From left back row: Heikki Haldre, Fits.me; Mark Sumner, M&S; Ian Mitchell, Kantar Worldpanel Fashion; Derek Jones, Walter Wilhem Associates; Julie King, ASBCI; Mark Batty, Asos, Graham Jones, Internet psychologist; Debbie Coulter, Ethical Trading Initiative and Tim Maxwell, GreenEarth Cleaning

From left back row: Heikki Haldre, Fits.me; Mark Sumner, M&S; Ian Mitchell, Kantar Worldpanel Fashion; Derek Jones, Walter Wilhem Associates; Julie King, ASBCI; Mark Batty, Asos, Graham Jones, Internet psychologist; Debbie Coulter, Ethical Trading Initiative and Tim Maxwell, GreenEarth Cleaning

What do consumers really want from their fashion products and shopping experience? That was the question industry experts attempted to answer this week - with their conclusions suggesting retailers need to offer value, quality and convenience, preferably all at the same time. Another challenge is for retailers to engage with their customers online or in-store to make sure they keep returning. Katie Smith reports.

"Consumers want things that will make their lives easier," according to Ian Mitchell, business unit director at Kantar Worldpanel Fashion. Nearly half of consumers say that the most important factor when they buy a fashion item is price, Kantar figures show.

"The next most important factor is quality," Mitchell noted. "Younger people are slightly less concerned about price but slightly more concerned about the look of the product and older people [are] probably slightly more concerned about quality and just as concerned about price."

What this means, Mitchell told delegates at a conference organised by the ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry) earlier this week, is that "consumers want good value."

But good value does not necessarily mean cheap, because "the thing about price is that even cheap items get more expensive", he said.

The reality is that consumers are paying higher prices but they're also buying fewer items. This has been a consistent trend over the last few years, according to Kantar figures, with prices for fashion products 1% higher last month, compared to the prior year period.

One thing that affects price is promotion, Mitchell said, because consumers find it difficult to resist. Last year, more than one in three fashion items were sold at a discount in the UK.

As the cost of living continues to rise, "the challenge for retailers is to engage with their consumers." 

The use of technology is also helping "retailers connect with their customers" - and is growing fast across all age groups. Systems such as Click & Collect are booming, according to Mitchell, while Browse and Order (where consumers can order products via an in-store device) and contactless payments are also making shopping more convenient.

Consumers "want to know that they're getting a good price [and] good value, so they don't have to shop around to see if they could have got it cheaper elsewhere. They want a choice because they're not loyal, and they want convenience [be it] online, high street or a combination."

Engaging with shoppers 
Engaging with consumers is one of the challenges many fashion retailers face, especially online. Internet psychologist Graham Jones said the amount of time people spend deciding whether to stay on a website is 0.56 of a second.

"We haven't got a lot of time to engage with people, so what we've got to do is really get inside their heads," he said.

Jones agreed with Mitchell that convenience is key for consumers, and helps people decide whether they're going to make a decision to buy a product they see online. "We've got to be convenient. It's got to be quick and easy to use," he noted.

"Your web presence has got to be convenient, it's got to be likeable, it's got to be informative, customised, and knowledgeable. If you demonstrate all of those things, and you demonstrate them at the subconscious level, then people will stay on your website for much longer than that 0.56 of a second."

Adapting to consumer needs 
Online fashion retailer Asos puts its success down to offering the right product at the right time at the right place for consumers, international sales manager Mark Batty noted.

"It really starts with a relentless focus on the customer. For Asos, it's about understanding your customer and for us that's 20-somethings who love their fashion."

Over the last 12-18 months, Asos has refocused its collections by moving away from designer and premium brands towards more affordable lines. "For us, our key differentiator is about incredible choice and that really sets Asos apart."

The online retailer has 60,000 products available at any one time, with nearly 6,000 dresses, 800 brands including Asos own-brands, and 2,000 new products online every week.

This choice, Batty said, means that offering something for its global consumer becomes a lot easier. "Size is also something we've focused on recently. Obviously people come in different shapes and sizes all around the world so we expanded our range to go from a 2 to a 28 and from an XXXS to an XXXL."

When it comes to identifying new markets and catering for its global business, Batty said: "It's really about focusing on demand and for us, that's about looking at where our current demand is coming from and reviewing that against market potential."

China poses a huge opportunity because there are 27 times as many 20-somethings in the market as there are in the UK. "Then it's really about making sure you deliver, truly serving your customers, and understanding the customer and refining your composition," he explained.

The retailer, which can ship to Australia and the US in two days, said the introduction of free global shipping in 2010 "really transformed our international business overnight". Around 65% of total sales now come from outside of the UK. "In 2-3 years, its probably going to be closer to 75-80%," Batty said.

"I think for us, the key really is globalisation of everything. It's not just the website, it's the globalisation of product, pricing, merchandising, marketing, it's everything you do."

The consumer shopping experience needs to be "seamless" whether it's through a mobile device or laptop, Batty noted, but added: "replicating that experience internationally gets harder and harder."

The means "any payment method, any device, any language, anywhere in the world. That is a seamless engagement for us - it's going to get our customers coming back time and time again. We're not there yet but we're on the journey and we're making pretty good progress."

Batty said retailers need to listen to what consumers want and adapt accordingly. "Meeting the needs of the global consumer is challenging, it's expensive. You need to invest in a local website, local proposition, local teams to make it successful. But it's rewarding if it's done correctly."

The right fit
With one in four garments bought online being returned to retailers, getting the right fit is hugely important, according to Fits.me co-founder and CEO Heikki Hadre.

Data from the virtual fitting room provider, which has worked with the likes of Adidas, Hugo BossMexx, Superdry and Thomas Pink, showed retailers lose 25% of their business in garment returns - and that for every 100 purchases, a retailer incurs around 161 shipments.

Virtual fitting rooms allow shoppers to customise mannequins to their individual measurements so they can see how clothes look on them before they buy. The software also suggests which size would fit best - helping to reduce fit related returns for retailers.

This level of personalisation can help retailers increase sales by an average of 57% and reduce fit related returns by about 77%, Hadre explained. "As a customer, I don't want to buy a right to return, I want to buy clothes that fit," he added.

Explaining sustainability to the customer
Retailer Marks & Spencer is trying to help its customers make sustainable buying decisions - although its sustainable raw materials specialist, Mark Sumner, agreed with Mitchell and Jones that consumers see convenience as a priority.

"Ultimately, we're trying to make consumers' lives easier," he explained. In terms of M&S's Plan A initiative, "we're doing what we call the heavy lifting for consumers. You don't need to worry about the cotton, you don't need to worry about the footprint, about animal welfare.

"M&S is working to improve the sustainability of all of those things within the supply chain. It may not be as fast as our consumers want it to happen but we are doing something."

Getting this message across to the consumer is complicated, Sumner stressed. "It's really difficult to engage with them, especially if they want to have a guilt-free shopping experience."

In some parts of the world, for example, it takes 25,000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of cotton - equivalent to around two T-shirts. To dye a tonne of fabric it can take 21 tonnes of water.

"We need to be evolving all the time," Sumner said. One way the retailer has tried to do this is by getting shoppers to recycle their unwanted clothes as part of its shwopping scheme.

"In the future, we have to build our industry to recognise the fact that the consumer is curious. We're all consumers. We all want to know what's going on. In the future, consumers will know everything about their product. The more we tell them, the more they will want to know," he said.

"Retailers and brands are going to be the face of the industry and we've got to find a way of creating that dialogue so we can talk to consumers on a level that they understand, a level that they enjoy, a level that is for them. And if we don't tell them, other people will tell them about their products."