Review of Online Clothing Retail

I was recently asked by Asos.com (the leading online UK fashion retailer) to review their e-commerce site and suggest how it could be better.

My intitial impression was that Asos.com *really* know what they're doing and that improvements were going to be incremental and somewhat hard to find.

After a few minutes of browsing it was clear that whilst Asos have put thought and talent into creating a great site with innovative features there is still massive room for improvement. The same being true of *almost every* website.

Fashion is a difficult product to sell online. Clothing is highly personal and customers all have different tastes in colour, fabric, quality, design and of course fit.

Taking jeans as an example, I'm very choosy: I prefer a specific colour, fairly loose fit, zip fly, "high quality" denim and no "weird frills" such as buttons on the pockets. I also don't want to pay much more than £30 per pair.

I don't think I'm asking a lot but finding the right pair of jeans on or off-line is  a headache. Any company that can get this right for me probably has my business for life.

Despite Asos.com having 319 different styles of jeans I still couldn't find a pair that I liked in my price range. This lead me to wonder what the competition were up to and what constitutes "state of the art" in online clothing retail.

The contenders

To get my shortlist of sites I googled "online clothing sales UK". I picked the top 3 pay-per-click advertisers and the top 5 organic search results. Far from exhaustive, but a good starting point.

This lead me to the following online retailers with a plan to test each site by trying to find a decent pair of jeans:

The results

I was surprised by just how far away these retailers are from getting me to part with my money. Asos.com were the clear leaders, although still no "ka-ching".

Some of the bigger names (notably Next and Boden) were terrible. They appeared to have given no thought as to the process that a customer goes through when selecting a pair of jeans. I hope their current offering is merely a "toe in the water" until they work out how to do this thing right ?

Physically travelling to shops is expensive and time consuming, but none of these guys are going to be getting my money and I'm not getting a new pair of jeans. A lose - lose situation :(

The leaders

asos.com (chances of me buying : 40%)

Asos have evidently thought about and made a decent stab at solving the difficult problem of online clothing sales. With features such as a flexible product search, good product information and a video catwalk for each product they are the clear leaders of the field.

There are still many refinements and innovations that could be applied to the site but their biggest problem in winning my business is too small a range (despite stocking 319 jeans styles). I'd guestimate that they need double or triple this number to randomly hit the combination of colour, fabric, cut and style that I'm looking for.

Multiply the approximate required number of styles by the number of different sizes offered (38) and you end up with 957 styles x 38 sizes which comes to 36366 potential product lines just for jeans. Realistically, that's just for starters - you can see why this is difficult !

reason for not buying: nothing i liked in my price range

laredoute.co.uk (chances of me buying 50%)

La Redoute don't have as big range of jeans at 183 styles but more of their products fall into my price range. The product search is basic and whilst it is effective, it is somewhat labour intensive. I want to be able to filter out jeans with button flies and "weird frills" - not to have to click on each pair and examine the details.

On my second look through their site whilst writing this article, I did manage to find a pair of jeans that I might buy. Not my favourite colour though and bit more than I want to pay. Will think about it :)

reason for not buying: not convinced about quality

direct.asda.com (chances of buying 20%)

Asda Direct has a tiny range of jeans styles but at between £6 to £18 they are incredibly cheap. Their search interface is clean, simple and unsophisticated but with only 13 different styles it's good enough for the job.

I liked some of their styles but I wasn't convinced about the quality. It's very difficult to get this across from a photograph. I think it's worth paying extra for quality jeans and I just couldn't be sure what I would be getting for my money.

reason for not buying: not convinced about quality

The also rans

debenhams.co.uk (chances of me buying 20%)

There's nothing terribly wrong with debenhams site but there's nothing terribly good about it either. Like *all* of the sites reviewed you have to look through each item indivually to determine zip / button fly but in debenhams case the information is inconsistently specified (sometimes in different places on the screen, some times not at all).

The product search is a superficially credible attempt but is nonetheless misses the mark. I just couldn't be bothered to manually go through each primary category and manually filter for button /zip fly - and then try to remember / shortlist suitable jeans.

I *don't care* about whether my jeans are boot cut, relaxed fixed or classic fit (what on earth do these terms mean anyway?) but I do care about zip flies (and yes, no "weird frills"). Why this isn't blindingly obvious to e-fashion retailers I have no idea ?

reason for not buying: to difficult to search

fashionworld.co.uk (chances of me buying 20%)

Fashionworld probably had the second best product search (after Asos) but predictably still no zip / button filter.

The product details are poorly presented and the zip / button information is not provided consistently. Overall the user interface for the site feels cluttered and confused.

With a small range of only 80 styles, I didn't find anything I liked, but then I couldn't be bothered trawling through each item to find my key buying features.

reason for not buying: not convinced about anything

The loosers

next.co.uk (chances of me buying 20%)

I pretty much buy all my clothes from Next's high street stores. Good quality and price and their styles are closest to what I like (fewer ripped jeans / t's and no stupid sounding brands like fatface or crimnal). It's a pain driving across town to my nearest Next and they only tend to have something I like about 1 in every 5 visits.

I had high hopes for the Next online store but was sadly very disappointed.

Their jeans search forces me to click through their entire range of about 45 styles 3 at a time and to check each product individually for the features I'm after (eg no button fly /weird frills etc). Sorry guys, I'm just not going to bother.

Not only that, but incredibly the Next home page automatically plays a video with loud elevator music when I arrive at the site. This was tacky and stupid back in 1998 but these days, jeez ! What are you guys thinking? Your web agency should be sacked either for incompetence or cowardice in the face of the customer!

reason for not buying: couldn't be bothered to trawl through items

boden.co.uk (chances of me buying 10%)

Boden have a range of 5 styles in 3 or 4 different colours each. The prices aren't great (£45) and they only seem to sell stock button fly jeans.

The product search isn't helpful at all, and you basically have to click through all the jeans (fortunately only 5 styles) to find what you want. The product information they provide for each pair is pretty comprehensive.

Boden also have quite a neat feature allowing you to order your jeans "unhemmed" so that you can get the length just right. They can also tailor the length for you at a cost of £6.

I managed to find some jeans that I like but the absence of a zip fly means no-deal !

reason for not buying: insufficient product range

peacocks.co.uk (chances of me buying 0%)

A nice clean site design but very few styles of jeans. No product search but then with only 6 styles they don't currently need one.

The prices were cheap but the jeans probably looked it. Almost no product information such "zip / button" was provided. Hey, they're only jeans right, who cares ? Wake up guys - your customers website visitors care !

reason for not buying: not enough product info. not convinced about quality.

The Conclusion

Sucessfully selling clothing online is difficult challenge who's time has come. The technology, bandwidth and economic conditions are there for someone to do this right and make trillions :)

Asos.com are the only team out of the those reviewed that seemed to have fully grasped the issues although they have a way to go before all the challenges are solved.

Asos.com are in pole position but far from unbeatable. Anybody with vision, deep pockets and a sufficiently large warehouse who feels like taking them on would be very welcome to get in touch and have a chat about what needs to be done !

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