There is no question that more and more Americans are shopping online. Studies have shown that e-commerce sales grew 15 percent in 2012 , which is several times more than average retail industry’s spending growth. Two separate surveys recently conducted by the United Parcel service (UPS) and ComScore conclude U.S. e-commerce sales grew from $42 billion in 2002 to $186 billion in 2012.
At least 50 percent of U.S. consumers bought something online in 2011. The number of shoppers, shopping frequency, and amount spent on online shopping is expected to grow as newer technological developments like mobile shopping platforms enhance the online shopping experience. However, less than 20 percent of the total apparel and accessories sales are made online. That means 80 percent of the sales in this industry is still taking place within the four walls. Even though a majority of apparel shoppers visit the retailer’s website, research the product online, or read reviews before making purchase, only a few actually buy the product online. Most people who do buy clothes online are likely to buy an item only after they have already tried it on in a store or seen someone else wear it before. This is especially true among women.
Not knowing the quality of the product and having to wait for the product to arrive may affect the shoppers’ decision to buy clothes online, but the biggest problem I see preventing a shopper from buying clothes online is not being able to visualize how the product will look on her body. If the retailers can address this issue, the concerns like the quality of the product and the shipping time can easily be fixed. I agree that people want to feel, see, and try the product before they buy; and e-commerce sites can not provide that real experience of touching the product, but with improved technology and larger, better quality pictures, shoppers can get a pretty good idea of the quality. Plus the free shipping and free returns already being offered by many e-commerce retailers will give shoppers the option to experience the products without leaving their house.
Why aren’t the e-commerce shoppers very enthusiastic about buying clothes online? There are two main reasons why customers do not feel excited about buying clothes online.
1.) Super-thin Models
The biggest issue I see with online clothing retail is that the models shown are super thin. As far as I know, the average American woman’s size is size 14, where the e-commerce fashion sites feature a model size 0 or size 2 wearing those products. There is no connection. An average shopper can not relate to the woman wearing those products. Plus, how would you know how flattering the product will look on you based on how it looks on someone else’s body that is many sizes too small?
I believe clothing retailers can do much better in attracting more women to make purchase through their e-commerce sites if they featured more average-sized women. But the problem I have noticed with drastically changing the size of model is that the consumers are so accustomed to seeing super thin models in fashion magazines, runway shows and those clothing retailers’ sites that they unconsciously think thinness is synonymous to beauty. Nothing wrong with thin women being beautiful but this notion is negatively affecting the self confidence and body image of women who aren’t super thin. And the fashion e-commerce sites, fashion magazines, and blogs have only made the problem worse.
Models bigger than size 2 are perceived as fat or even plus size by many. Few years ago when we launched the e-commerce site for Tara’s Elegance , we did the product shots on a size 6 model. Within few months of launching the site, we got overwhelming comments and mixed response from visitors to our e-commerce site who thought we were targeting the plus size market. The truth is – we were not focusing on plus size market, and in fact, the largest size we carried at that time was a size 12. So we could not understand where that response was coming from. After we received a few inquiries from customers from different parts of the country asking why we were not selling bigger sizes even though the model was a plus size, it became clear to us that the reason why people perceived Tara’s Elegance website as plus size e-commerce site was because of the size 6 model. According to a close friend (who is a size 12), the model looked fat.
If the retailers want to feature thin models on their main product page, that is fine. Keep the thinner model’s picture as primary product picture but give customers option to view pictures of models wearing different sizes. For example, if a woman wants to buy a size 10 dress, she should be able to able to view picture of a model wearing the size 10. One may argue that is too many pictures to put on the product page, but the pictures can be linked to a tab that says ‘view pictures in different size models’ and open a new tab to show the pictures of the model in selected size. Having representative size models on the product pictures has power to boost sales because it solves many practical problems associated with fit and sizing.
2.) Fit issues
Few years ago, the Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) wrote an article about average women not buying their size-appropriate clothes, and trying to manage with their existing smaller sized clothes, regardless of the style. I have also seen plenty of women buying clothes at least a size smaller for various reasons. All of us want to look our best, no matter what age, race, nationality and economic status. Women, in particular, are more concerned about their look and would avoid anything that makes them look anything but beautiful. From my personal experience in women’s clothing retail, I know that even those women who say they don’t care about fashion want to look their best but are simply not comfortable expressing it. The biggest fear in these women is the fear of being judged.
E-commerce retailers can attract these women if they can address this practical issues that is keeping many probable customers from shopping for clothes. Many women do not want others to know their true size, simply because of the fear of being judged. If she could visualize how an item may look on her without having to try it on and risk being judged by the salesperson or whoever she is with, she will definitely choose that option. Having representative size model on the picture will boost self confidence in those women. Here I am talking about the women who are neither skinny nor fall in the plus size category. In fact, the plus size clothing designers are doing very well because they feature more representative models on their e-commerce sites or advertising campaigns.
One may argue that there are more advanced digital technologies like the virtual fitting room software that provide the shopper better fit experience than the two dimensional pictures. But not every retailer can afford those expensive technology and not every shopper is willing to spend the time it takes for them to upload the picture ( or whatever else is required to let the software know their body’s dimensions or size) and drag/select each product they want to try on and wait for the results. Besides, the measurements and details the software requires her to provide is the very same information she is not comfortable sharing. It is easier and time saving for the shopper to just click the size she wants to see on picture and get done. It may not give her the enhanced experience of three dimensional virtual fitting, but it will give her a pretty good idea of how she can expect to look on those products.
The other issue I see with the virtual fitting rooms is the lack of uniformity in apparel sizing. It is the biggest problem of the apparel industry right now. Each manufacturer has its own sizing standard. And, within each manufacturer, there are size variation depending on the fabric, style, and so many other factors. It is simply impossible for those software to accommodate all manufacturer’s sizing standards, which means majority of new and smaller brands can not be represented.
To conclude, with help of general sizing guides posted by the retailers on their e-commerce site, the shopper may know what size of any particular item she should buy; but she can not visualize the product on her body if the model is not representative of her size. Fabrics behave differently depending on how they are woven, knitted, treated and finished. That means the product’s stretchability, molding and yielding property varies depending on many factors. The same shirt can look totally different on women of different sizes. Women want to see if the product is going to hide or highlight all their bumps and chunks that they either want to hide or reveal. Therefore, many shoppers prefer to try the item on their body before they buy it. Being able to see another woman of her size wearing the product helps the shopper visualize how it will look on her.