The evolution of the Internet has created a fresh competition platform for clothing and footwear companies. Joe Ayling reports on a frenzy of developments in the online fashion sector.

The appeal of fashion is well suited to the speed and exposure of the Internet, while e-commerce sales continue to soar.

Indeed, year-on-year online clothing, footwear and accessories sales in the UK grew 17% in July and 16.5% in August, according to the IMRG/Capgemini Sales Index.

Meanwhile, social networking site Facebook and microblogging site Twitter have provided brands with new marketing channels to tap into.

Matthew Dodd, VP research and analytics, Nielson Online, EMEA, says: "This year has been the year of social media and seen the rise of Facebook. The e-commerce sector is still holding its own versus social networking though."

This thriving e-commerce sector is particularly desirable during the current economic downturn, and a host of retailers, including Tesco, Inditex and Wal-Mart, have bolstered their online fashion offering in recent months.

Others, such as Burberry, Topshop and New Look, are using social network communities to garner consumer loyalty and brand aspiration.

Meanwhile, Amazon's recent US$850m purchase of footwear retailer Zappos.com has been one of the few merger and acquisition developments during a challenging 2009 for the retail sector.

Multi-channel message
The principles of online shopping are still in their infancy, but one retailer well-placed to offer advice is UK department store chain John Lewis. The company's John Lewis Direct e-commerce site grew sales 22% to GBP327m during 2008/09.

Robin Terrell, managing director, John Lewis Direct, says: "Fashion online is one of the biggest business opportunities for John Lewis over the next three years and there will be a significant step change in our customers' shopping experience online."

Having initially aimed for John Lewis Direct to equal the sales of a medium sized department store, the e-commerce site has since overtaken revenues at its Oxford Street flagship store.

However instead of treating online and 'physical' stores as two separate entities, Terrell told delegates at recent The Internet Retailing Conference in London, John Lewis is looking for a joint-up proposition.

It is doing this by promoting John Lewis Direct in stores, and providing a "click and collect" service online, through which it says 38% of customers make additional purchases on collection.

The "shiny stuff"
If John Lewis is subtly acquiring consumer loyalty - "We look to whisper gently to our consumer rather than shout out loud," Terrell adds - other retailers are sending deafening 'tweets' into the online community.

Leading online retailer Asos, for example, which reported 47% sales growth in the six months to 30 September, has 17,814 dedicated Twitter followers.

Recent Tweets include 'Alexandra Burke celebrates her number 1 in ASOS! Read the article & then shop the dress!' and 'What did you get up to this weekend, and what did you wear? We want pics of your Saturday style'.

And while Twitter can be used to drive Internet traffic in this way, it can also host brand feedback. Topshop decided in August to expand its shipping destinations to seven new markets on the basis of social networking feedback.

Meanwhile, Adidas Group is looking bolster the appeal of its Reebok brand through a combination of social networking, and a product customisation tools for mobile devices, called Your Reebok.

Reebok International head of digital marketing Marcus Spurrell: "The footwear customisation business is a direct factory to consumer model, there are no inventories and no warehouses. We just have an automatic system that goes straight through to the consumer."

Although fashion followers increasingly want to be spoken to online, analysts stress that the basic principles of value, speed and delivery should not be neglected.

As Foresee retail strategist Kevin Ertell says: "We have to careful not to get caught up with all the shiny stuff."

Click here to view the top ten online developments in the fashion industry so far this year.