Today's menswear shopping landscape is simultaneously as segmented and connected as it has ever been. While physical one-stop answers like malls and department stores are declining, it's easier than ever to virtually visit retailers specializing in outwear, shoes, shirting, or suits, all in half an hour from the comfort of home. Frictionless comparison shopping online also means stores are no longer able to stay alive simply by being The Only Store in Missouri That Carries Brand X, because while you may live in St. Louis you have access to inventory across the country at your fingertips.
In order to compete effectively retailers need to go beyond the Field of Dreams, "If you build it they will come." Experiences must be differentiated but also enjoyable and easily navigated, from the moment someone lands on a site to the time they, inevitably, drop a return in the mail.
To this end, below is a list - inclusive but by no means all encompassing - of retailers' must haves for modern day online shopping.
Not only have consumers come to rely on the convenience of online shopping - no more searching for parking in a crowded part of town, or trying to plan a trip to a store around busy work and personal schedules - but the way in which we interact with online shopping has changed as well. Along with the rise of smartphones, which made shopping available any time, platforms like Instagram and Twitter have given customers the ability to subscribe to steady streams of content from retailers. To that end, there's nothing more frustrating for a consumer than seeing a cool product image in his or feed, following the link to the store's website, then being confronted with an interface that was clearly only designed for a 13" screen or larger.
Menu bars that aren't touch sensitive, product photos that don't scale correctly to your phone's size, or informational pop-up boxes that you can't get rid of unless you refresh the page are easy tells that a retailer has skimped on their mobile optimization. Other things, like not automatically changing the keyboard to numbers only for fields like Zip Code or Phone Number are only serving to add barriers to purchase to a customer who is already potentially frustrated. Whether it's a website that scales as pages resize, a totally separate mobile site, or a store-specific App, designing for desktop then hoping for the best will no longer cut it.
Below: Mr. Porter's mobile site is easy to navigate, uncluttered and intuitive.
In our dreams, most men are around 6'1", 160 pounds, and sporting gorgeous, sun-kissed hair, perfectly mussed from the time we roll out of bed. In actuality, men come in all shapes and sizes, and unless you're one of the blessed few, it's a given when shopping online that the model's proportions are unlikely to mirror your own.
Measuring each item, for all sizes that the store is carrying, is not only helpful when a customer is struggling to pick the correct size but also cuts down on future return costs as well. Everyone who has ever shopped online has ordered the same piece in both Medium and Large because they weren't sure which would fit best; providing detailed measurements gives customers the data they need to make the most informed decision about which size will suit his or her body best. Additionally, with menswear taking an increasingly global turn, a Japanese Large usually fits nothing like an American Large or a European 50, so actual measurements provide the clarity that customers need to sort through the unavoidable noise.
Below: Unionmade typically offers multiple measurements for each size garment they carry.
Model Shots Not Just Product Shots (plus Styled With)
Sometimes there aren't enough numbers or words to accurately describe how an item actually looks on a body; you know, that whole picture's worth a thousand words thing again. Seeing an item on a body - does that inseam hit above the ankle or does it have break, or how does that elongated rear hem look in real life? - gives customers more decision-making tools and, again, leads to less returns.
Model shots also give retailers the opportunity to cross-sell other items worn in the product shot, if the retailer is smart enough to take it. When a retailer takes the time to style a particular product, say a shirt, with trousers, shoes, and maybe a coat or bag, by omitting a Styled With or Shop This Look function, the retailer wastes the possibility to sell more product or engage further with the shopper.
Below: Eastdane always includes model shots and a "Shop The Look" section below each item.
Reasonable Shipping & Return Pricing
Customers understand that shipping and returns are a cost of doing business online, they've just become increasingly unwilling to bear that cost themselves. In turn, with sites like eBay and Grailed making buyers in to potential sellers, customers also know the cost of shipping items better than ever before. For large companies like Levi's or The Gap free shipping is the expected norm - for independent retailers to compete there should be easily understood shipping tiers, and a minimum amount at which shipping is free.
The story for returns is a little more complicated. Most customers are willing to pay for a return, but if a product is ordered online the customer should be able to return it to a brick and mortar location at no cost if possible. Versus enticing customers with free or very-low priced returns, which are obviously a nice bonus, retailers should focus most on ease and convenience of the return process. This is particularly helpful for overseas returns, but applies to all geographies of commerce. Including a pre-paid return label in every order is a customer's godsend because, even though he's paying $7.95 to return items, what he doesn't have to do is stand in line at the Post Office or UPS, or worry about finding a printer for an emailed label. The label-via-email is still heavily preferred over the worst option, "Here's our address: 123 Main Street, New York, NY, 12345, please mail us your return within a week." Online shopping is supposed to be convenient, but there's nothing less convenient or more frustrating than being forced to handle the logistics of a return yourself.
Below: Need Supply clearly defines the free shipping threshold and explains increased costs for premium delivery.
Refund vs. Store Credit
Offering store credit only on returns, especially those that fall within a short return window - say, 7-10 days - is an onerous burden that many customers are unwilling, and frankly don't expect, to shoulder. The beauty of being able to peruse inventory from Seattle to Minneapolis to Miami from a computer in Chicago is that it opens up possibilities to try brands that aren't stocked in your time zone or support stores taking interesting risks with their buys. There are very few customers, however, whose wallets are deep enough to say, "Hey I'd love to see how that new Korean label carried by XXXXXXX in San Francisco fits, but if it doesn't work out I'll just let the store hold on to my $500 indefinitely until they hopefully stock something else I'm interested in." Running a business is hard and, yes, forcing a customer to accept store credit is a surefire way to trap them in an eco-system. Store credit is also a major turn off for customers, particularly those who don't live anywhere near the physical store location and were thinking of trying something new from that retailer. Store credit should be used as a last resort, not as the only option.
Below: Independence Chicago offers customers one week to return items for a refund, and another week to return for store credit.
Responsive Customer Service
If a retailer has a Contact email (or Twitter handle, etc) on their site, it is the customer's right to assume, within reason, that if they make an inquiry they will receive response. Not within reason: a new hyped product is announced and every Tom, Dick and Harry email the contact address, "Yo you guys gonna have the Crazy Jump 45s that just got announced??????"
Given that many stores these days don't offer product measurements but instead say "Contact Us For More Information," it is almost beyond belief how many inquires go completely unanswered. Even if a customer has a question about something not necessarily product related, like, "Will you be carrying Brand X next year?" or "Where did those awesome cactus planters you guys have in store come from?" they are signaling to that retailer that he or she is a potential customer. The silence of a non-reply instead says, "We don't care about your interest in our store, so keep that in mind next time you're considering giving us your hard-earned money." Even if it takes a week to respond to an inquiry given staffing constraints and other responsibilities, customers will remember that reply the next time they log on to that shop.
Below: Trading Post LA responded the same day to an inquiry about inseam lengths on different pants' sizes.
While this list was meant to be instructive, it is by no means the end of retailers' best practices for online stores. Things like customer loyalty programs, giveaways, price matching, and exclusive promotions for repeat customers help build brand loyalty in an age where choosing retailer A over retailer B is as easy as opening a new tab.
Think we missed something important? Let us know on Twitter.