, Karen Millen, Oasis and Warehouse brands, says, "High street brands need to embrace technology and not fear it. It's about embracing the multi-channel experience."
A joined-up approach is high street players' trump card, but how much are they playing it? There's definitely a shift in mindset taking place as retailers start to reconcile their offline and online operations, rather than treating the two as separate entities, although there's still some education to be done.
"One of the challenges we've had is ensuring stores understand how we can facilitate some of their needs via other channels, such as SMS or email, and build a level of engagement," says Mighty. "There's a level of tangibility with fashion - people like to feel and try on a product - so things like text and email messages can drive consumers to our stores in order to do that."
This is an approach shared by Rob Worthington, head of home shopping at Fat Face, which has more than 140 stores across the UK. "It's really important to make the most of your stores as generally they're where most people shop, and we've found the people who shop online with us also visit our shops. A very effective way of getting new web customers is to promote our online offering in store."
Marks & Spencer is aware of the power of giving its customers as much flexibility as possible, recently supplementing its ecommerce facility by letting shoppers try on clothes in-store before arranging for home delivery. The retail giant wants M&S Direct, its online, phone and catalogue shopping service, to contribute #500m to the bottom line by 2010/11, from its current level of #300m.
"We realised if we didn't focus on multi-channel now and turn it into a business priority we'd be left behind because customers want to shop at a time and in a place that suits them," said a spokeswoman for M&S.
Shopping with friends
An increasingly important aspect of achieving a proper multi-channel approach is to leverage social media, and in particular social networks, to link online marketing directly to in-store activity and increase footfall. M&S used Twitter to generate online buzz ahead of this year's Penny Bazaars, which sold 2m items for 1p each at its 300 main stores to celebrate its 125th anniversary. "It's a useful tool for relaying news as it happens, which is why the Penny Bazaar was the top trending item on Twitter around the time of the launch," said M&S's spokeswoman, referring to how customers updated each other on items available and queue lengths.
Oasis also uses social networks to generate publicity and live updates for its in-store events, using the distinct strengths of each platform in different ways. "In terms of pre-publicity and generating an audience for an event, we advertise in store, online, by email and on Facebook. Then we have someone on Twitter to let customers know in real time when the DJ is performing or when the personal shoppers are available," says Mighty. "So while Facebook works as a great driver before an event, Twitter is an effective real-time tool to engage people as the event is happening. Afterwards, they can go back to Facebook to share images and comment. It's about using the different networks to complete the journey."
Debenhams also wants to cross-fertilise its social media and etail activity. This month it integrated its online store and its Be Inspired style advice site more closely to encourage better navigation and conversions of window shoppers (nma 1 October). Last month it brought online and offline together when it ran a Twitter Assistants campaign at its Oxford Street store, an experiment to see how it could optimise customer service during a busy sales period. "It allowed staff, using BlackBerrys, to communicate with customers on the shop floor who might not be in their immediate eyeline, ensuring all customer needs were met and that help could be directed to where it was most needed," says Ann Hartland, web content manager. During the event, the campaign hashtag averaged just over ten enquiries an hour. "Customers have asked if we can incorporate Twitter into more stores and keep it as part of the online experience, so people are definitely open to more of this activity," she says.
Other brands are still experimenting. Fat Face's Worthington says, "We've discussed what we should tweet and have often come to the conclusion that what we have to say is far less interesting than what our customers probably have to say to their friends." Instead, the clothes brand uses the platform to let customers distribute Fat Face content, such as its 'win a camper van' competition, via their own profiles.
As the key social networks evolve, it seems brands are slowly working out how best to use them as a utility tool to enhance core retail activity, rather than simply as a sexy add-on. While French Connection sees Facebook as more of a marketing platform for sales promotions, it uses Twitter as an additional customer service channel. "We encourage people to post if they have a problem - for example, with an order not shipped correctly - and we make sure we respond promptly, which establishes a good relationship, as well as allowing us to make customer-retention offers where appropriate," says Jennifer Roebuck, head of ecommerce and direct. "I think more brands will start to do that because it's so instantaneous."
While social networking is starting to help fashion retailers achieve specific goals, social media as a whole is helping brands get closer to consumers and foster loyalty through the creation of online communities. In the last 12 months, Top Man has launched a blog, while River Island, Miss Selfridge and Debenhams have all launched community sites featuring blogs that give fashion advice and encourage consumers to share their own style tips and photos. In September New Look launched a weekly online TV show designed to allow viewers to upload content and vote on storylines.
Fat Face launched the community section of its site, Out There, two years ago and incentivises users to share their latest adventures, stories, videos and photos with a prize draw. It currently attracts more than 30,000 visitors every month and, as well as building a loyal community, the level of information it provides on Fat Face products and initiatives is invaluable. "It has changed the way we approach market research," says Worthington. "Instead of doing lengthy surveys we can now gather detailed customer feedback at very short notice. It has become a rich source of information for us."
