Is the UK fashion industry really ready for the online sales takeover?

By Leah Bateman, Project Manager

For the majority of people residing in the UK, clothing is a necessity if not a passion. While there are some who adore pounding the pavement scouting for their next fashion must-have, many shoppers perceive the busy shopping malls crammed with frantic consumers and all too happy to help assistants to be an assault on the senses; an experience to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Personally, it all comes down to efficiency. Do I love to potter around the shops browsing the latest looks when I have time on my hands? Yes, but with an ever more hectic schedule I often find myself without the luxury of time, and when you’re looking for a specific item it is often impractical to visit every shop on the off-chance that they might have what you’re looking for.

Unless you live in a major city with a flagship store, you will often find a reduced range of styles that have been ‘hand-picked’ for your local store. These will usually be trend and season-driven, which can be extremely frustrating when you’re trying to track down that winter-sun swimsuit in the depths of November.

In the last decade we have seen a huge rise in the number of online fashion stores and multi-channel outlets, all vying to catch the time-poor, cash-rich shoppers who love to indulge but don’t have the time to hit the shops in person.

Cue online fashion search tools such as Shopstyle , offering  access to hundreds of High Street and designer brands, while providing tools to create your own look-books to plan and purchase outfits. Shopstyle makes it fast and easy to browse all your favourite stores to find that perfect item. If you need a little black dress, Shopstyle can find hundreds of options at every price point to choose from.

Online outlets do have many clear advantages, such as a wider range of styles, same/next day delivery, free returns and no queues, yet in Q4 2013 online sales only accounted for 10% of overall turnover. The highest growth areas were reported to be footwear and accessories. This could be indicative of one of the main downsides to online shopping – Sizing.

A common problem when shopping in stores or online, sizing has been a big issue for retailers since off the rack clothing first came to the High Street. Taking a peek into wardrobes across the country, you’re sure to find a range of sizes (and this can’t be entirely blamed on the post-Christmas bulge!). It’s also common to find that sizes vary within stores themselves, not just across different outlets.

The level of detail required for a good fit is also often overlooked, with hip and chest measurements being used as the key way to interpret size, which does not account for our wonderfully varied individuality when it comes to our bodies.

When shopping in store, at least you have the option to try on items for look and fit, but when shopping online you are dependent on sizes that vary wildly, often meaning that you have to order multiple sizes and then return those which are not suitable. Minus points on efficiency, for both the consumer and retailer, who must process and finance high levels of returns if clothing is not a good fit.

It’s no wonder that we’re seeing a rise in sales of less size sensitive items, such as footwear and accessories rather than clothing, when it is so difficult to get a good fit for many clothing items. What seems to be an ‘efficient’ way to find and purchase items soon becomes lengthy and tiresome when you have to repack and post off inappropriate items. It is also very disappointing when you think you’ve found the perfect ensemble only to find that it looks terrible when you put it on.

Is it time to scrap the numerical sizing system in place of more detailed measurements? What can we really read into size 10? The EN 13402 European standard for labelling clothes has been in place since 2006, using a metric system, but evidence that this has been rolled out in the UK is sparse. It can still be as difficult to find correctly sized clothing now as it was 10 years ago.

It is fair to say that the EN 13402 standards could be difficult to implement due to the increased number of measurements and changes to labelling required, however the savings could be vast if implemented correctly. Companies such as True Fit are already making great strides into simplifying the sizing issue, by analysing large amounts of user and retail data to provide ‘suggested’ best fits across a variety of brands.

Consumer confidence could be greatly increased, and online returns vastly reduced if sizing was more transparent and consistent. The industry must put themselves in the (poorly fitting) shoes of their target market. Online shoppers want access to the widest possible range with the least amount of hassle and exertion.

So if the EU sizing standards are fully rolled out across the UK, how do retailers intend to support their customers through this change? How will we cope when presented with a range of detailed measurements as opposed to a one stop number shop? There are a variety of solutions to these concerns.

Firstly, consumers must get to know their bodies. There have been recent discussions in the media relating to scrapping the Body Mass Index in favour of a tape measure, so the revolution in clothing sizing may well come about at a time when we are being encouraged to assess our bodies in metrics anyway.

Secondly, the devil is in the detail. Retailers must provide as much detail as possible when listing their items on line.  Ready to wear clothing is made using technical patterns so the data should already be available to retailers, they just need to work out how to control and share this information with their end users. Effective databases will be a vital factor.

Finally, effective support tools, such as Virtual Agents, could be introduced to assist consumers when trying to find the perfect look and fit. Integrating a Virtual Assistant into online retail sites and fashion search engines would allow users to program their measurements into the Virtual Assistant, which could then source items that match their criteria, whilst providing fashion advice and tips based on their queries. Virtual Assistants can be used across platforms, allowing both consumers and retailers to benefit from ‘on the go’ purchases from mobiles and tablets.

If the fashion industry really wants to increase online sales, reduce processing costs and build customer confidence in the online arena, they must be more responsive to the needs of their target market. Without a focus on ‘getting it right first time’ it will be difficult for retailers to achieve their goals and fully take advantage of the online market.

Image courtesy of digitalart /