Initial predictions for online jeans sales might have faded fast, but those jeans brands who have built up an Internet following say this part of their business isn't going away. In fact, if you've got a well-known brand that consumers love and trust, your virtual revenue is very real says Stacy Baker.

So online customisation hasn't been all it was cracked up to be. True, but that doesn't mean the plug should be pulled on selling customisable products, like jeans, over the Web. In fact, while many argue that online sales aren't fruitful (as low as 1 per cent of apparel revenues, say some stats), and jeans sales are particularly uninspiring, jeans brands who sell well say this part of their business isn't going away.

Success all comes down to a simple five-letter word: brand. If you ain't got one - a good one - you're probably saying jeans don't sell well online. But if you've got a well-known brand that consumers love and trust, your virtual revenue is very real.

Earl Jean low rise with crease from Bluefly.com

Take Lucky Brand, for instance. Its online sales rank as its second-largest retail store, not counting wholesale accounts, says Bridget Belden, the brand's director of e-commerce. She believes such success can be attributed to a loyal brand following and a strong word-of-mouth reputation for fit.

"We try to replicate the brand experience online as closely as possible because that's what makes us successful," Belden says. "We also feel strongly that there is a definite, though unquantifiable, marketing benefit through driving traffic into our stores. We try to leverage the Web-store-Web traffic as much as possible."

Web-to-store traffic
Undoubtedly one of the largest and most recognised brands in the world, Levi's, is leveraging the Web-to-store traffic theory … only with a twist. Rather than attempt to become an online retailer (in addition to making jeans), the jeans maker simply links shoppers to its choice of online retail partners, to a page featuring the jean the consumer likes, just one click away from the purchase.

"We've learned these retailers have a skill set around managing the one-on-one transaction with a customer," says Levi's director of communications, Jeff Beckman.

"They've done it for years and they're the best at it - we're best at developing, designing and creating the best khakis in the world. By marrying our skill set of developing great casual apparel with their ability to retail and sell through, we both win in the partnership."

By deferring expertise in areas like warehousing, distribution, fulfilment and customer service to key online retail partners, like jcpenney.com, Levi's is able to focus on its core abilities. The result has been that the brand's online jeans sales have quadrupled from the two-and-a-half years ago, when Levi's attempted to sell jeans on its own site.

Part of what makes Levi's a compelling site for consumers is a completely overhauled product line that Beckman says has seen significant improvements in the last 6 to 12 months. This fall season, in particular, are innovative new products like women's and men's super-low-rise jeans. Once on the site, the biggest benefit is simple navigation ... the site is about product, not superfluous company info or marketing promos.

"Our site is set up in a way that delivers information that supports a purchase," Beckman says. "It's really like a commerce site - you see the product, the way it looks from the front and back, and colours. Everything to make you ready to buy. And then you're just one click away."
 
The company also offers an array of products with each pair of jeans so shoppers can see outfits, not just bottoms. The Dockers site walks men through the spectrum of casual clothing from business casual to weekend casual to clothes to wear to hit the town, giving them style guidance and outfit options.

"It's a rich presentation of product that looks like an e-commerce experience," Beckman says. "We make it easy to actually make the purchase through retail."
The tremendous power of the brand and the loyalty consumers have to Levi's isn't something to overlook. Beckman believes that having a destination brand is a key factor in succeeding online. In fact, his brand is such a draw, it often outperforms all products, not just apparel, on its retail partners' sites.

From catalogue to Web ... jeans sell!

Lands' End Custom Jeans

Cataloguer LL Bean extends its already-successful business model and infrastructure to the Web, creating a convenient, service-driven shopping experience for its brand-loyal customers. Despite the broad range of product available on llbean.com, jeans are consistently one of the top sellers on the site.   

LLBean also benefits from a long-established relationship with most of its consumers, who have come to seek the brand¹s fit, styles and assortment, and shop online because they¹re confident there won¹t be any surprises, says spokesperson Rich Donaldson. 
 
"Customers want to know what the product really looks like, feels like and fits like," Donaldson says. "It can be difficult to get that information from a Web page. The Web works best when you are repeat buyer for a product or you have the catalogue to get the great picture. As a multi-channel retailer, most of our customers already have our catalogue in hand. Additionally, wading through Web page after Web page can be very annoying. Using with the 'quickshop' feature on the LLBean site, a customer can enter the item number quickly bring up the item."

