On the Web, chic trumps geek. In 2006, online apparel sales reached $18.3 billion, according to Forrester Research -- surpassing sales of computers and software for the first time.
Three important trends have emerged in online marketing of fashion: the continued growth of the channel, better integration of interactive media with the in-store experience, and the influence of Hollywood.
This year, according to Forrester's study for Shop.org, 10 percent of all clothing sales are expected to take place online. The glossy fashion magazines have begun to take their online presence seriously; Hearst, for example, is preparing a major makeover of its women's sites. The thirst for online style is evident in the success of Glam.com, a newcomer that has become the most trafficked and fastest growing women's community property, according to comScore Media Metrix, with more than 17 million unique visitors a month.
It's not just women's magazines that are benefitting. Many online fashion retailers have found tremendous success, due in part to consumers' increasing willingness to buy high-end clothes and accessories online. Net-a-porter.com has doubled sales each year since its founding. The site offers current designs with on emphasis on "it" brands, presented online in the style of a glossy fashion magazine. At the same time, Net-a-porter rival Shopbop.com did so well that online retail giant Amazon purchased it last year.
At the same time, designers have recognized that there's money to be made online, and instead of just treating their Web sites as photo galleries for that season's collection, they've overhauled them to become full-fledged retail sites. Net-a-porter and Shopbop competitor Yoox.com recently launched a virtual store for the label Marni, featuring designs of Consuela Castiglione; that effort generated buzz because that particular line can be hard to find.
In fact, consultants say that fashion retailers can no longer afford to eschew the Web.
"You can't be out there marketing and not be on the Web," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York City-based consulting firm. "The Web becomes the portal to eternal shopping."
Polo Ralph Lauren practically invented modern retail merchandising; its stores seem like portals to an alternate universe where consumers are heirs to old money and the style that goes with it. Interactive windows that provide a touch-screen for on-the-spot ordering appear to be the perfect marriage of online and off.
The lifestyle fashion brand is in year two of a five-year contract as the official outfitter for Wimbledon, the venerable tennis competition.
The company designed special outfits for on-court staff, and at the same time, launched a Wimbledon-inspired collection for the rest of us.
Instead of creating a microsite for the sponsorship, the home page of RalphLauren.com became the centerpiece for the current online campaign, launched June 26. Additional landing pages direct visitors to the men's and women's collections. Interstitials, half-page ads, big box and leader boards, all created in-house, ran on the New York Times site, while an e-mail to subscribers announced this year's collection.
From clothes to home furnishings to paint, Ralph Lauren is an aspirational brand; the Wimbledon campaign suggests consumers can become a part of this most prestigious of sporting events. The design evokes the elegance and history of the tournament, with shades of racing green, black and off-white; vintage photos in sepia tones evoke the brand's attribute of classic luxury.
The front page features highlights of the games, the history of the competition and videos of classic moments. Tennis tips from Nick Bollettieri use video demonstrations to help visitors improve their strokes - which would, of course, look a whole lot better if they were wearing Ralph Lauren Tennis. A running ticker with the latest match updates made ralphlauren.com a must-see for sports fanatics as well as clothes horses.
L.A. - That's Hot!
Sites like CelebrityStyleGuide.com, Reel-Style.com and SeenOn.com help consumers in the flyover zone find the clothes worn by TV and movie stars - and they help position Los Angeles as a tastemaker more powerful than Seventh Avenue. PlanetLuLu.com has found a way to add exclusivity to e-commerce, offering limited access to fashions from designers in L.A. and New York. It all started nine years ago, when Noah Soltes began hosting a monthly weekend sample sale in his loft in Tinseltown's Fashion District. Everyone left their e-mail addresses, and soon Planet LuLu's list was 700,000 strong.
Soltes started doing similar events in other cities and tested retail locations. But online really took off after he began to make his e-mails more like letters from a pal.
"I realized it wasn't about selling things, it was about how to be alluring and intriguing to women," he says. "You create a readership and a style and soon, people walk in and say, 'How's your cousin doing?'"
Soltes doesn't pay for ads; instead, he does trades with other sites and newsletters. In return for a mention, a marketer could get a dedicated e-mail to Planet LuLu's list, a banner or text snippet in the newsletter, or placement on the site.
Soltes is not one to play free and easy with his list. A recent advertiser on PlanetLulu.com has a banner, but it's not clickable. "We know we're getting thousands of people from them, whereas we give them 700,000," he says. "If they're willing to do three e-mails, guess what? They get to click off from the home page."
But the most counter-intuitive marketing strategy is limiting shopping to only three days a month. Registered users get a couple of teaser e-mails telling them when the online store will be open. Around 35,000 people arrive in the first hour of a sale, with between 600,000 and 900,000 visiting over the 28-hour duration.
Still, Planet LuLu will move to the typical 24/7 sales model in the coming year. "To continue to grow the way we're doing it now is almost impossible," Soltes says. "We're all wearing out."
Customers who want the latest fashions will be happy to have more shopping opportunities.