As much as many of us love the convenience of e-commerce, it can be less than ideal when it comes to shopping for clothes.
There's no website nor app that can let you try on a shirt before you buy it. You may be able to zoom in on an image to appraise an item's texture, but you can't feel the fabric. And while an augmented reality option might help you see approximately what a piece of clothing might look like on you, that's not a genuine substitute for being able to take it into a changing room.
This, of course, has become the core advantage for brick-and-mortar clothing chains. "The preference to see, touch, and try on apparel before purchasing is the most important factor for 55% of consumers to choose shopping in-store rather than online, according to a new report from The NPD Group.
Try before you buy?
Online retailers have tried various workarounds to solve this problem. AR is getting better at showing how a piece of clothing will look on you, but it's still imperfect. Other solutions, like Warby Parker mailing you sample glasses frames to try on, get the job done, but they're unwieldy. A system that's based on having the customer mail most items back is one that asks a lot from consumers.
So what are the best ways for retailers to connect with the 79% of adult consumers who told NPD they try on clothing items before buying either all the time (42%) or some of the time (37%)?
"While online sales may be growing faster, it is key to make the in-store shopping experience personal for the consumer as in-store accounts for the lion's share of apparel dollars," said NPD Industry Analyst Maria Rugolo in a press release. "The fitting room is still an opportunity to make a personal connection with your consumer since it is still an integral part of the overall shopping experience."
Brick-and-mortar needs to go omnichannel
Consumers prize convenience. They want to be able to look at something online, try it on in a store, and maybe leave with it, or maybe order a different size for delivery. In other cases, consumers are happy with a buy online, pickup in store transaction -- as long as it's easy to return items to that same store when necessary.
To succeed in the current environment, apparel retailers need to embrace an omnichannel approach that removes as much friction for consumers as possible. Making returns and exchanges painless for items ordered online is one major area for them to work on. Retailers should also bring their best customer-service game to those buy online, pickup in store orders -- for example, making it an easy option for a customer to stop into a dressing room when picking up items, so they can try them on if they'd like.
"The ability for consumers to see, touch, and try on apparel appears to be an advantage for brick and mortar retailers," said Rugolo. "Now coupled with more convenient ways to shop online and pick up, consumers may be more inclined than ever to make the physical trip."
Still that's an edge brick-and-mortar chains can't take for granted -- because it's dwindling. Digital retailers continue to improve their AR tools, and many that were once purely online have opened a smattering of traditional stores. And with free returns, digital retailers can eventually overcome much of the "hands-on" issue.
Brick-and-mortar apparel retailers need to reinforce their built-in advantage by offering omnichannel convenience and constantly focusing on the customer experience. For those that do, a big, old-fashioned network of physical stores will actually be a strength, even in this era of low-overhead e-commerce.