Despite the limitations of selling fashion over the internet, online purchases appeared to buck the downward trend in festive retail sales. Rebecca Danton finds out why more and more retailers are turning to e-commerce, while new research suggests that online fashion sales could increase by GBP134m (US$264m) a year if websites address customer behaviour patterns and provide more product information.

The high profile collapse of Boo.com back in the late 1990s, despite an investment of millions of dollars and the incorporation of sophisticated technologies that allowed shoppers to see clothes at 360º angles, contributed to the slow uptake of online activity by clothing retailers.

But even so, the sluggishness of fashion's entry onto the online stage has baffled many critics.

Marshal Cohen, analyst at the NPD Group, confirms that the fashion sector has been "one of the slowest to adapt to online retailing. Autos, homes, pharmaceuticals… all have been more online centric than fashion, which is supposed to be in the forefront."

Some critics argue the many undeniable limitations and challenges of online retail are holding fashion companies back.

As industry experts point out, some shoppers are turned off the idea of shopping for clothes because they can't try pieces on.

Not only does this take away part of the buzz for some consumers - especially those who cite clothes 'shopping' in its traditional form as a hobby - it can also be an added complication, with unpredictable sizing and clothes looking different in real life to the way they appear in an image.

Sales easy to lose
Jason Kemp, managing director of retail operations specialist Envision Retail, points out that on-line shoppers are also ruthless. "They will abandon a purchase at any stage in the process if they are irritated or can't find what they want, demonstrating just how fragile a process it is and how easily a sale can be lost.
 
"At the beginning of their search, around 75% of on-line shoppers will leave a site if a page does not download quickly or is not available. Once on a site, if a page takes longer than 7 seconds to download, 57% of shoppers will leave immediately, with just 14% willing to try again," adds Kemp. 

More standardised sizing could help with the fit issue, while a wide range of technology exists that claims to showcase clothing in a manner almost on a par with that of a bricks-and-mortar shop.

But, it could be argued, the more technology is employed the more can go wrong. Not only from a user's point of view - as with Boo.com's misjudgement of what sort of site its target audience wanted and could use - but in many other aspects from misplaced and overlooked orders to complex web pages freezing and causing people's computers to crash.

One way companies can cut down on the risk of technical problems is to bring in an outside technology firm/online specialist. In fact retail giant Marks & Spencer went so far as to call in the services of leading internet retailer Amazon to develop its e-commerce operations.

While M&S has stayed responsible for managing its own site customer service operations, warehousing and distribution, Amazon has been working with the company to update its website after it struggled to cope with demand during a period of busy trading.

Fashion firm Lindex told just-style it too has employed the help of an outside technology firm as it sets up to sell online.

"We are trying to make the e-commerce website as integrated as possible to streamline the process," says Ulrika Danielson, the company's director of corporate communications, admitting that, nevertheless it was still faced with a number of "difficult issues" to solve.

Online tricks
Some of the tricks that could increase online fashion sales by more than GBP134m a year, according to a survey into Internet shopping behaviour by Envision Retail, include increasing the download speed of a page, and providing detailed information which actually slows down the purchasing process but helps the shopper bond with a product.
 
The company, whose customers include Metro Group, Nike and Bon Marche, points out that fashion surfers need more imagination to assess a product's suitability.
 
"While shoppers' brains screen out 99% of the visual stimuli they are presented with on the high street, it is only 45% when they shop on-line," explains Jason Kemp.
 
"So there is a huge opportunity to provide even more pictures of products, from various angles, in close up, to get customers hooked - but getting them to that stage means that any previous searching and downloading has to be fast.

Because they can't touch the garment, fashion surfers need more imagination to assess a product's suitability.

"They physically move towards the screen to try and get a closer look; they stop to think while they imagine wearing the item and then check out descriptive words to understand the texture," explains Kemp.

He adds that a website design built to create this 'Quick-Click-Slow' shopping experience will help minimise the percentage of consumers who abandon a purchase mid-search.

Where a retailer suggests a complementary accessory - belt, bag or jewellery - shoppers stay on the site longer, 40% of shoppers will actually view the item and there is a 3% chance that they will buy.

Legal issues
Some internet retailers also have legal issues to contend with.

Online marketplace Ebay has found itself at the receiving end of a number of lawsuits for allegedly failing to stop the sale of fake goods on its site. Despite the company's protests that it takes the issue seriously, some have likened the apparent wide availability of counterfeits on its sites to China's infamous pirate hotspots.

Again, there are ways this can be tackled. Online brand monitoring and counterfeit detection firm Net Enforcers recently joined up with private investigator Gobi International to step up the fight against the sale of fakes online by detecting, tracking and uncovering illegal manufacturers, distributors and sellers.

But, as in high-street retailing, cracking down on counterfeits is never straightforward and there'll always be some who slip through the net, however strong and wide that net is.

Turning to a different type of retailer, another source of contention could be that going online is yet another way for retail giants to monopolise the retail market.

Tesco, for example, recently told just-style of plans to trial clothing sales online - even though the company has already been subject to an inquiry into its increasing domination of the grocery sector and is now being slammed for taking over big chunks of a growing number of other, non-food markets.

However, a spokeswoman for Tesco told just-style the company queried the 'non-food' categorisation as a lot of competitors are larger in separate areas.

She also denied that Tesco was trying to take other companies in the online clothing market, adding: "Clothing is a relatively small business for us at the moment but it is growing quite quickly," and said that "the customer would be the winner" from the expansion of clothing retail onto the internet.

Despite its pitfalls and the complications it brings, when it is done well online retail does have a great deal of advantages for retailers and consumers. And despite its slow entrance into the apparel sector there have been a few examples of the successes to be had - Bluefly, Asos and Net-a-Porter to name just a few.

Unlike high street shopping, online requires a minimum of effort; a sure bet for those in a hurry or people who struggle to get to the shops.