Soft Wear

considerationconversionApparel, as a product type, is a tricky beast to sell.  In 2010, American households spent on average $1700.00 on apparel and related products. Just during the two Fashion Week events per year, 20 million dollars is pumped into the NYC economy. The amount of money spent marketing fashion is staggering; Vogue’s September issue alone had 665 ad pages (at over $150,000 for a full page ad).

Fashion sites can be an interaction designer’s ultimate playground or worst nightmare; often, it’s both. Designing apparel experiences for a retailer whose portfolio also includes lawn mowers, tires, and electronics poses its own special challenges. Selling soft lines (clothing, shoes, and jewelry) within the ecosystem of a full-breadth retailer is difficult and frustrating, but ultimately rewarding.

Here’s the kind of genius observation that made me what I am today: Selling a dress is different than selling a screwdriver. Before you take that that gem of wisdom and quit business school to start a pop up shop, let me dive a little deeper. At the turn of the last century, E. St. Elmo Lewis (yes, St. Elmo Lewis was his surname…that’s how you know it was olden times) designed a consumer behavior model that was called AIDA:

Awareness – Hey look at that thing.

Interest – That thing is pretty cool.

Desire – I want that thing!

Action – I’ll take it.

There are many variations of this original model, but most web retailers refer to their version as the Funnel. From the homepage to the purchase verification email, optimizing this Funnel is the end-all/be-all because it directly affects your bottom line.

Most retail web presences concentrate on conversion, which is “Action” in the version of the AIDA model above, and rightly so. Reducing cart abandonment and getting customers to commit is the surest way to increase revenue.

Except in the case of apparel.

To effectively draw shoppers to a web fashion experience, one needs to concentrate on the first three elements of AIDA – Awareness, Interest, and Desire, which we collectively call consideration. All apparel retailers have appropriated some universal tropes: giant splash images, minimal text, shopping by gender, outfits, identical taxonomies, etc. Instead of implying cookie-cutter sameness, these commonalities tend to create a visual and experiential language baseline when shopping for clothes. Online apparel merchandising has matured to the point of standardization.

But increasing consideration for apparel while maintaining both aesthetic and structural compatibility with other product types is an exercise in breakpoints: Should there be a design firewall between a Kardashian Kollection dress page and a Craftsman garage door opener page, or can we find a structure that can accommodate both? At what point does Sears branding give way to the clothing brand itself? Where do concepts like “shopping by gender” fit in a taxonomy that includes power tools and swimming pools? These are all balance and calibration questions that we wrestle with every day, and it affects decisions all the way down to the web page itself. For example, the dimensions of apparel images are taller and skinnier than those of other products because we shoot apparel images on-model. This subtly increases consideration and trust since it overtly shows that we do consider the experience of the clothing shopper specifically.

Less subtle, but vital for consideration, is the voice. Voice, as it pertains to retail, is the outward projection of your brand. There are many factors that tie into voice, but the main three are fit and finish, design, and content. In the case of fashion on Sears.com, we have taken the hub/aggregate approach to content. SearsStyle is our fashion brand, fashion content center, and voice all in one. It has a strong, singular voice, and the content is syndicated in various ways to other parts of Sears.com and its social media channels. It definitely diverges from the Sears aesthetic, but in this case, it maintains design and structural compatibility while creating a clear separation for the fashion shopper. We earn trust by being authentic to Sears and its shoppers. You will not find inappropriate attitude, hubris, or forced controversy on SearsStyle. We know our audience, and we serve them while comfortably staying under the Sears umbrella.

sS_20140303_tiscoop_EdLetterPreppy_heroAs large retailers consolidate their portfolios, integrating wildly divergent product types under one online storefront while maintaining a compelling presence for each audience will be a major challenge for them. We’ve been working at it for years, and it’s a constantly evolving process. I, for one, find it fascinating.

What universal tropes and compromises do you see at the sites of full-line retailers that you like?

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One Response to “Soft Wear”

  1. Karol Czyrka →
    February 25, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I really struggle with the concept of SearsStyle. I get the need to cater differently to someone seeking fashion vs. someone seeking a lawn mower, but I am not a huge fan of such a strong sub-brand. It has it’s own logo and color palette, and doesn’t seem as connected to the Sears brand. Why not find a way to market the soft lines at Sears without having to create a new concept like SearsStyle?