Online sales of clothing and apparel has been growing tremendously in the past few years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, clothing sales on the Internet has grown from only $12 million in 1998 to $2.965 billion in 2009. This growth resulted from the combination of an increasingly large number of online consumers and the growing number of online retailers.
Despite the big jump, however, online apparel retailing still encounter numerous challenges, particularly for small merchants. As a result, only a small number of apparel sales were made online. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Census showed that only 1.4% of all clothing and accessories sold in the United States was made on the Web. More importantly, the apparel category significantly lags behind other consumer good items such as books and music in terms of Internet penetration.
The biggest hurdle is the customers’ demand to simulate on the Internet the “see, feel and touch” experience they get when buying clothes in a brick-and-mortar store. When buying clothes, customers want to know if the selected item fits them well, and whether they would look good in those clothes. It is therefore no wonder that the average purchase price for online apparel stands at only $101, according to the Internet Retailer Magazine.
In fact, the NPD Group, Inc. (formerly the National Purchase Diary) found that 85% of online shoppers were reluctant to shop for clothes online because they cannot try on the items. Another research firm, E-BuyersGuide.com found that buyers did not buy apparel over the Web for the following reasons:
- Unsure of accurate sizing (27.95%)
- Returning item could be a problem (18.17%)
- Unsure of quality (13.92%)
- Delivery costs (13.71%)
- Price (8.61%)
- Credit card security (6.48%)
- Unsure of item’s exact color (5.84%)
- Unable to access right information (3.29%)
- Difficult site navigation (2.55%)
- Other (10.20%)
Looking at the above reasons, small online businesses are at a disadvantage in terms of their lack of capability to provide interactive technologies that would allow consumers to approximate the buying experience at a Main Street store. Such technologies, according to Stores Magazine, could increase the average purchase size by as much as four times as the industry average.
Hence, well-funded and high profile startups such as Boo.com created sophisticated technologies that would allow the customer to view the clothes at a 360-degree angle. The good news for small businesses is that such technologies are not always a guarantee of success. Boo.com, despite their expensive technology, became the first big casualty of the dot-com era in 1999.
How Small Businesses Can Succeed in Selling Clothes Online
So what can small and home-based businesses selling clothes online do?
First, they have to provide as much information on the clothes as much as possible. Given the overwhelming concern with fit and correct sizing, present various sizing information to help consumers understand the products better. Use various metrics to measure the size of the clothes, even the length and width, as well as the kind and quality of fabric.
The quality of the product’s photos must also be ensured. While the varying colors of computer screens and monitors are beyond the control of an e-tailer, small businesses can benefit by spending more resources in getting better-quality pictures of their products up on their sites.
The small online merchants also need to address the consumer’s concerns with having to return garments. Small businesses do not have the wide retail channel enjoyed by top retailers such as Gap.com where customers can return purchases bought online to the nearest Gap retail store. Instead, small businesses can make sure that clear and detailed instructions on how to return purchased items are provided on the site. The cardinal rule to be followed is to make the process for returning product as easy as the process for buying them. One strategy may be to offer guarantees to customers for a full thirty days to return products for refund, exchange or store credits.
Despite technical and financial limitations, small businesses can instead focus on improving their customer service and developing better relationships with their clients. Using the strength of their customer service, small online businesses can join and benefit from the much-awaited takeoff of the online apparel industry.