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Comment: Luxury fashion retailers: functionality or flash?

Thursday September 23rd 2010

The luxury fashion sector has been especially slow to embrace online expansion. As recently as 2008, 68 per cent of top luxury brands who provided a website did not sell directly to customers, citing that the added option “did not fit with their sales strategy”. By Hosein Moghaddas

However, the recession has hit hard and an online sales portal is increasingly recognised as a cost effective alternative to bricks and mortar expansion.

Eight out of 10 globally recognised luxury brands are now selling directly to customers online. Chanel and Versace are the only two retailers not currently offering customers any transactional options, as the sector sees a 24 per cent growth spurt in site visits. However, with more practical features hidden behind extravagant video installations, many luxury retailers have not adapted their websites to accommodate this growth.

Make your bread and butter features clear to consumers

Clearly, brand image is a vital differentiation point for luxury fashion retailers. The beautiful use of imagery and video installation on websites such as Armani leave you with no doubt as to the brand you’re dealing with; however the bread and butter features essential for closing sales feel like an afterthought. If you actually manage to get through to the transactional pages, hidden beneath the gloss, you’re faced with a cumbersome and uninspiring check out point. This is in stark contrast to pureplays such a Net-A-Porter, whose slick websites don’t leave customers in the dark.

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A poorly designed website is potentially damaging for your brand, as online shoppers are generally turned off by fiddly checkout processes. Currently, luxury retailers are treating their website homepage as an extension of a shop window; an understandable tactic to tempt customers. However, to really incite those sales, retailers need to be able to make more noise about their online store, rather than simply tucking it away at the bottom of the page as a hyperlink.

The same principle applies for product information, which is generally in sparse supply. Although in luxury fashion brands have already generated product quality trust with consumers, shoppers still want to see as much information as possible. Think about it – how can you expect to sell a £700 handbag with a twelve word description?
Allow for ‘hover boxes’, which tempt customers with basic information about the product before they click through for more. 360 degree rotation and the option to zoom in on a product are also very useful features in product presentation.

Flash features have also been big news recently due to their incompatibility with iPhones and iPads. With roughly 4 million adults owning either an iPhone or iPad, this is a probable browsing method for affluent luxury customers. This is another area in which retailers need to tread cautiously. If your site is heavily flash-reliant, then a customer browsing on an IPad is barely going to be able to access your site, let alone make any purchases.

How to utilise video content
Luxury retailers are big users of video functionality, with regular shots from catwalk shows, product exclusives and advertising campaigns. But very often this content lacks contextual relevance and does little to support the transactional experience. Although these features can be a powerful weapon, it’s important to use them as supplementary additions to a strong base. Perhaps luxury retailers could take a leaf out of ASOS’s book, as an example of a retailer who has enhanced product collection, by providing mini catwalk videos of the majority of their online collection.

Keep it simple
There can be a tendency with luxury e-tailers to use language such as ‘explore the brand’ and ‘philanthropy’, which may well be on-brand messaging, but mean little to customers. If you were a customer simply looking for product information and were faced with bulky language like this, then the likelihood is that you would jump ship and source the product elsewhere. Of course, retailers don’t have to be completely utilitarian in their choice of words, but exercise a level of sensibility; especially when these words serve as function keys.
Key to customer service
Excellent customer service is what luxury retailers are known for, so simply use your online service as an extension of an in-store advisor. Some e-tailers have used a ‘style advisor’ service as a key point of differentiation and as a way of sharing their extensive product knowledge with their customer base.

For a luxury retailer, this function is perfect, as it allows you to keep a tight grip on the brand message you’re conveying to customers.

Add those all-important finishing touches
Although one of the final parts, packaging and delivery are among the most important features of the customer interaction process. Consumers will be expecting a replication of the in-store experience when presented with the final product and immaculately presented branded gift wrapping is a vital part of this.

Similarly, offer your customers flexible and convenient delivery options, such as express, next day or named time slot. So long as promises are met, this is an easily achievable example of a brand going the extra mile for shoppers.

The bottom line is, multichannel luxury retailers need to step up the formula they already have in order to reap rewards out of online expansion. Tried and tested processes can get easily tired and it is those retailers that aggressively seek opportunities to review these processes that will benefit most from this increasingly competitive sales environment and capitalise on sales.


Hosein Moghaddas, VP & MD International, GSI Commerce