Digital Strategy for ‘Big Box’ Clothing Retailers

Large retail stores such as Macy’s, JCPenney, and Nordstrom are struggling to adapt to the digital world, which has created a niche for smaller, boutique operations, such as Frank and Oak, to deliver quality clothing with a hint of personal shopping. The large companies are also facing competition from each other as they try to innovate and are dealing with an increasingly frugal customer base. Gap recently pushed forward in the online front by offering ‘Reserve,’ a service that allows users to select items online, which are then put aside to try on in-store. Nordstrom invested $150 million on online infrastructure that seemed to pay off (12.1% growth in sales, 37% growth in e-commerce)  though recently their 3rd quarter profit fell 6.2% due to ‘weak traffic and muted sales as consumers remain cautious about spending.’

I think these companies have an opportunity to improve their digital approach by moving beyond an ‘online rack of clothes’, compete with smaller companies by creating a more personalized shopping experience, and get customers excited about their products (and fashion in general) by creating a community focused on style and fashion, rather than on purchasing their products.

My solution consists of a change in purpose, and a variety of ways to manifest that change. I think the purpose of the big clothing companies should shift from being a clothing distributor to being a style and fashion enabler, with a focus on increasing customer excitement about fashion and style rather than on a company’s particular products.The action would be to create an online platform to improve the recommendations served to customers, make online shopping more interactive and build a connected community of shoppers and fashion enthusiasts.

For the most part, the online shopping experience involves looking at pages of products. Data tracking is improving recommendations, but for big companies, big data marketing can often look like ‘Big Brother’ marketing. A personalized shopping platform would use surveys to begin building a style profile for each user. Users could also create look books of styles, products, and looks that they like. To some degree, this looks a bit like the Facebook ‘like’ or pinning items on Pinterest, but with a specific focus on fashion/style. The data would be used to suggest styles, looks, and products to customers as well as to connect them with other users with styles they may like.

Online shopping has made strides on being more interactive (Macy’s new app allows users to interact with physical ads using their phones, and the app Pickie promotes personalized recommendations and an interactive magazine environment on a tablet) but it could still improve. In the platform I am proposing, users could browse ‘looks’ and interact with the individual items, regardless of brand. This is how print fashion magazines tend to operate, but the digital component brings the ability to look at a photograph, learn more about individual items, add them to your preferred looks or wish list, and also find similar items.

All of these things come together for the last step of building a community centered around exploring and sharing fashion and style. Creating a social network around fashion is not a novel idea, but I think it is interesting to explore the idea, especially how it could be implemented by a large company. The platform I am suggesting would allow users to interact, sharing their favorite looks and styles. The ability to curate your own looks and share them would be exciting to users. This can be done on existing social networks but there would be benefits to having a network focused on style. Similar to the LinkedIn Influencer model, quality contributors like designers, fashion bloggers and personal shoppers could be brought in to share their ideas and produce great content that users could follow.

In conclusion, a shift in focus from clothing retailer to community builder could produce a more personalized customer experience, a more engaged community, and allow a ‘big box’ clothing retailer to act like smaller, more adaptable company.