Cotton Incorporated

What’s Missing From Online Shopping

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Last year, US e-retail sales hit $263 billion, according to Forrester Research Inc., representing 8% of total retail sales. The company predicts that by 2018, e-retail will reach $414 billion. While it’s a staggering number, it will still only account for about 11% of total retail sales. So why is online shopping still such a small piece of the retail pie? According to research from Cotton Incorporated, there’s room for improvement online.

Browse Before Buying

Though the majority of purchases still occur in-store, online is quickly becoming the first stop for consumers looking to shop for apparel. According to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey, 84% of consumers say they browse for clothing online using a computer or laptop, while 45% say they use a smart phone, 39% use a tablet, and 18% use a smart television.

“We’ve seen strong growth in the percentage of consumers who browse for clothing online using smartphones, tablets, and smart televisions, and we anticipate those numbers will continue to grow as they reflect the behavior of younger consumers who were raised with the technology and are increasingly comfortable with it,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy & Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated.

Indeed, according to Forrester Research Inc., 69% of US adults who regularly purchase items online end up buying about 16% of their products through e-channels, and both numbers are expected to grow as so-called “digital natives,” or those consumers born in the early 2000s after the advent of digital technologies, continue to increase their spending power.

Most consumers today, it seems, are driven by necessity; 55% of consumers say they typically start shopping for clothing online through retailer or brand websites, compared to 29% who start on e-commerce only sites, 25% who use search engines, and 24% who use emails from brands or retailers, according to the Monitor survey. And many begin their search at the world’s largest online retailer; 44% shop for clothing online through Amazon, while another 44% turn to chain stores and 42% say they turn to mass merchant sites.

“Apparel shopping, especially online, may often be focused on a specific need: consumers have the time to browse on their computers or smart phones for a specific garment or clothing from a specific retailer,” says Kitchings. “So it’s imperative that online retailers streamline their processes to be informative, accessible, and easy to use so consumers can find exactly what they are looking for, wherever and however they may be shopping.”

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Smart Screens

Among those who do complete purchases online, 73% say they use a traditional computer or laptop – yet 27% have purchased apparel using a smart phone, 26% have used a tablet, and 13% have used a smart television, according to Monitor data, which means easy functionality across smart devices remains key.

Surprisingly, The Search Agency recently conducted a test of the top 100 e-tailers, and found that only 9 used Google’s officially recommended Responsive Web Design (RWD), while 59 used dedicated mobile sites, and 32 relied only on desktop sites.

“For today’s tech-savvy consumer, it’s no longer acceptable for online retailers to have outdated websites that don’t adapt to a smart phone or a tablet,” says Kitchings. “That could potentially make or break an online sale.”

Virtual Un-Experience

Beyond functionality, though, online shopping still lacks some other features important to consumers, which may be why they continue to flock to stores to purchase apparel. AT Kearney’s recently released Omnichannel Shopping Preferences Study, which surveyed 2,500 US consumers on shopping preferences and behaviors, echoes this.

The report found that while online shopping plays a prominent role in retail, physical stores are paramount; 90% of all retail sales occur in stores, while 95% of retail sales occur in retailers with a brick-and-mortar presence. And two thirds of consumers who shop online, AT Kearney found, use the store either before or after the transaction.

According to the report, “Stores provide consumers with a sensory experience that allows them to touch and feel products, immerse in brand experiences, and engage with sales associates who provide tips and reaffirm shopper enthusiasm for their new purchases.”

Indeed, the sensory experience appears to be top of mind for consumers. Cotton Incorporated has conducted research on online shopping habits since 2010, and has found that consumers are still concerned with issues like clothing quality, the inability to touch or try on the garment, and not knowing fiber content.

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Add-On Concerns

Monitor data reveal that while shipping costs remain a concern for 79% of consumers, other issues like clothing quality (79%), return policy (77%), not being able to try on the clothing (72%), and not being able to touch the clothing (64%) are also important.

“Online retailers have done a great job making the purchasing process as simple as possible,” says Kitchings. “But what’s often missing in the online experience is the same ease-of-use in communicating the apparel fiber content and care information that consumers can get in-store, and that’s something we find shoppers really do care about.”

According to Monitor data, 50% of consumers are concerned about not knowing the fiber content information of clothing when shopping online. And 52% of consumers say fiber content information would be influential to their online purchase decisions, mainly because consumers say fiber information tells them about how the garment will feel, how to care for the garment, and help them make a good purchase decision overall.

“Of course one of the challenges in online shopping is the inability to touch and feel the garment,” says Kitchings. “But when retailers make the effort to clearly communicate, for example, that the garment is 100% cotton, consumers know they are getting a durable, long-lasting product they know exactly how to care for, and for an online shopper that can mean the difference between browsing and purchasing.”

A lack of that information may be why online shoppers turn to product reviews. According to Monitor data, 78% of consumers find product reviews to be believable, and 68% of consumers say they are very or somewhat influential to their clothing purchases when shopping online. Most (68%) read them directly on the brand or retailer website.

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While Kitchings applauds the effort retailers have made in incorporating product reviews into their online offerings, she notes that the high percentage of consumers who find product reviews influential may indicate a larger trend in online shopping that’s ready for fine-tuning.

“When online shoppers are turning to product reviews to search for more information about the apparel item they’re browsing, that may be a sign for retailers that they need to modify the information they’re providing in the item’s description,” Kitchings says. “For some consumers, it just may not be enough.”

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