Apparel, like any category, has unique challenges and opportunities. It’s still recovering from a slow 2020 when the category grew 26.4% compared to 42.6% for the Top 1000.
So what are online shoppers thinking about apparel buying online and across channels? Digital Commerce 360 in conjunction with Bizrate Insights surveyed 1,003 online shoppers in June 2023 to see where online shoppers stand.
Seven in 10 online shoppers are buying at least the same or more apparel online
One can’t help but conclude that with one in three online shoppers spending less on apparel in stores year over year that digital is the beneficiary and may be for some time to come.
Shoppers frequent store favorites
Retailers must understand that customer retention has important implications for purchasing apparel, with half of shoppers asserting they have their favorite stores and frequent them. Companies will need to be aggressive to become part of any apparel shopper’s routine, but the good news is that it will be worth the effort.
An understanding of fit and sizing also supports such a notion as 38% will go to retailers where purchases have been made in the past when looking for specific products.
Shoppers acknowledge that they like to get something new (31%) and update their wardrobes seasonally (30%). The web provides an opportunity for 20% to browse trends online and for 19% to look for new brands. When it comes to specifics, 18% shop mostly for special occasions and make purchases for social activities. Just 11% say their purchases are work-related, and work-from-home models may be a factor as wardrobe demands have changed.
Money still matters for 20% as they track retailer markdown strategies and only buy on sale.
I’m surprised to see that a lack of sales associates in stores pushes only 10% of those surveyed to buy online, as it is certainly challenging to hire in today’s employment climate. Additionally, it’s interesting that a lack of in-store inventory drives online buying more by 25%. Just 14% prefer to take advantage of store pickup options. There are many dynamics to monitor as shopper sentiments often shift over time.
Online shoppers use a multitude of features when shopping for apparel/accessories online focusing on targeted information that aids selection
Shoppers like to zero in on products, and it’s efficient to use search filters such as sizing, color or type, as 56% noted. It’s also significant that 46% appreciate the ability to compare products. Fit tools are also valuable, as sizing can be one of the biggest challenges when buying apparel. The fact that 13% find the ability to customize products also important may be a response to that as well.
First and foremost, 66% call out ratings and reviews as being most important. In the same vein, 34% enjoy seeing photos from other shoppers. Zoom is also a standard among apparel shoppers at 54%.
Online shoppers are accustomed to knowing products will be delivered. Additionally, a majority cited accurate delivery windows as high on the list of important website features.
Merchandising was more limited in its value but still had a role to play with new products (34%), product recommendations (29%), top sellers (25%) and trending products (19%) delivering the following importance results. Content was least significant and saw the following lower penetrations with videos (13%), how-to guides (12%), and livestreaming (6%) lower on the importance scale.
Apparel and accessory shoppers visit stores to see and try on products, save money and get products quickly
While the physical store is seeing sales decline, it still has a role to play for 63% of participants who enjoy trying on products while 59% appreciate seeing the merchandise in person. For 56%, it’s a timing issue when they need items quickly. Store shoppers are also likely to return products to the store (31%) as they prefer seeing a quick credit to their accounts.
Some shoppers want to have guaranteed inventory availability while the same number prefer to pick up in store (19%).
Money-savings always comes up strong. 45% cited their interest around in-store sales or promotions. Along the same lines, 43% don’t want to pay for shipping.
It’s nice to see that 28% of online shoppers want to support local/small businesses. There also appears to be a trust issue as 28% feel more confident about store purchases.
Online shoppers buy from a variety of retailers with Amazon attracting the most apparel, accessory and shoe shoppers
The ecosystem of players in this category is complex. Like many categories, Amazon manages to find itself dominating. 74% of our survey participants shopped for apparel on it.
Amazon is No. 1 in the Top 1000. The database is Digital Commerce 360’s ranking of the largest North American online retailers. Amazon is also No. 3 in the Online Marketplaces database, which ranks the 100 largest global marketplaces.
Department stores play a strong role in this category as well at 47%. Brands are also an integral online destination for 37%, along with specialty retailers at 36%. Mass merchants Walmart (at 46%) and Target (32%) are also entrenched sellers.
Marketplaces are also significant; 30% providing selling opportunities for large and small sellers alike. Price-sensitive sellers like warehouse clubs and off-price retailers are neck and neck at 23%. Resellers only saw 20% penetration, though gains are likely to come in the next couple years.
To bring Amazon’s impact further into focus, four in 10 apparel buyers purchased 26% or more of their online apparel purchases in the past year on Amazon. It certainly feels like this dominance just might continue into the foreseeable future.
Each year, we gauge how aggressive shoppers are in adopting online apparel services. In all honesty, I’m surprised at the low penetration of some of these other services given their longevity in the market.
One in four ordered apparel from a company outside of the U.S. Beyond that, 18% say they have purchased custom products online that were designed to their specifications, while 17% have purchased a used/previously owned product from an online consignment seller. Sustainability is seeing inroads, as 15% have purchased apparel from an online retailer based on their sustainability stance.
Two in three apparel buyers find the overall look and feel most important to their online buying
Tastes in online branding have evolved, especially in the past few years. This is powerful. 36% enjoy seeing a presentation of diverse models that mirror the population. The brand’s story and history has always had a role to play, and 34% of respondents find it important. It’s positive to see that in a category like apparel, 25% find a brand’s sustainability practices important. Beyond that, it’s charitable giving (17%), social and political views (17%), and diversity stance (16%). Fair trade views are of lesser importance.
Seven in 10 online shoppers care about sustainability, though their buying strategies vary
Looking further into sustainability, just 21% say they seek sustainably minded retailers, with 9% already buying and only 12% willing to pay extra. Half of the respondents care about sustainability, but they simply are not willing to pay the price. Of those, 17% won’t pay more and 33% do not seek it. The 29% who have no interest in sustainability may be hardest to move into a more positive camp. Hopefully, these shifts will begin to take place in the near term.
Four in 10 online shoppers avoid retailer customer service departments
Email and in-store interactions topped the list of those touchpoints most likely to drive conversion at 22%, with a phone call to customer service (at 19%) and live chat with a human being close behind (at 17%). Interesting to note that people were a factor, so I will be watching to see if more recent tactics like social media and bots become conversion drivers in greater numbers as one might expect.
Social media is not part of the shopping process for three in 10 online shoppers. It does, however, prompt advertising clicks, get shoppers inspired and allows them to learn from others and follow products.
40% of online shoppers purchase apparel and accessories on social media platforms. This, too, suggests that time will be required for revenue growth via social media platforms.
Getting on the customer’s “favorite” list
Online apparel and accessory buying is still poised for growth, though we shouldn’t count out physical stores just yet. These categories are served by a broad ecosystem of traditional retailers and brands, though Amazon once again manages to dominate. Branding along with the features and tools retailers make available are powering positive shopping experiences, though finding the right size remains an issue. There are certainly stories still to be written from sustainability to social media. Positive customer service is always in fashion and will serve all retailers — apparel/accessories and otherwise — well.
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