Adding value to consumers in the form of an 'insider' community at the same time as being able to keep a finger on the pulse of what the audience wants is surely obvious for any brand if it gets it right. But even when they don't, retailers that show they're listening can forge strong brand loyalty by making consumers feel valued. "When a brand tries to push the boundaries in the way that it interacts with consumers, it's inevitable that mistakes will sometimes be made and customers provide the most useful feedback as to what's working and what isn't," says Debenhams' Hartland. "Our biggest successes have been drawn from customer feedback, so we're exploring ways we can allow customers to have a greater say in the future of Debenhams."
Mobile a la mode
As the business of high street fashion evolves, with brands and consumers interacting and sharing detailed information online, there's an appetite for a more social shopping experience on the high street too. Research by Foresee in February showed that 95% of online shoppers in the UK have mobile phones and 25% of these have used their phone while shopping, mostly for getting opinions and sending pictures of products to friends.
But it's the growth of smartphones that's setting the scene for a revolution. Dan Rosen, head of AKQA Mobile, says this gradual shift in behaviour helped contribute to the development of the Gap iPhone Style Mixer app it launched in the US in September. "The mobile is how consumers share trends, comments and titbits with their friends, so linking mobile to the shopping experience is an area that will grow. We're starting to see what can happen when you link them - that's where the value comes alive."
The Gap Style Mixer lets users build up wardrobes by mixing and matching Gap clothes with their own clothes on the screen, as well as taking photos and posting them to their social network profile pages. It also allows consumers to locate their nearest store and, when they're near, access a special discount voucher. Rosen believes the app leverages all the key aspects of a smartphone for a shopping experience. "In order to fully optimise the mobile opportunity for retail, brands should be using the geo-location capability, sending vouchers that can be used at the point of sale, and linking to social networks."
French Connection's Roebuck has reservations about whether the photographic quality is good enough for shoppers to communicate the merits of an outfit to friends via mobile, but she'll watch take-up of the Gap app with interest. "It's not a bad idea. It's viral and interesting and I think people do shop that way, and incentivising people to come in to a store in that way is great," she says.
But for French Connection the focus is on ROI and Roebuck is biding her time until it can be absolutely sure that any foray into mobile will be commercially viable. She cites location-based marketing as a key opportunity. "We're thinking about how we can use that on a Saturday when people are shopping on Oxford Street, encouraging them to come into our store by offering something that will help differentiate French Connection or get their attention. We also think it would be fantastic if customers could interact directly with our store windows."
High street fashion brands are also starting to embrace apps in the UK, with Aurora's Karen Millen and Warehouse brands both launching apps recently, although Oasis claims to have been first in the high street fashion space worldwide with its app offering daily updates on product arrivals, as well as using GPS grid references to find customers' nearest stores. Launched on 1 July, it has received more than 16,500 downloads from 65 countries.
But sexy mobile apps don't sound the death knell for plain old SMS marketing. "I know a hundred stories where using SMS alerts has increased sales, driven traffic to retail stores and encouraged and changed consumer behaviour, so I think it will continue to be a valuable part of the mobile marketing mix," says Rosen.
M&S is one brand looking to increase its activity in this area (nma 13 August). "We recently ran a special promotion offering customers [who opt in] a unique mobile discount code that provided 10% off online," said its spokeswoman. "It's the first time we've offered a discount via SMS and we're pleased with the response."
Oasis also recently ran an SMS campaign in conjunction with marketing specialist Exact Target, inviting customers to sign up to notifications of news and special offers. "The primary objective was to expand the numbers in our email database," says Mighty. "This data aggregation allows us to improve our service and use the most relevant message. It also enables us to interact with in-store impulses and engage with consumers in real time rather than risk losing them."
It seems the high street fashion sector is starting to capitalise on the manifold opportunities for using digital in its many forms to create a seamless link between its high street and online outlets. Leigh Witney, MD of digital agency Design UK, which works with brands including Hobbs and Jaeger, says, "Online pure-plays such as ASOS have undeniably set the pace over the last lap, but we're seeing high street retailers catch up very quickly."
* Research company Mintel forecasts the online fashion market will reach #4.1bn this year, up 26% on 2008
* Pure-play fashion brand ASOS saw sales grow 47% in the six months to the end of September 2009
* 95% of online shoppers in the UK have mobile phones and 25% have used their phone while shopping)
* High street fashion retailers are increasingly using social networks to drive consumers to their stores
* Shopping both online and offline is becoming more of a social experience, with smartphone capability set to fuel this trend
Copyright: Centaur Communications Ltd. and licensors
"FASHION: Still in style." New Media Age (2009): 19. General OneFile. Web. 4 Nov. 2009.
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