In-Store and Online Retail: How To Understand the Modern Fashion Consumer

By Paul Twite - UK MD at Toluna

Fashion is big business; from the high-street bargain outlet through to the couture gowns on the runway. But fashion brands big and small, high-street or high-end, have had to adapt their businesses to the world of digital-first shoppers and online retailing.

For companies that can successfully navigate the changing buying habits of consumers, who increasingly expect a seamless and connected shopping experience between in-store and online retail, there is huge potential for brands to keep customers coming back for more.

Selling fashion products online presents some obvious challenges and drawbacks when compared to shopping for physical items instore. How can consumers know if an item of clothing will fit them or suit them if they can only view it on a model on a screen? As with so many aspects of online life, the reality can be different to what is expected.

For this reason, clothing companies have invested heavily in perfecting the online shopping experience, with generous returns policies and 360-degree images intended to convert clicks into purchases. But how consumers behave online is as fickle as fashion itself. Fashion brands must understand not only where consumers go online but also where they get their inspiration from.

Fast fashion

There has been much discussion about the impact of ‘fast fashion’; an increasing trend of consumers buying cheap clothes on a regular basis. With the landscape changing so rapidly and outlets catering to every sense of style, it’s hardly surprising that people are buying more and more than they have before.

And more than this, a simple click is all it takes to put a pair of trousers or a new dress into your virtual shopping basket. When a purchase is as immediate as this it is natural that people are spending time shopping for clothes online in tandem with actually going instore.

Recent research from Toluna suggests that more and more people buy fashion items every week. While the numbers remain relatively low, 7% in 2017 versus 5.7% last year, it points to a growing trend and one which can help online fashion retailers of all sizes.

Last year saw the highest percentage of respondents say that they bought fashion items several times a year (just under 32%) in contrast to the most popular choice of 2017 — every 2-3 months being true for almost 30% of respondents. 

This research suggests that the UK public is increasingly going online to make their sartorial spending sprees. A purchase every two to three months means that clothing; shoe and accessory brands have regular opportunities to attract new customers online or to convert instore shoppers to select their items online.

Money matters, but quality control is a must

One consistent concern for consumers is price. As with buying clothes in person, “getting a good price” was the most popular response from respondents in both 2016 and 2017 when asked what they considered most important when shopping for clothing online. 

Whilst this may not be surprising, the quality of the product is apparently becoming more important to consumers, with 19% of respondents favouring this option in 2016 compared to over 22% in 2017. Free delivery and an easy return policy were also popular answers from respondents; but price is king.

Whilst this may seem an intuitive answer it offers insight into the typical shopper’s egalitarian attitude towards outlets. So, consumers don’t look online for specific things, such as high-ticket items. Instead, the online marketplace has simply become an extension of the physical one where consumers go as part of their ‘shopping around’ comparative experience.

Social media style

Where consumers get their fashion inspiration is also changing. While in-store remains the prime place for the public to get ideas for their wardrobe there is some suggestion that the physical trip is more for mulling over outfits than actually buying them.

One thing is clear though; print is losing its popularity, with newspapers and magazines slipping in their inspiration influence in favour of social media and YouTube. In 2016, all social media channels accounted for the ideas hotspots for 36.7% of respondents, whereas 2017 saw this increase to 38.8%.

This change suggests the power of online influence and that brands have potential for genuine growth if they move online when trying to reach their audience. This can already be seen in the money being poured into hiring social media influencers to promote and publicise fashion brands to consumers who wish to emulate their personal style.

Customers do take inspiration from multiple sources so it’s key for brands to think about in-store and online retail with a multichannel approach. The breadth and range of social media also means that there are plenty of options for fashion retailers; it’s just a case of finding the right channel and the right spokespeople to reach the right audiences.

Online retail — a trend that’s here to stay

Ultimately online retail is fashion’s darling — and this doesn’t look as though it will change any time soon. The online space has allowed new and innovative brands to bring consumers new styles and products, whilst also allowing established retailers to reach a wider audience.

That’s not to say that the death of the high-street is an inevitability; rather that the instore experience will need to change and respond to the unique issues it can address. Developments such as virtual reality stores and interactive displays may help draw shoppers back to physical shops but won’t be rolled out on a wide scale for some years.

There is a place for buying clothes in-store, but Toluna’s research suggests that buying online will continue to drive profit for business. Consumers will increasingly look online to decide what they should be buying and where, as influencers and social media plays a more significant role in how the public learns about fashion. The sweet spot for retailers will be in creating those seamless customer journeys that complement — rather than compete — between in-store and online retail.

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