Online fashion in a “fast” ecommerce world: a wrap up from The Fashion Network’s ecommerce summit

We attended the Fashion Network’s Ecommerce Summit on Tuesday, and it’s clear that the fashion and tech industries are serious about innovating to meet the demands of retailers and consumers. From handling an increasing amount of returns and exchanges, to appealing to more environmentally conscious consumers, we heard from the experts on how to appeal to an ever-changing market.


‘Wardrobing’ and Returns

Technological advancements have made it preferable – for many – to shop for their clothes online rather than in-store. Shipping and delivery logistics are so advanced that you can order an outfit whilst in bed on Thursday evening, and it will arrive in time for your night out on Friday. Powerful search engines and product filters are also saving shoppers hours of hunting through clothes racks, especially for the 13% who have an exact product in mind ‘every time’ they shop.

But as things get easier for the consumer, retailers are faced with their latest challenge: dealing with an unmanageable amount of product returns. ASOS recently made headlines as they announced that they would be tightening up on ‘serial returners’, to ease the strain on their business and the environment.

Although the title of the morning panel discussion described the situation as a ‘pain in the profits’, panelist Charlotte Monk-Chipman questioned this perception, reframing it as a massive opportunity for retailers to remodel their end-to-end user journey. She believes that making your returns policy transparent and easy, as well as being right for your business model, can increase the lifetime value of your customers.

Peter Dibben, a Director at Optimove, highlighted how technology can help reduce the need to return items in the first place. For example, AI is being fastly adopted to help customers identify proper fitting clothes. Many commerce sites, such as Zara, have features that notify shoppers on whether an item of clothing is likely to fit them or not. Technology like this draws upon data such as customer body measurements, item specifics and the reasons that clothing has been returned in the past.

Another brand using AI to make it easier for customers to select clothing is ASOS, as coinciding with the announcement of their new returns policy, they launched an AR virtual catwalk, which they hope will reduce the economic and environmental of returns and exchanges. App users can point their smartphone camera at a flat surface and see a model wearing the garments in front of them. During a coffee break, we spoke with a representative from another leading online clothes retailer about this new feature. They felt that whilst the catwalk feature wouldn’t really help reduce returns – as the clothes are still on the model, not on the shopper – it does create a more immersive shopping experience.

Maximising the impact of your ecommerce budget

But what if you aren’t a multi-million-pound fashion brand with a huge budget to spend on AI, marketing and a generous returns policy? The experts speaking at the event seemed to voice the same opinions: know your customers, personalise the shopping experience and have a clear strategy.

In an energetic talk from Bidnamic, a marketing tech platform who “help retailers unlock the potential of Google Shopping”, CEO Liam Patterson outlined why Google Shopping is failing for so many brands. Firstly, many retailers need to consider whether Google Shopping is the right platform for them. There are 63,000 Google searches per second, but if people don’t Google search for your products or your pricing is not competitive, it may not be worth your while. Considering Google shopping more of an ‘auction’, as opposed to a more classic shop model such as Amazon where you can ‘set and forget’, this method of retailing requires a certain amount of maintenance to be effective. Liam recommends regularly challenging your metrics, such as cost per order/click, to ensure you are getting return on investment.

Instead, perhaps spend your tech budget on personalising the shopping experience. Peter Kilmartin from DotDigital praised AI, as it continues to improve the user experience by more accurately matching what an individual is searching for, removing monotonous tasks and grabbing the attention of shoppers. For example, your hero products need to be powered by AI, as not all of your shoppers will be the same. And as for abandoned cart emails, these are now the very basics of personalisation that retailers should be implementing. In a later talk, Peter Dibben called upon brands to ‘stop paying the price of generalisation’ and to start segmenting customers. Splitting your consumer base into tiers and analysing how they each respond differently to campaigns or offers will provide invaluable insight.


Starting up as a smaller brand in a complicated, saturated ecommerce market

Whilst many fashion businesses are happy with the current platform they have in place and are simply refining their strategy, others are at the beginning of a replatforming project, or are taking their first steps into the world of ecommerce.

In a panel discussion on choosing the right ecommerce platform, Melanie McKay, MD of Ethel & Em Ltd, offered the following advice to those who are changing platforms: “Don’t shoehorn the needs of your business into an ecommerce platform!” Melanie speaks from experience on this topic, as she has replatformed 3 times in her career. Her fellow panelist, Sam Butler, echoes this and encourages retailers to focus on their organisation as opposed to the tech. First, have a deep understanding of how all your internal systems fit together. Then once the project is underway, both Mel and Sam agreed that a positive working relationship between client and development agency is key.

For fashion brands that are just starting out in the digital world, there was no better story to hear than that of Jenna Meek, founder of Shrine (formerly The Gypsy Shrine), who built her multi-million-pound festival fashion business from £3,000 of savings. Shrine started off as a passion project, but Jenna attributes the success of the business to learning new skills, the rise of Instagram and going with her gut. If Jenna had one piece of advice to other brands, it is to create unique, eyecatching content that is likely to go viral, making sure that it leads back to your ecommerce site.

One fashion retailer harnessing the power of social media and viral content is Boohoo, a client of Hannah Anderson from Social Chain, whose talk focused on building a ‘personality’ instead of a ‘brand’ online. Hannah built her career in digital marketing from simply starting a Twitter account that gained popularity, and she now works with Boohoo to deliver powerful social media campaigns. The aim of Boohoo’s campaign, #NothingToWear, is to target new audiences by aligning the brand with real problems that real people have. This campaign has worked so successfully, that the hashtag now trends on Twitter every week.

Throughout the day, we heard some impressive success stories on how to grow a fashion business online. Hearing from Jenna and Hannah was certainly very inspiring, as both young entrepreneurs have demonstrated how it is still possible to launch a career online when starting from next-to-nothing. Other talks from more experienced industry experts demonstrated how brands and ecommerce agencies are working together increasingly to develop watertight marketing strategies and combat common issues, like the growing returns issue. The bottom line, as highlighted by Melanie McKay and many others throughout the event, is that online growth is possible when you keep your customer in mind, your strategy that is right for your business and you stay true to your brand.

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