Euratex's Fashion On-line project came to an end last month. For more than two years this European initiative has looked at how innovative technologies can help the uptake of B2C e-commerce by small to medium sized fashion manufacturers, retailers and their customers. Trials were also carried out at ten pilot companies in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. But what was really achieved? Jozef De Coster finds out. 

Though most EU-countries, including several new members, have delocalised a big share of their apparel production industry, Europe still holds a firm grip on the global fashion business. But it is under increasing pressure from foreign companies who are also investing in fashion.

If fashion is to remain one of the sustainable strengths of the European economy, the European apparel sector must move quickly and intelligently to connect its design and marketing capabilities with the best that Internet technologies have to offer. By doing this the sector should be able to innovate the way in which manufacturers communicate with retailers, and the way consumers buy clothing.

'Innovation' is something the Directorate General 'Information Society' of the European Commission wants to boost. On 1 March 2002, an EU-sponsored Fashion On-line project was set up to demonstrate how B2B and B2C technologies could be used by European clothing manufacturers, SME fashion retailers and consumers. The project was led by Deborah Roosen Santus of Euratex, the European Apparel and Textile Organisation.

At the end of May 2004, the results of this project were revealed by ten pilot companies and ten partners at a conference in Brussels. These included national textile and clothing institutes and technology centres, such as the Central Saint Martins School of Fashion and Textiles from London. The results can be seen at www.atc.gr/fol and www.euratex.org

Tough lessons
Although fashion manufacturers from all EU countries were invited to participate in the project, the ten pilot companies all came from the four southern EU states: Italy and Greece, Portugal and Spain. The best known are probably Italy's TRS Evolution, Trussardi Group, and Portugal's Maconde Fashion Group.

According to Euratex's Lutz Walter, all of the pilots agreed that the implementation process for Fashion On-line techniques is costly, time-consuming and complicated.

The Spanish children's wear manufacturer Star Textil (turnover of €12 million in 2003, €14 million expected in 2004), for example, tried unsuccessfully some years ago to create its own online shop. It joined the Fashion On-line project "as an opportunity to be innovative."

Star Textil learned some hard lessons during the project:

  • Fashion On-line technologies are not yet ready for children's wear manufacturers (Star was apparently the first to look for virtual 'child' mannequins).
  • Technology offers just 50 per cent of the results it promises.
  • 3D technologies require a lot of personnel training.
  • Lack of infrastructure at the retail level is still a problem when using B2B technologies in conjunction with small retailers.
  • Fashion On-line technologies are very expensive and it is difficult to get a return on investment.

The final conclusion of the Star Textil pioneers was that they still believe in the future of the Fashion On-line technologies, but would leave implementation in the 'stand-by' phase for both technical and organisational reasons.

30 per cent of purchases returned
Successfully implementing Fashion On-line is not only a question of technology and organisation, but also of consumer psychology. In 1999, an analysis by the American National Purchase Diary revealed that 85 per cent of online shoppers were reluctant to purchase apparel in this way because they could not try on the items.

From a survey of 296 online visitors (of which half came from the UK) carried out via the ten Fashion On-line pilot sites, it appears that the biggest problems with online garment shopping are related to feel (17 per cent), virtual try-on (15 per cent), size (14 per cent), fit (12 per cent) and security (8 per cent).

The online audience is, however, relatively optimistic. It believes that all these problems can be overcome if the available solutions enhance their performance, have an open architecture, are user-friendly, and do not require special software to be downloaded to the users' PC. Photorealistic representation is also sought by the online audience, but the solutions tested do not really achieve this.

If "quality is when the customer comes back and not the product," then up to now Fashion On-line has not yet reached acceptable quality levels. According to CITEVE, the Portuguese Textile & Clothing Technology Center, e-consumers send back an estimated 30 per cent of apparel products ordered online. This amounted to a US$6 billion annual problem for apparel e-tailers in 2004 in the US alone according to Forrester Research.

Manufacturer-retailer collaboration
Renaat Soenens, secretary general of the European retailers' association AEDT, used the Fashion On-line conference to call for co-operation in the field of e-commerce between SME fashion manufacturers and retailers.

He said: "Contrary to big manufacturers who have their own outlets, SME fashion manufacturers are not able to set up an independent e-commerce system. But when they decide to co-operate with SME retailers, it can be a success."

Most consumers want to try, to touch, even to smell a garment and to see the right colours before buying. A lot of virtual try-on shops have failed. They tried to convince consumers to use the Internet for buying clothing at a time when the latter were not yet prepared (maybe lacking a computer, an Internet connection or a credit card).

Until now, European companies across all sectors take only a small share of their sales via the Internet, ranging from 0.3 per cent in Spain to 2.8 per cent in Sweden. But this share is gradually increasing. According to Eurostat statistics, in 2003, 45.1 per cent of all EU15 households had Internet access at home.

Susan Jenkyn Jones, professor at Saint Martins School of Fashion and Textiles (London), told the Brussels Conference that the most popular category of B2C purchases over the 2003/4 holiday period was clothing, up by 40 per cent to US$3.7 billion. She also said that the growth of female spending online was up by 71 per cent in 2003, six times faster than for men. Female online spending in 2003 grew nearly ten times faster than total retail spending.

According to Soenens, of AEDT, a sense of humour is essential when selling fashion via the Internet. This helps manufacturers and retailers to present products at their best.

Retailers' online shops should show garments in a colour or a style that is not available in the store, visualise it via a 2-D or 3-D 'virtual try-on' system, and offer the facility to order in real time. In this way the three parties concerned all benefit: the consumer enjoys the shopping experience, the retailer can satisfy its customers, and the fashion manufacturer increases his visibility.

According to AEDT, e-commerce offers new ways of co-operation between SME fashion manufacturers and retailers. Success will not only depend on the use of modern communication systems and quick response logistics, but also on a new collaborative attitude between the business operators.

AEDT points to the numerous sales that fall through because of inadequate in-store choice (lack of sizes, colours and styles). Therefore, it says, e-commerce should be seen as a complementary support mechanism to better meet consumer demand, help avoid overstocks, and limit seasonal clearance sales.

AEDT predicts traditional European fashion retailers will soon install screens, Internet connections and keyboards in-store. In this way, consumers will be able to view every item in the retailer's collection, even if it is not available in that particular shop. The retailer can show off additional garments and even order them on the spot. The use of avatars, adapted to the size of the client, will help encourage consumer interest in e-commerce.

Optimistic outlook
Deborah Roosen-Santus, from Euratex, believes the Fashion On-line pioneering exercise has proved very useful. A large number of European textile and clothing companies, especially SMEs, will benefit from the results with an insight into best practices for technology implementation, training and maintenance costs, and technical requirements.

However, a lot of problems still have to be satisfactorily resolved. For most SMEs the present costs of the new technologies are too high. And all kinds of technical problems make implementation of these technologies a nightmare. Inter-operability is difficult to achieve with the maze of incompatible software/hardware currently available.

Deborah Roosen Santus said: "A common point to all technologies analysed seems to be that they all somehow still need important improvements in order to meet specific customers' requirements. Therefore much time, resources and research is still needed."

In any case, the potential identified by the Fashion On-line project is very promising. The virtual and remote presentation of fashion collections and the provision of a more realistic appearance of clothing in either B2B (e-catalogues) or B2C (e-shops) environments is continually improving.

Professor Jones of Saint Martins fashion school expressed the conviction of all project partners when she concluded that "the Internet surely will change the fashion industry."

By Jozef De Coster.