The fashion industry often goes out of its way to promote an image of exclusivity and glamour. Yet the Internet is anything but exclusive and, due to fundamental technical limitations, anything but glamorous. While most fashion sites today imitate rather than innovate, John Yunker says that some companies are managing to create entirely new experiences online. Here he puts forward strategies for building successful websites

In November of last year, after many months of development and promotion, Ralph Lauren launched, putting the pressure on other fashion designers to respond with their own sites. But just launching a website isn't enough anymore. Fashion executives increasingly expect their online presence to do more than display the latest collections: it needs to generate revenue as well.

Mass marketers like the Gap and Lands' End are well ahead of the pack, having spent years refining their websites. But most designers are only just arriving on the Internet, and many other designers have yet to make their mark: Prada, Jil Sander and Burberry to name a few.

To innovate or duplicate?
Currently, most fashion sites imitate one another in various ways. This isn't always a bad thing; consumers come to expect some degree of consistency between sites - like the shopping cart icon - but it can be dangerous to blindly follow trends if you aren't aware of the consequences. The following strategies will help you decide when to follow the pack and when to strike out on your own.

Strategy 1: avoid "flashy" websites
The most prevalent trend in the fashion industry has been the development of highly animated sites. The software tool of choice is Macromedia Flash. It is impressive software, used to create everything from moving type to short films but, just like any tool, it can be misused, and often is.

For example, the Celine website makes extensive use of Flash, so much in fact that the user is encouraged to sit through an animated "splash" screen before arriving at the home page. Many fashion sites use splash screens as a means of introducing the user to the company. But most users would rather skip the introduction. Splash screens may be interesting on the first visit to a site, but not with each subsequent visit. If you want to encourage repeat visitors, don't build obstacles.

When users finally arrive at the home page of the Celine site, they are presented with a brief fashion show, complete with models walking down the runway and music playing in the background. But before the show begins, the user must wait for the Flash files to fully download. Using a dial-up connection, this could take more than a minute. While a minute may not seem very long offline, on the Internet it is an eternity.

Strategy 2: don't make people wait
A 1999 study by Zona Research found that the typical user will wait approximately 8 seconds for a web page to load before giving up and moving on. Today, it estimated that this number has dropped to 3 seconds or fewer. More than half of the 80 fashion sites we studied had home pages that took no less than 12 seconds to load.

Zona calculates that slow-loading web pages cost businesses $362 million per month due to "customer bailout."

Most fashion sites are overweight
The sum of the graphics and text of a web page givet a total "weight" in kilobytes (K). The heavier the weight, the longer the page will take to download. For example, the Yahoo! home page weighs 37K, while the Celine home page weighs in at 332K. This means that the Celine home page will take approximately ten times longer to download than the Yahoo! page.

And Celine is far from alone. If we compare the weights of industry home pages, we see that the fashion industry is clearly on the heavy end of the scale:

An overweight site is dangerous to your company's health
Less than 5 per cent of all US homes have high-speed Internet connections. And outside the US, most users have even slower connections. If you develop a site that only works with high-speed connections, you are in effect ignoring more than 90 per cent of your potential audience.

By setting a "weight limit" when developing your site, you can be certain that most people will be able to easily view it - which will put you well ahead of much of your competition. As web users grow more sophisticated, they will also grow less patient for websites that they feel waste their time.

Strategy 3: focus on the customer experience
Lands' End launched its first website back in 1995. Last year, the site generated $218 million in sales. One of the reason the company has succeeded over the years is because it never stops testing new ways of improving the customer experience. For example, Land's End was the first site to launch live customer service over the Internet.

Just recently, it introduced a service called My Model, in which users can register and build virtual models that closely match their body types. The models are then used to try on Lands' End clothing, which can then be purchased.

It remains to be seen if consumers embrace their virtual models, but one thing is certain: it is a fascinating way to get consumers interacting with the site. In addition, Lands' End gathers valuable customer data along the way.

JCPenney also offers virtual models. In fact, any fashion company can offer this service: the technology is licensed by My Virtual Model. In addition to virtual models, the

  • Lands' End site offers:
  • a personal shopper,
  • e-mail newsletters,
  • and an overstocks section.

All of these features are designed to develop loyal and valuable customers.

Strategy 4: take the fear out of shopping
The Gap does not offer as many fancy features, but it does know how to make shopping less intimidating. People who shop on the Internet are often annoyed by hidden shipping charges, questions about returns, and privacy fears. So Gap comes right out and addresses these issues on its home page.

Sites that sell effectively know how to make the user experience as pleasurable and expedient as possible.

Strategy 5: use the web to lure customers to your stores
Studies show that the more expensive the item, the less likely consumers are to purchase it over the Internet. Executives at high-end fashion houses may not see the point of investing in online stores when their customers prefer the brick and mortar versions.

Still, that doesn't mean the website can't play an important role in generating revenue.
For starters, you can use your site to capture information about the people who visit, and then use this information to drive those users to your retail outlets or affiliate sites that do offer online shopping.

For example, J Crew registers users through its site and then periodically e-mails them coupons that can be redeemed either online or at a retail location.

The Giorgio Armani sites uses a "guestbook" to gather user information.

A boutique can only gather data about the people who actually visit, but a website can gather data from millions of people, from loyal customers to curious "window shoppers." Companies that embrace the unique lead-generation power of the Internet will not only know their customers better but will have a larger list of potential customers to choose from.

Strategy 6: keep it simple
The Internet can be very confusing. Every website is its own world with its unique navigation system and related quirks. People visit sites with goals in mind, the least of which is learning a new navigation system. So the less complicated your site, the better the chances that people will find what they want and purchase it.

The best example of a designer who keeps things simple is Helmut Lang.

If you didn't know Helmut Lang designed clothes, you wouldn't guess it just by glancing at the home page. There are no graphics on this page; there is little text. Helmut Lang simply does the opposite of what nearly every other fashion designer is doing. Instead of investing in a lot of fancy Flash animation, he simply puts his name on the page with a few links to his collections. Needless to say, the Helmut Lang offers the fastest-loading home page of any fashion site.

It's all about the clothes
The collections themselves are also presented without ornamentation or animation. The message this strategy sends to the user is one of confidence in the product and respect for the user's needs.

We encountered numerous fashion sites where the simple process of viewing an entire collection could have taken an hour given all the Flash files involved. Other times, the collections were difficult to find or poorly displayed.

Helmut Lang proves that minimalism can be as engaging, if not more so, than any streaming video fashion show.

The future of
In the long run, the websites that embrace the unique strengths of the Internet, rather than struggling with its inherent technical limitations, will be the ones that succeed.

And a little creativity won't hurt either. Fortunately, the fashion industry specialises in creativity. Once fashion designers begin applying their ideas not just to their collections, but to their websites as well, we believe the fashion industry will begin setting trends that reach far beyond showrooms.

John Yunker is founder of Byte Level Research, a web content strategy company, and co-author of the report Fashion Web Sites Undressed - a competitive analysis of the fashion industry and the Internet. Copies of the report are available through the Knowledge Store, and further details can be found at: