If you’re a frequent online shopper, you’ll relate to this scenario: You’re this close (I’m talking THIS CLOSE) to buying that cheap, on-trend shirt, or that cute, but impractical pair of shoes, only to falter at the last minute, succumbing to your fear that it just won’t fit or look right, and quickly exiting out of the webpage. It’s ok– we’ve all been there. What’s important, however, is that our most beloved fashion brands and retailers KNOW that we’ve been there; and, they also know why we do this.
This phenomenon, called “shopping cart abandonment,” has been attributed to what is recognized in the fashion industry as “the major and undeniable disadvantage in online apparel shopping:” namely that we, the customers, cannot physically try on and interact with the clothing before making a purchase (Colombi, et al., 392). After all, it’s hard to justify purchasing a piece of clothing that we haven’t seen or felt it, yet alone tried it on!
If you were to ask any fashion retail company to describe their ultimate goal in terms of online shopping they would say something like this: that each time we visit their websites, we confidently proceed to checkout with shopping carts ‘filled’ to the brim. So, how exactly do these fashion companies seal the deal with their customers, so to speak, while being up against the many shortcomings of shopping online?
Well, armed with the knowledge that clothing is a “high-involvement product category” that is closely linked to personal ego and feelings of fantasy and pleasure, fashion companies have rapidly incorporated interactive digital technologies, such as augmented reality and 3D virtual models, into their online shopping platforms (Blázquez, 98). Such advancements are designed to reduce the risk associated with shopping online and cultivate a pleasant shopping experience, urging online customers to take the ultimate plunge and hit ‘purchase’ (Blázquez, 97; Colombi, et al., 391). Moving forward, I will consider the importance of the shopping experience in fashion retail and explore the innovative technologies and techniques companies are implementing to connect with their customers and create a dynamic, interactive online atmosphere.
To understand just how crucial the ‘experience’ is in fashion retail, I would first like to briefly examine what goes into cultivating the perfect in-store experience. Doing so will establish a useful benchmark for comparison and also allow us to determine if online technologies are effectively bridging the gap between in-store and online retail channels.
You may not have ever stopped to consider this, but every store you have walked into and perused has a carefully curated aesthetic that sends you design, ambient, and social cues. Design cues are the exquisitely outfitted mannequins arranged into inviting window displays, or the alluring, envy-inducing ad campaigns that are plastered on the store’s walls. Social cues are the friendly employees who cheerfully ask “Can I help you with anything?,” and the other customers who wander the store and flick through the racks. Ambient cues are the catchy songs that ring overheard, the bright lights that draw you towards the clothing, and the seamless layout of the store. Together these cues comprise the atmospherics, or “conscious designing of a space,” which influence the behavior of you, the buyer. (Blázquez, 98). Fashion retail companies pour endless amounts of time and money into developing these atmospherics because they want to imbue their stores with a hedonic shopping value, which is “the value received from the multi-sensory, fantasy, and emotive aspects of the shopping experience” (Blázquez, 101). Driven by fantasy and pleasure, the hedonic shopping value is the ‘holy grail’ of both the in-store and online shopping experience; it is what prompts us to justify dropping more money than we would care to admit on that pair of jeans because they are just. so. cool. and we just HAVE to have them.
While the hedonic shopping value is more easily achieved in brick-and-mortar stores, this has not stopped fashion retailers from attempting to prompt pleasure-driven shopping online. How do they do this, you ask? Well, in addition to introducing visual merchandizing cues, such as color palettes that convey the brand’s aesthetic, and atmospheric features like intro videos that showcase their apparel, fashion retailers are integrating digital interactive technologies into e-shopping that recreate the in-store multi-sensory atmosphere and allow for customer interactivity (Colombi, et al., 392).
So lets dive in! On the most basic end of the digital technology spectrum is image enlargement, which is what we would call a low-level image interactivity technology (Lee, et al., 141). Image interactivity technologies (IITs) allow for “the creation and manipulation of product or environment images to simulate actual experience with the product or environment” (Lee, et al., 141). Image enlargement, often overlooked because it is relatively straightforward and has been incorporated into so many e-shopping platforms, allows us to zoom right in on that garment we just cannot stop eyeballing. Although this handy technology in no way solves the “try-on” problem, it helps to ensure that we are perfectly at ease with our online purchases because we are able to gather more information about the garment’s texture and fabric. Having this knowledge can make or break whether or not we proceed to checkout with full shopping carts; this sweet, yet simple feature lessens the likelihood that we will be dissatisfied when our items arrives and can help us avoid having to deal with aggravating online returns. While this low level IIT is helpful, it can, at times, be frustrating to use because we are limited to zooming in on the product pictures that the fashion website provides (Lee, et al., 141).
A step up from image enlargement is another IIT called 3D product visualization, which allows us to look at an article of clothing from every angle and perspective imaginable. With 3D product visualization, we are not limited to the still images that the fashion retailer posts (and lets face it, likely edits), but are rather able to REALLY look at the clothing we are considering. This tool is not only proven to improve our attitude towards the brands that offer this feature, but is also known by companies to influence our purchase intentions towards saying yes to whatever we have set our sights on (Merle, et al., 43). Consider this your warning: if you utilize a 3D product visualization tool, you are more that much more likely to go through with your purchase! USER BEWARE!
Moving right along the digital, interactive technology spectrum. Next is mix-and-match image interactivity, which is also a type of IIT. As a big fan of the 1995 coming-of-age film Clueless, I was especially excited to learn about this digital technology. Much like the computer program Cher uses in the opening scenes of Clueless, mix-and-match IIT allows users to create and coordinate outfits right on their screen. We can consider complementary articles of clothing , such as a shirt, pants, and shoes, on the website we are browsing until we have created the ‘perfect’ outfit online (Merle, et al., 43). What more could we want! Again, CAUTION: Mix-and-match technology has been proven to positively influence our purchase intentions, revisit intentions, the amount of time we spend on the website, and our attitude towards the online shopping platform (Merle, et al., 43).
One of the largest fashion retailers to have adapted this technology so far is Nordstrom. According to this press release posted to Nordstrom’s website, the forward-thinking department store acquired a mix-and-match image interactivity program in order to “replicate the experience of working with a stylist in a store for those who shop online.” This mix-and-match technology, which is available on every product page, considers the product you are currently viewing and provides suggestions from Nordstrom’s trendsetting stylists to help you curate your outfit. The antidote to never knowing quite how to style your most coveted clothing items online, Nordstrom’s mix-and-match technology utilizes your search history, purchase records, and interactions with stylists to coordinate entire outfits for all of life’s different occasions. Next time you need some convincing that the shirt you can’t stop eyeing will, in fact, match with pants and shoes, visit Nordstrom’s customized “Your Looks” feature to help you seal the deal! Thank you Nordstrom for gifting us all, your online shoppers, with personal stylists.
The highest level IIT to date is Virtual Try-On (VTO), a program that allows us to “try-on” clothing without ever having to lift a finger! All you have to do is select the “model” that most closely resembles you, based on gender, race, body proportion and height, and, “voila!,” you can try on every article of clothing and outfit combination your heart desires (Merle, et al., 43). Some 3D try-on programs even allow us to manipulate the body shape, skin and hair color of our models, which leads to more personalization (Lee, et al., 145). Studies of VTO programs have concluded that VTO leads to higher confidence in apparel fit, but only when online customers perceive their models as “the real me” (Merle, et al., 46). VTO technology works best to dispel our pre-purchase concerns about fit when we feel that our model truly looks like us; the more closely we resemble our avatar, the more likely we are to feel pleasure and fantasy (the hedonic value) when shopping! We should keep this in mind as Virtual Try-On is incorporated into more and more online shopping platforms!
Various fashion retailers have incorporated image enlargement, 3D product visualization, mix-and-match interactivity, and Virtual Try-On into their e-shopping platforms to enhance our experiences. While I, personally, find these technological advances to be cutting-edge and would use them in a heartbeat, I would encourage companies to carefully consider their customer demographics before investing in IITs for online shopping. Studies suggest that the success of these new technologies is dependent on customer age and our willingness to experiment with appearance (Lee, et al., 140). That is to say that companies can incorporate IITs all they want; what ultimately matters is are WE, the masses of online shoppers, willing to experiment with these new technologies that our fashion retailers are offering? Are we bold shoppers who want to try out new styles and explore new looks? If you answered “yes” to these questions, what are you waiting for! Urge your favorite fashion brands to improve their online shopping experiences with IITs and continue to frequent online stores that offer these innovative technologies. If you answered “no” to these questions, maybe online shopping isn’t the right fit for you and you should stick to enjoying in-store experiences. Regardless of your purchasing preferences, I wish all of my readers, “happy shopping!”
Blázquez, Marta. “Fashion Shopping in Multichannel Retail: The Role of Technology in Enhancing the Customer Experience.” International Journal of Electronic Commerce, vol. 18, no. 4, 2014, pp. 97–116., doi:10.2753/jec1086-4415180404.
Colombi, Chiara, et al. “Fashion Retailing ‘Tech-Gagement’: Engagement Fueled by New Technology.” Research Journal of Textile and Apparel, vol. 22, no. 4, 2018, pp. 390–406., doi:10.1108/rjta-03-2018-0019.
Lee, Hyun-Hwa, et al. “Affective and Cognitive Online Shopping Experience.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, 2010, pp. 140–154., doi:10.1177/0887302×09341586.
Merle, Aurélie, et al. “Whether and How Virtual Try-On Influences Consumer Responses to an Apparel Web Site.” International Journal of Electronic Commerce, vol. 16, no. 3, 2012, pp. 41–64., doi:10.2753/jec1086-4415160302.