It is hard to believe there was once a time when consumers were wary of shopping online. Internet apparel shopping queries first appeared in the Lifestyle Monitor™ survey in 2000. Today, responses reveal that nearly two-thirds of consumers (66%) browse the Internet for clothes, up significantly from 26% a decade ago. Men’s online browsing jumped from 22% in 2002 to 59% in 2011, while women’s leapt from 28% to 71%.
And this past holiday season proved e-commerce has not only caught on, but is thriving.
comScore reports retail e-commerce spending for the November/December 2011 holiday season reached $37.2 billion, marking a 15% increase versus last year and an all-time record for the season. Ten individual shopping days surpassed $1 billion in spending, led by Cyber Monday, which dominated for the second consecutive year at $1.25 billion.
[quote]Apparel is consistently one of the top selling e-commerce items. In 2011, clothing and footwear Internet sales accounted for 15% of total Internet sales in the U.S., according to Euromonitor International. And over the past decade, clothing and footwear Internet sales have grown faster than total Internet sales in the U.S. (284% versus 220%).
The strength of the online apparel industry should only continue to grow, says comScore’s Andrew Lipsman, vice-president, industry analysis.
“Many consumers who were originally resistant to purchasing apparel online have become significantly more comfortable with the process,” he says. “Better and easier return policies have reduced critical barriers to purchase, and helped accelerate online spending in the apparel sector.”
Kantar Retail’s Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice-president, says online apparel buying comes naturally to younger shoppers.
“Gen Y shoppers, the oldest of which are 29 or 30, grew up with online shopping. They don’t worry about security and privacy, touch and feel, or the ability to try something on. So we’re poised to see even higher growth rates as more of them establish their households.”
Since Gen Y is known for needing instant gratification, the most successful e-tailers will remove all obstacles to purchase.
“The best sites are easy to navigate, ship in a timely manner, make returns easy, and often provide free shipping to further incentivize consumers,” Lipsman says. “Successful retailers also have a very strong brand, very competitive pricing, or both.”
More than one-fourth of consumers (27%) purchase apparel online, up significantly from 6% a decade ago, the Monitor survey shows. And 6% buy most of their apparel online, up from only 1% a decade ago.
Whitfield says online newcomers, like flash sales and daily deal sites, have also facilitated apparel sales in this category.
“Sites like Gilt, RueLaLa and so many others keep apparel more top of mind among those who shop online for it. This continued evolution of the e-commerce business model keeps shoppers interested and coming back. They’re part of the apparel landscape.”
Where ten years ago the process was straightforward, today’s online shopping is no longer simply about making a purchase. Content is also key, with more brands and retailers providing e-zines that not only tout their wares, but celeb interviews, cocktail recipes and travel tips.
“We’re coming back to sites that have a curated feel–like Park & Bond, which marries the idea of commerce backed with content,” Whitfield says. “Ralph Lauren also does a great job of that. It’s an approach that’s gained traction” — and inspires customers to return.
Currently, consumers spend nearly one hour and 45 minutes browsing the Internet for clothes each month, up significantly from one hour and 20 minutes a decade ago, according to the Lifestyle Monitor survey.
A lot of that browsing has lead to improved conversion rates. In the last year, 65% of online retailers reported increased conversion rates due to more e-commerce site testing, improved checkout procedures and other enhancements, according to Forrester Research Inc. and Shop.org.
Positive online shopping experiences also boost conversion rates, says STELLAService’s Jordy Leiser, co-founder and CEO.
“Compared to 10 years ago, shopping online is very different. Back then, it was ‘Will the payment be secure?’ Or, ‘If I put my credit card number into the Internet, will I get the item?'” Leiser says. “Once the security companies were able to validate and encrypt your credit card, it became all about the experience. These days, you can buy a North Face Jacket from any company, so which will give you the best online experience and service?”
Leiser says e-tailers should be available and responsive via phone, email or chat; have a customer-friendly site with easy-to-find tools like search, shopping carts and contact info; and make every interaction count.
“Since they’re all selling similar items, the companies that lead their category are those that are wholly focused on providing a great service experience.”
Those e-tailers who can combine great content with great service will be poised for even greater growth in the next decade.