Why Apparel E-tailers Embrace Brick and Mortar

By Gary Edwards, Empathica — July 17, 2012

Piperlime recently announced its intention to launch a physical store in New York, but news about the brand's planned expansion left many people shaking their heads. Why would a successful online clothing retailer like Piperlime suddenly want to enter the brick-and-mortar apparel scene?

Although Piperlime and other e-tailers have been successful in the digital space, there is a growing awareness that consumers still crave in-store experiences for certain types of products. Whether they like it or not, e-commerce sellers understand that up close and personal shopping experiences are particularly relevant for high-touch product categories such as apparel.

The brick-and-mortar advantage
Piperlime isn't the only online brand to venture into the offline world. Amazon, eBay, Google and other leading online brands are also testing the waters of brick-and-mortar as a way to close gaps between consumer preferences and the limits of the online shopping experience.

In the apparel industry, e-tailers' movement into the physical store space reflects some of the industry's unique characteristics and highlights the reasons why consumers continue to value in-store experiences.

Sales interaction. Apparel retailers shouldn't discount the value of human interaction in the customer experience. For years, brick-and-mortar retailers have been using actual human contact to counter the price advantages of online-only retailers. Now, online apparel retailers are using in-store sales associates to drive customer loyalty and to increase basket size by as much as 35 percent benefits that have previously eluded apparel sellers with online-only sales channels.

Product fit.
Apparel consumers want to touch and try on clothing before they commit to a purchase, even if they are predisposed to buying the item. Although online apparel outlets offer consumers access to a broad range of clothing styles, web and mobile channels don't allow shoppers to evaluate products based on fit. And even though the product looks great on the model in the online catalog, consumers have trouble envisioning how the product will look on their own unique bodies. By expanding into the physical store space, online apparel retailers create opportunities for consumers to interact with products and for in-store sales associates to reinforce and influence consumer purchase decisions.

Multichannel experiences. Consumers appreciate multichannel brand access when they shop for apparel. In growing numbers, consumers are demonstrating a tendency to use mobile technology during in-store shopping excursions. When online apparel retailers expand into the brick-and-mortar space, they are uniquely positioned to create a multichannel shopping experience. Robust apps and mobile web interfaces, as well as the latest technologies — such as QR codes and Google Glasses, etc. — provide in-store customers access to an enriched brand experience. The result is a best-of-both-worlds customer experience that blows the doors off anything that is available from either online-only or physical store-only retailers.

The decision to expand into the brick-and-mortar space often hinges on the type of product that a company sells. Online retailers with products that are low touch, standard (e.g. books) and/or familiar to consumers don't necessarily benefit from the addition of an in-store experience.

However, apparel and other similar products that require a level of customer intimacy are natural candidates for brick-and-mortar experiences. With apparel consumers demanding both online and offline shopping experiences, it's safe to assume that other online clothing retailers may soon realize there is really no substitute for live customer interaction and eventually follow Piperlime's lead.

Dr. Gary Edwards is chief customer officer at Empathica. He is responsible for oversight of sales, marketing, client strategy, marketing science and retail insights.

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