Will Boutiques.com Change Online Apparel Shopping?

By  Liz Parks — February 02, 2011

Last November, Google launched Boutiques.com, which its corporate officials call an online “personalized shopping experience” that lets shoppers look across a variety of participating e-tailers to discover fashion goods. They can do that, as Manjul Shah, a director of product management at Google, puts it, “by creating their own curated boutique.”

Google’s Boutiques.com, which has similarities to comparison-shopping web sites such as Shopping.com, is unique, says Sucharita Mulpuru, vice president and principal analyst, eBusiness Retail, at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, because it uses computer vision and machine learning to visually analyze a shopper’s taste and match it to items she may like. Sites such as Shopping.com, she notes, “don’t have advanced search functionality like Boutiques.com.” Boutiques.com is built on technology developed by Like.com, which Google acquired in August 2010.

Charles Eden, co-founder of Eden & Eden, a fashion boutique based in San Francisco and a Boutiques.com participant, says Google representatives describe the concept for Boutiques.com as similar in nature to the online radio station Pandora. “You go online and listen to certain musical artists and if you like them, Pandora recommends other artists that you might like as well. Only here the concept is applied to clothing brands and clothing styles,” explains Eden.

As an innovative new visual search tool, Boutiques.com has the potential to dramatically drive online sales of apparel — or to drive customers into stores to purchase items they like on Boutiques.com.

Over time online sales of apparel — currently at 11 percent of total internet sales, according to Forrester Research — could grow to as much as 50 percent of total sales, estimates Ed Foy Jr., co-founder and CEO of Secaucus, N.J.-based eFashionSolutions, which manages online operations for a variety of fashion lines.

From a shopper’s perspective, Boutiques.com can help fashion-savvy consumers find clothes and accessories that match their individual style preferences. On the retail side, the site potentially could increase any apparel web site’s reach by bringing multiple sites together under one virtual roof, a kind of online apparel bazaar where Neiman Marcus, Shopbop and Bergdorf Goodman wares are merchandised side by side with goods from small boutiques such as ModCloth, Loopy Mango and Eden & Eden.

Behind the scenes

The Boutiques.com home page features a tab that lists links to 31 small fashion boutiques. Many of those retailers such as Scoop NYC, ModCloth and Honey in the Rough have their actual wares displayed within Boutiques.com and then linked to their respective e-commerce sites. But if smaller retailers such as Loopy Mango and Eden & Eden haven’t provided a data feed to Google, then shoppers on Boutiques.com have to click directly on their web sites to see their merchandise.

Larger retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Forever 21 are not listed in the retail tab, but through data feeds that these retailers provide to Google, consumers are instantly transported to their web sites whenever they click on an item sold online by these retailers. This means that unlike mass retailers such as Amazon.com, Boutiques.com does not stock or ship inventory. 

A source for Google says that those retailers who don’t have their actual merchandise “on the site and in our search engine, soon will.” Google can assist retailers with setting up a data feed, according to the source.    

For now, says the Google source, many of the retailers on the site are participating for free. But, she says, “the fee structure for Boutiques.com is based on both a CPA and CPC model, depending on what is most appropriate for our partners.” Cost-per-action or CPA advertising, also known as pay for performance, is an effective way for advertisers to select how they want to pay for their advertising — by click, impression, sale or other variable.

Pay-for-click advertising is a popular approach, but it can be costly and thus often isn’t a viable option for many businesses. Mulpuru describes the data feed link /search engine model as “a traditional accommodation of comparison shopping and an affiliate model. Some retailers are okay with paying by click while others want to pay based on whether someone actually completed a transaction.”

Retailers weigh in

Ginger Reeder, vice president of corporate communications for the Neiman Marcus Group, says that while the company hasn’t yet analyzed the results, “at the very least participating in Boutiques.com is one more piece of our marketing plan.” 

While the small boutiques agree the site has significant promise — including the possibility of broadening their market reach geographically — Boutiques.com still has a way to go to live up to its potential.

