It’s often said that clothes and the internet simply don’t suit each other.
CDs, books and many other items are, it seems, made for online retailing. The customer knows what he or she is getting, shipping is relatively easy, and returns are small in comparison with overall sales.
With clothing, on the other hand, the retailer is at a disadvantage from the start.
One of the key elements in clothes shopping — touch and feel — simply doesn’t exist and there’s no prospect of technology being able to replicate the high street experience any time soon.
Retailers find themselves having to refund millions of pounds every year for items of clothing that were the wrong size or texture, or simply looked different from the image on the web site.
A few intrepid companies, however, are using existing technology to improve the clothes shopping experience. It’s not quite the same as being there in the shop, but it’s a vast improvement on what went before.
The men’s clothing site Charles Tyrwhitt ( www.ctshirts.co.uk ) was one of the first to feature much more detailed close-ups of the suits and shirts it sells.
Clicking on an image allows a prospective buyer to see the texture of the material, check out the type of buttons and stitching, and even to view the item from a different angle.
A more recent addition to the site is customer feedback. It works on the basis that if you know a suit has a 100% satisfaction rating from other buyers, you’re more likely to press the “buy” button yourself.
Click2touch ( www.click2 touch.com ) takes the Charles Tyrwhitt method a step further. This is not so much a clothing site as an application which the developers are hoping clothes sites will adopt.
By clicking on a series of fabrics, it allows you to see how each of them will respond to touch, giving a guide to creasing and other properties.
A site called myShape takes a different approach. At www.myshape.com , a woman can create a profile of her body measurements.
The site’s software then determines which clothes from its stock would be most flattering in terms of colour, style and cut, and recommends items accordingly.
Basically, it allows you to upload a head-and-shoulders photograph of yourself and then “try on” an entire range of sunglasses to see how they would look.
Again, it’s not quite the same as looking in the mirror at the local shop, but it’s certainly a step closer to the experience.
Bluefly ( www.bluefly.com ) has taken another step into the world of Web 2.0 by setting up its own television channel on its site, establishing a blog to create a community, and also creating its own channel on YouTube to use the power of social networking to pull in potential customers.
Net-a-Porter ( www.bluefly.com ) uses video, too, as well as publishing an online magazine.
Its main tactic for keeping up with the high street is to offer same day delivery in the London area, beautifully packaged clothes, and free returns. The customer doesn’t even have to leave the house, because returned goods are picked up at your door.
While there will always be customers who prefer to try before they buy, the online clothing industry has made a huge effort to narrow the gap between the web and the high street.
Visualisation tools, personalised services, interaction and liberal shipping and returns policies have made the shopping experience very different from what it was even just a couple of years ago.
Interestingly, although clothes might once have been a difficult sell on the web, they became America’s biggest online retail sales category some time ago, according to Forrester Research ( www.forrester.com ). Even so, if you’ll excuse the pun, there’s still plenty of room to grow.
And clothes retailers will be among the first to pick up on new developments in technology in their continuing efforts to bring customers as close as possible to their products, short of actually being able to touch them.