Displaying product isn’t enough for today’s fashion retailers, with compelling editorial content both online and in print becoming a vital element of their marketing. Lisa Berwin reports

Arcadia’s overhaul of its fashion websites last week showed how serious it is about trying to improve its online offer and keep up with its rivals as fashion etail becomes increasingly competitive.

The key element of the newly designed sites is the greater scope for media content such as videos. Media content on websites is increasingly becoming a feature across online retail - a trend started by the pure-play etailers and now being taken on board by more traditional rivals.

Meanwhile in print, established fashion magazines are being overtaken in circulation by new media counterparts such as Asos’s in-house magazine. Publishing houses in turn are increasingly interested in etail. News International, for instance, brought private sales site Brand Alley to the UK and is using it to help build up its own revenue streams and understand readers’ lifestyle habits.

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As the lines between media and fashion etail blur, retailers are being forced to become more creative and to figure out how to make these technologies work for them commercially.

Arcadia group ecommerce director Simon Pritchard says the fashion giant relaunched its sites to make “the

canvas bigger for more video and features”. He said: “We want to make these sites real destinations for content and fashion.”

Arcadia will use more video and editorial-type content - its Dorothy Perkins site, for example, has a looks and features page where it suggests outfits for different events, similar to the sort of advice found in fashion magazines.

ECommera director Michael Ross, one of Figleaves’ founders, says retailers need to put the same effort into their sites as they do in their shops. “Topshop thinks hard and creates great store experiences with things like design and music; the experience of an Anthropologie store helps grow the appeal and encourage people to go there,” he says.

Ross says Net-a-Porter was the first to adopt a media-style approach. “There is a strategic vision that content will drive greater customer loyalty,” he points out. “If customers don’t come on to the site to buy every week they may want to come on to read articles every week.”

The vision of Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet when she started the luxury etailer more than a decade ago was that fashion magazines encourage the sales of clothes, so why not have an ecommerce offer that does the same. Her background was not in retail - she began her career as a fashion journalist.

Today, Net-a-Porter sticks to that ethos with a weekly digital magazine and a bi-annual print magazine. Vice-president of sales and marketing Alison Loehnis says: “For us it is all about contextual shopping; what is out there, what we love, what is going on at the shows and how shoppers can get the looks now - not in six months. It is a key service offer for our customer.”

The advent of new technology makes it even easier to engage with customers and offer them advice and entertainment. “Our iPad application for the magazine is a dream come true and means customers can really interact with it,” Loehnis says.

Launched last week, the app allows readers to watch videos and runway shows, share product suggestions with family and friends, and give feedback on their shopping experience.

Loehnis believes that content can be used on any site as long as it is done correctly, but cautions: “You need to create bespoke content for your site, not just jump on the bandwagon.” Retailers must think carefully about what their customer wants and what sort of conversations they want to have.

Another increasingly popular form of content is video. As ecommerce platforms improve, it is becoming easier to add video and it need not be limited to product. It can be instructional, for instance, or show shoppers that celebrities are wearing.

Marks & Spencer launched M&S TV on its site in February last year as a way to showcase products and services as well as give advice to customers. It has a click-to-buy function and the retailer says click-through rates to the products featured have been as high as 30%.

The question of return

Such statistics sound encouraging, but how content and social media affect sales figures can be hard to quantify and that in turn can mean it is harder to convince retail boards to test such innovations.

French Connection is launching a video series on its sites and YouTube at the end of August and has been implementing more interactive aspects to its site including ratings and reviews.

The retailer’s director of ecommerce and digital marketing Jennifer Roebuck says she pitches such ideas by explaining what other websites are doing and what people now expect when they go online. “If you don’t try anything new you won’t ever innovate,” she says, admitting that enhancements do not necessarily translate straight into higher sales.

She observes it is easier to convince others of the commercial rationale for innovations such as ratings and reviews because they can be shown to help reduce returns.

Ross notes: “Some high street retailers have a much harder-nosed approach to investment, with every investment needing to prove it can pay back. If a high street retailer refurbished a store it often knows what the pay back will be.

“It is too early in the evolution of online to see how it pays back. High street retailers still struggle with the complexity and uncertainty of online - it is hard to get your head around.”

But retailers are increasingly making the effort and trying new things. They are exploring the potential of social media through obvious channels

such as Twitter and Facebook, through their own social media sites and through bloggers.

Pritchard says: “Social media is vitally important. It is a great way of engaging customers.” He says that Arcadia sites such as Topshop and Evans have successfully engaged shoppers in this way and hopes that the changes to all its sites will enable the other brands to do the same.

New Look has identified that online is key to growth and has its own social media hub, My Look. The retailer’s head of brand marketing Amy Thom says that customers signed up to the site spend more with the retailer over a year than the average. “These things can be a leap of faith,” she says. “It is hard to say when the building of brand awareness leads to sales.”

Different social media platforms bring different kinds of customers and they are treated accordingly. Thom says, for example, that Facebook brings the mass customer and Twitter a more savvy customer, such as those involved in the industry like fashion journalists.

She says New Look is able to track who is coming to its sites from Facebook and, despite some reports of people growing weary of the social networking site, engagement with those on its page has been “growing massively” in recent months.

She adds: “You have to move with the times. We had to look at where our customer was and how we would reach them.”

Names in print

What has also worked well in engaging New Look’s customer is its magazine, launched three years ago.

The quarterly publication now goes out to more than 1 million people in the UK.

Multichannel retailers’ magazines have taken the place of catalogues in many cases and are keenly read in their own right. Asos’s magazine, for instance, goes out each month to more than 450,000 regular customers, making it the country’s second-biggest women’s monthly magazine according to ABC data.

Lifestyle fashion brand Joules, which last week reported a 43% growth in sales, said it had experienced an uplift from what it called its “catazine” - a cross between a catalogue and a magazine with products featured alongside articles.

The publication, according to Joules, also helps customers understand its brand values. It is not the cheapest option available but the retailer believes people spend longer going through it than the traditional catalogue it replaced because of the editorial content.

Ilana Fox, a partner at social media and community engagement consultancy Spoke Digital, says: “Newspapers are struggling with circulation. Asos is not struggling for revenue streams so it can launch magazines online and offline.

“If a retailer can engage with customers other than just on the shopfloor, they can change how a customer sees them and it helps with loyalty.”

Customer loyalty typically comes when people know and trust a brand. Fox says that, particularly in the current market, magazines and social media can help retailers build that with their customers. “It is taking that John Lewis ethos and putting that online in a really creative way,” she says.

Such ventures not only engage existing customers but can help draw in and hold on to new customers. As the digital-savvy generation grows up, retailers must make sure they are positioned to capture their attention. Increased content is vital for search engine optimisation and can push retailers up the page on Google if done correctly.

As retailers move into media content, media firms are responding. Finlay Clark, senior strategist for direct marketing consultancy Bigmouthmedia, points to the example of Condé Nast, publisher of magazines such as Vogue and Glamour, which frequently provides links to retailers’ websites on featured products, thereby earning a commission.

The lines between etail and media look likely to continue to blur, making business ever more complex. Engaging with customers is now a minefield extending far beyond service or customer engagement in store and in future it looks likely that retailers will need to add skills traditionally found at the BBC or News International to those typical of Burberry or Next.