As a multi-channel retailer, the company seeks to provide customers with the ease and convenience of shopping by any channel they prefer - retail, catalogue or Web, despite how significant the revenue generated from that particular channel.

However, revenue seems to be significant in all LL Bean channels - last year, online sales represented 35 per cent of the company¹s total sales. "Of course, Web sales are more productive because the phone operator and store expenses are eliminated," Donaldson says. "Also, converting customers to the Web helps us to be more efficient with our catalogue mailings and to reduce that expense as well."

Strong label
Cataloguer Lands' End also benefits from a strong label. The company's online jean sales are about the same online as its catalogue percentage-wise, with most customers spending a little more online per order overall - about $10 more - than in its catalogue. Not only is the company breaking expectations for spending, it's also making customisation work with the recently launched Land's End Custom, a feature that allows shoppers to receive style- and fit-customised chinos and jeans in two to three weeks.

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"We've seen that most successful online retailers have three things: a recognisable, trusted brand; existing infrastructure to warehouse and ship in a timely manner; and proprietary product," says Andrea Stephenson, director of Internet communications for Land's End.

"Most brick and mortar companies have been doing better online than many of the start ups, or pure-plays. We see our online store as just another shopping channel, just another way our customers can communicate what they want."

One exception to the 'brick-and-mortar-is-stronger-than-pure-play' theory is bluefly.com whose commitment to selling jeans online just stepped up a notch. The online vendor has launched a new jeans/denim department, featuring eight or 10 top contemporary brands with an average discount of around 60 per cent.

CEO Ken Seiff says his online jeans sales are a rapidly expanding business, fuelled by labels like Diesel, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Helmut Lang to name a few.

"We're only selling designer brands and people know what designers they like and what sizes they wear - that's been a powerful driver of our business," he says, adding, "Jeans are only hard to fit the first time you buy them." The company makes sure the risk for consumers is low, with a 90-day money-back guarantee with paid return postage.

The fit issue
The fit issue, though, is enough to keep some companies steering clear of online sales.

Studies have shown people try on as many as five to eight pairs of jeans before making a purchase. That, combined with lack of evidence that market demand for shopping online is there, means companies like VF Corp will prefer to use its site as a marketing tool.

"Jeans are a ubiquitous item," says Cindy Knoebel, vice president of finance and marketing for VF Corp, a company which has not yet ventured into the online selling realm. "When you wear jeans everyday or frequently, they have to fit well, and consistency of fit varies brand by brand and style by style. Consumers are brand loyal when it comes to buying jeans, but most of us just have not found an efficient or effective way to sell them on the Internet. At the end of the day, most people still want to touch, feel and try on apparel."

For sites like bluefly.com, whose niche is very clear, both aesthetic factors like touch and feel, and hi-tech features like customisation are non-events. Seiff says customisation has never been a strong driver of apparel, instead it's back to brand, convenience, good customer service, factors that seem so easily achievable, yet so hard to find.

"Today's online shopper is looking for a great selection of the brands they want," Seiff says. "They want great convenience, great service and great discounts. Historically, that combination has not been available in the traditional brick-and-mortar stores, but the uniqueness of the Internet has allowed it to happen. That's why Internet customers are so loyal to sites delivering that."

Part of convenience and service is going beyond the gimmicks and transparent hype to the core features and functions your demographic wants. Features like live online customer service reps, virtual modelling and "real time" inventory set sites like Lands' End apart.

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And for labels like Lucky Brand features such as a fit comparison guide, detailed product descriptions and the newly launched "view fit" give shoppers as much information as possible to help them in their purchase. Bluefly.com's newly launch "Zoom" allows shoppers to zoom in closely on various parts of the garment for up-close looks at style elements before they buy.

"Our experience is that to be successful you have to give a compelling view of what the brand has to offer, why it's relevant to them and make it very easy to purchase the product," adds Levi's Beckman. "That really means making the online experience easy to navigate and not making the site cumbersome with gimmicks or features that require downloads.

"Overall, shopping for jeans should be an easy, clean browsing experience with lots of options and an easy [check-out] when you decide to buy."

By Stacy Baker.