Press Submit

19th October 2012

Jennifer Lipman examines the changing face of fashion shopping

Once upon a time, shopping was about navigating crowded car-parks, trawling the rails and agonising in the changing room. Catalogues aside, we had no choice.
Not any more.

Thanks to technology, we are fast becoming a nation of online, on-the-go shoppers, urged by advertisers to log on for better discounts and wider choice. Our high streets might not be ghost towns just yet, but the industry view is that there is a risk of this in the future, as companies compete to roll out user-friendly websites and apps designed to make shopping as pleasant (and profitable) as can be.

Four years ago, only 8.6 per cent of retail sales were internet-based; by last year that figure had jumped to 12 per cent. From January until June this year, according to the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) British shoppers spent a whopping £34.9 billion online – £117 each in June alone. Given the economy, says IMRG’s Andrew McClelland, this shows “the value that consumers place in the strong retail proposition” of the online mall. And, according to the British Retail Consortium, shopping searches conducted on mobile or tablet devices have jumped 113 per cent year-on-year, with footwear and beauty benefiting the most.

With more women in the workplace than a generation ago, it’s easy to see why flexible shopping might appeal. Why pay for childcare to pop to the Harlequin, or lug heavy bags home on the bus, when you can browse all its shops – and the ones that aren’t there – from the comfort of your sofa, or late at night, or any place or time you like?

Technology means no more sunny afternoons ruined by queues; indeed, according to Peter Fitzgerald, retail director at Google, there was a spike in shopping searches on mobile devices over the Jubilee Bank Holiday, proof of “the trend of using mobile devices while watching TV” to find the perfect outfit.

“I prefer going online,” says Jessica, who works full-time in central London and rarely has the opportunity for browsing in person. She opts for sites like Whistles, Hobbs and online-only Asos. “You don’t have to deal with queues or public transport. And best of all, I can try things on in the comfort of my own, clean home, with other items that the top was bought to go with.”

For the body-shy, the computer is a haven, obliterating all the terror of exposing lumps and bumps in a changing room. There’s no more debating colours on the basis of the view in an unflattering mirror and lighting; no pumping ‘music’ to compete with. Gone is the embarrassment of asking for the next size up; gone is the the frustration of finding the perfect dress – but only in the wrong size. On the web, if it’s in the warehouse, it’s yours.

Retailers often use their websites for clearance, so the best bargains at season’s end can usually be found online, too. “I can quickly and easily compare prices and read reviews, and generally it is cheaper,” says Tessa, a teacher. She adds that with alerts for offers and with the prices laid out very clearly, she’s probably more price-aware “and less likely to make a spontaneous purchase”.

“I make more thorough comparisons between products,” she says. “So I'm less likely to buy things I might want to return.”

But there are downsides. Few things are more infuriating than a red ‘while you were out’ leaflet on your doorstep; if you’ve got to fit in a special trip to the post office, you might as well have shopped in person. And a bad purchase could actually end up costing you, because hefty postal fees won’t be reimbursed for returns.

“Delivery charges on small purchases, like one small piece of clothing, put me off buying things I could just go and get in the shop. And I’m put off by the hassle of having to send the stuff back if it doesn't fit,” says Tessa, who praises sites like Asos where customers are supplied with a prepaid return envelope that can be dropped at a network of newsagents.

“I usually only use sites with free returns,” says Jessica, “because obviously you can’t try anything on…”. If she’s already ordering, she sometimes includes items on a whim. “I have an 'oh well, if it doesn’t fit I can send it back' attitude,” she says. Likewise, when websites run Free Delivery promotions over a certain price, tactical shoppers will buy anything just to tip that £10 over the edge. It’s not necessarily bad news for retailers; for every ‘fishing trip’ order, many customers never get round to sending back unwanted items.

In fact, technology does seem designed to make us less responsible shoppers. It’s easy to give in to temptation when you’re greeted by regular emails flagging up the latest deals. It doesn’t feel like real money; what’s the harm in having a quick browse? Nothing – except the danger of spending a week’s wages without moving from your desk.

In store, the customer has the power to try on, to examine quality. Online, it’s easy to be fooled by clever photography. For Tessa, this is why she hasn’t totally given up on the high street. “An app where you entered your measurements and colouring and it 'dressed you' so you could get an idea of the fit might be useful,” she jokes.

It’s not so far-fetched. Within the app revolution, retail is a crowded field. There are loyalty card apps, for example, or those that consolidate bills, such as Shopitize, which ‘will turn your smartphone into your own personal shopping assistant’. From TopShop to Net-A-Porter, it’s now possible across the board to browse and buy from your smartphone. ‘Like having TopShop in your pocket,’ the company enthuses. It may require a dose of self-control, but the convenience cannot be denied.

In July of this year, Marks & Spencer launched its ‘Virtual Manicure’, which lets customers try nail varnish colours by uploading photographs of their hands. There’s also a ‘Virtual Makeover’ tool. The keen can share the results on social media; more importantly, they can purchase products instantaneously, all the while encouraged to keep browsing.

M&S’s Benjy Meyer says, “Our customers are becoming more savvy about using technology – whether it’s researching online before they buy or browsing for the right products in-store and online simultaneously.”

The hope, he adds, is to help shoppers “engage with the brand”. ‘Engaging’ – consumerism as an interactive experience – is the next step. Most brands are flagging up hot picks and outfit ideas on Twitter and Facebook already, or encouraging shoppers to build ‘wish lists’ on their apps. Chicismo, which recently secured a substantial £800,000 of angel investment, is a social media site for fashionistas to vote on new looks, and it’s far from being the only idea of its type.

But can these innovations compete with the social aspect of shopping – a friend picking the perfect top off the rails for you, offering feedback in the fitting room, or simply sharing coffee when you’ve had enough? For all the hassle of the high street, it’s no fun being inundated with emails about offers, or dealing with websites that crash or stall just as you’ve submitted your payment details.

Even online shopping enthusiast Jessica would never buy off an app. “It feels very insecure in terms of payment and private details. I am still a bit wary about paying for things online,” she says. “But it’s inevitable these days, even for a parking ticket.” Of course, shopping online would be one way to avoid a ticket to start with…

…but, tempting as the click of the mouse can be, there are still niggling worries around online-only companies – will they take our money and run? – and about the information being gathered on our preferences. It’s not the same as strolling in to your local boutique, where regular customers are remembered and valued on a personal level, where preferences are stored at the back of the staff’s mind and not on a data server somewhere in Silicon Valley, and where advice, stock knowledge and years of experience can transform the shopping adventure...

Find Your Local