One challenge is that some retailers’ sites are not yet fully integrated into the Boutiques.com search engine. Anna Pulvermakher, co-founder of New York City’s Loopy Mango, a lifestyle and accessories boutique that generates about 99 percent of its sales from its SoHo brick-and-mortar store, says Google contacted her before the November launch and invited the shop to participate at no charge.

“Basically, they are trying to bring merchandise from all types of different boutiques and big department stores to one place to make the shopping experience easier for the customer, the end user,” Pulvermakher explains. “There are so many small boutiques and it is so hard for all of us to get exposure. Hopefully, in the future, we can have our products show up alongside the big guys,” she says. 

Pulvermakher says she believes the biggest benefit will come when Boutiques.com can take “the information and images from our web site and feed them into their search engine so if someone is looking for merchandise similar to what we carry, our merchandise will show up in the search results.”

An algorithm for taste?           

Another issue still to be determined is whether a software program can authentically match a shopper’s unique style preferences. 

“Can taste be captured by an algorithm because that’s very individual?” asks Pulvermakher. “It’s not mass market. I’m not sure whether someone can feed taste into a computer and get amazing search results. It will be interesting to see what happens a year from now.”

Eden shares Pulvermakher’s assessment. “Just because someone likes a certain celebrity or likes leopard prints doesn’t mean they are going to like other things with leopard print on it or things the celebrity likes,” he says. “It’s about execution, about the piece, not about a particular fabric or a particular celebrity’s sense of style.”

But, he added, “It’s an interesting way to string things together. I think the tactile experience is pretty important when it comes to style.” 

The Google source stresses that the idea is not “to determine taste with some simple algorithm or style quiz” that is on the site. “We are doing a number of things to try to improve the shopping experience for Internet shoppers by creating a site that relies not only on cool technology but engaged users who create good, curated content,” she says.  

Results remain to be seen

Alicia Barnes, public relations manager for Pittsburgh, Pa.-based ModCloth, says that while it’s still too early to see any meaningful statistics, management is hoping to have “more visibility into that in the future. We’re enjoying watching Boutiques.com evolve and are excited about the visitors that have been driven to the site so far.” 

For the moment, Google isn’t taking advantage of any of the traffic generated from its search engine, according to Barnes. “They haven’t integrated their search results into their search pages. Absent that, I think Google is going to have a challenge getting traffic to the site and getting people to use it over and over again,” she says. “It would be great if you were searching for a black shirt, to be able to show images from Boutiques.com that were of a particular style of black shirts and let people look for other black shirts like that.”

Eden adds that he is “happy to give Boutiques a whirl because there is no liability.” As a smaller boutique that currently doesn’t pay a fee, he plans to invest some time in Boutiques.com and see what pans out. Plus, he points out, Boutiques.com may need to keep smaller shops like his around for the long term “because the boutique retailers add cachet to their web site.”

It remains to be seen whether Google will be able to make significant money from this venture. Will small- to medium-size retailers, in particular, be willing to pay to participate? Eden says that if Google ultimately decides to charge for participation in Boutiques.com, he would probably decline, as his business doesn’t have a marketing budget.

Loopy Mango and Eden & Eden are getting hits on their web site from visitors to Boutiques.com, but as both Pulvermakher and Eden say, this additional traffic is not yet dramatically impacting the growth of their online sales. “I can see a direct correlation between sales increases from promotional vehicles like Lucky magazine, but I haven’t seen such a correlation yet from Boutiques.com,” says Eden.

Pushing the envelope

Mulpuru wonders if Google launched Boutiques.com not to generate a ton of traffic or revenue but to “push the envelope on what makes a good experience and help shape other fashion retailers on how they craft their web experience.” Perhaps the goal was to try to create an online user experience that consumers like and expect with fashion, she says.

The site also has the potential for hooking visitors, making their online fashion shopping experience addictive so they keep coming back for more. “But the imagery, which is associated with luxury, needs to be top notch and that becomes an issue because you have to eliminate the junk images,” Mulpuru says. “So far, they have managed to do that.”

Liz Parks is a Union City, N.J.-based freelance writer specializing in stories about retail and technology. 

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