In the late ’90s, when the Internet started to gather steam, fashion brands were wary of the widespread availability of their products across different sites. They wanted access to the new medium but were apprehensive about giving up tight control over both prices and image. The fear was premature, as consumers weren’t yet online en masse, but now that buying on the Web is widely accepted, where are fashion lovers directing their clicks and credit cards?
The success of sales sites, Gilt Groupe, Ideeli, Yoox, and others, selling designer duds at discount is well documented. Auction sites and vintage boutiques have also found online success, the latter on a modest scale in a cottage industry that breeds a loyal shopping base. The intrigue, however, lies in the showdown in the women and menswear designer category. With the exception of Chanel apparel and few luxury clothing collections, most desirable fashion brands are procurable on the Web. Online shoppers can choose to pick up Lanvin at Luisa Via Roma (where HQ happens to be in Bologna) or from Neiman Marcus, the American retail institution. The fan-crazed Rick Owens line is available at both Browns and Barneys, two specialty stores on different sides of the pond selling some of the same products and shipping across the globe. So which do you choose: Kirna Zabete or Matches, Asos or Opening Ceremony, Shopbob or La Garconne, Lane Crawford or Bergdorf Goodman? In menswear, Oki-ni’s stellar brand list includes Raf Simons, Boris Bidjan Saberi, and Damir Doma. This discerning man can also shop Satorialoft, AtelierNY, Por Vocacao or H. Lorenzo for many of the same specialist lines, so if it is the consumer who holds the cards in the new retailer/customer face-off, which sites do you shop?
If the same Ann Demeuleemester top is attainable on Net-a-porter in London and H. Lorenzo in Los Angeles, do you choose the closest one? Americans order from American sites and Europeans do likewise? New York- and San Francisco-based Elizabeth Charles says of the 20-to-40-year-old women that shop her namesake multi-brand online boutique:
I think there’s a move by consumer to shop local and support small businesses for their uniqueness and intimate customer service. Although lots of clothing items are commodities and consumers justifiably shop around for the best deal, items that we carry are unique, special and not widely distributed and our customers appreciate the thought and research that goes into every item we sell.
Making offline shopping easier online for locals is only a slice of the potential business for most small boutiques dipping their toes in Web waters. Charles admits that, “50% [of her sales] is coming from outside the US with the majority from Japan, UK, Australia, and then the Netherlands.” Our survey shows shoppers are more apt to choose one store over another for technical reasons–namely customer service. Comments from our Facebook survey included:
- Familiar sites that have my information stored so I don’t have to sit and reenter everything. Good returns policy.
- A good selection of images can be the dealbreaker for me. Amazing how so many fail in this regard, Barneys being a case in point. Top of the list: complimentary shipping. Several do international–I’m still impressed by this.
Still, in the end, many of the stores jumping online are relying on a unique product mix to get shoppers clicking. From Opening Ceremony selling their own branded goods to Corso Como becoming a single-site destination for co-designed products, and Sruli Recht selling seasonally issued designs, for some items theirs is the only site to choose.