The future of online fashion retail is already here

There’s good news for the UK retailing fashion industry as the clothing and accessories market is expected to reach a value of £46bn by 2017 (up 19% from 2012), according to Fashion retail 2014 – The future of fashion retailing in a digital age. While the last few years have been challenging, they’ve spurred many innovations as retailers worked to meet new consumer demands, such as online shopping.

Online shopping continues to soar

In 2014, nearly half of consumers in the UK shopped online for clothes, leading to £5.6bn in sales, a number set to grow to £7.5bn by 2017, according to the report. There’s no denying the importance of online fashion sales, which increased an impressive 185% between 2007 and 2012 and are expected to rise a further 41% by 2017.

Industry experts agree online fashion retail will need to continue to enhance the shopping experience in a multi-channel world. This means understanding the expectations of new groups of consumers, such as Millennials, investing in technology to streamline the purchasing journey and offer a consistent message across all platforms.

Gear up for the Millennial onslaught

Babyboomers may still be the largest group of consumers today but by 2020, Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are expected to become the most lucrative retail market. Catering to this new generation of shoppers will require forward thinking and innovative marketing strategies.

According to an international survey looking into consumer habits, Millennials prefer making purchases in-store. That said, they use a complex mix of sources before making a purchase decision, in line with current trends. “The average fashion consumer now regularly uses more than five channels or tools to do their shopping, adding unprecedented levels of complexity into how retailers now engage with shoppers,” says Scott Parsons, Managing Director at Land Securities Retail.

There’s no doubt that Millennial are heavily invested in social media. On any given day, they may use Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest to express their fashion preferences, as well as share information about products. But they won’t “Like” a retailer’s page unless they get something in return, be it rebates, vouchers or special status.

Social media is only one option in their shopping arsenal. Millennials also navigate seamlessly between store visits, price checking on their smartphones, and looking at online reviews before purchasing. They “also want mobile coupon scanning capabilities,” according to the survey, “to cash in on in-store retailer promotions.”

Once upon a time, fashion magazines were the ultimate source of inspiration. But “the publishing industry has been decimated since the mobile revolution transformed the way people consume content on the go,” says the International Business Times. The new ways in which consumers, such as Millennials, seek inspiration is in great part to blame for the decline but it also presents a golden opportunity for online retailers ready to mark themselves as conduits for their customers’ sense of style.

In that regard, ASOS is a shining example of forward thinking marketing. The British online fashion and beauty retailer now offers product videos on their site, turning simple 2D images into mini fashion shows. The innovative retailer’s #AsSeenOnMe section also invites consumers to post their looks, which are then matched to similar items on the website.

Finding the right fit

One aspect of online clothes shopping that has plagued both retailers and consumers alike is the difficulty in finding the right size. Every year, returns represent a “£60bn squeeze on stores,” according to the Financial Times, with fashion accounting for 25% of that amount. Retailers are quick to point out that returns are part of the necessary cost of doing business. “We want to keep customers happy,” says John Lewis, “and if they want to return items, we want to make that process as simple as possible.”

But other options may be on the horizon for online shoppers. Retailers already collect a significant amount of data on their customers and most of them are happy to oblige if it helps speed up the purchasing process. So why not add the creation of a physical profile? Customers could enter their body measurements and their size would automatically appear when they shop.

With the advent of 3D body mapping entering body measurements may soon be a thing of the past. This new technology will use the sensing capabilities of smart TVs to scan a person’s body shape, thus creating a virtual fitting room. Another technology, augmented reality, already offers shoppers the option of scanning an image of themselves, upon which they can apply a variety of products such as fashion accessories. Bye, bye returns… hello great fitting clothes and perfect accessories!

As online fashion shopping becomes the preferred option for a growing number of consumers, retailers who want to set themselves apart must continue to simplify their checkout process and streamline their delivery options to offer a new generation of consumers the experience they’ve looking for. Successful retailers will be those who have tapped into the power of multi-channel retailing to create a seamless integrated experience that takes into account the complex purchasing patterns of consumers today.