By  on September 25, 2008

Inspired by the Internet and its potential to bring people together, brands and retailers from St. John to Sears are diving into social media in a big way, from adding social features to their online stores to actually creating their own online communities.

Juicy Couture Wednesday relaunched its online store with a slew of social features. “It’s the DNA of our culture now,” said Juicy’s Gela Nash-Taylor, referring to creating and sharing content online. “Everybody loves to do that. I laugh every time I make a hotel reservation and I see people’s comments.”

In the Juicy site’s Club Couture section, visitors can create a profile by finishing fun statements such as “Celebrity crush” and “Three words that describe you.” They can’t friend or message each other, but they can share and rate virtual outfits and photos of themselves wearing Juicy. They can also comment on the site’s blog, called “Love G & P,” referring to the brand’s co-founders, Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy.

Asked whether adding an online community to an online store could have an effect on sales, Nash-Taylor said, “I think everybody in our industry is moving toward being more interactive with their customers, and that kind of synergistic branding with others and the Web site should translate into sales. It makes you more engaged, you’re part of it, you’re in on it.”

The content is moderated for appropriateness, and the ratings system is designed to be positive. A note on the blog instructs contributors to be respectful.

“I know some of these blogs can get really vicious,” said Nash-Taylor. “That’s not our DNA.”

Early next year, St. John will introduce what promises to be a first: a full-fledged social network integrated with an online designer brand store. As on Facebook or MySpace, users will be able to create profiles, friend each other and company executives, message one another, post comments on their pages and upload photos. The site is closely tied to the online store, and sales associates will use it for clienteling and customer service.

“We have a very loyal customer following at St. John,” said chief executive officer Glenn McMahon. The company hosts two fashion shows a year at its headquarters in Irvine, Calif., attended by more than 500 women from around the country. Many have become friends through the event and bring photographs to share of themselves wearing St. John on important occasions.

“It’s a social gathering and we think the St. John community will be another extension of this very personalized connection to the brand that we’ve established over the years. It’s really another avenue for us to communicate with our customer and also for customers to communicate with other like-minded people they may not know but with whom they share interests,” said McMahon.

The idea was planted a year ago when McMahon’s nephews and nieces prompted him to check out Facebook. “I was surprised to see board members of St. John are on Facebook. A lot of times these sites are thought to be for young people in college or even younger, but there are really a large number of people out there on this and I think it’s the future and we’re very interested to see where we can go with this,” he said.

The St. John community will emphasize the connection between the customers and the brand. Profiles might include occupation, interests, how long the person has been a St. John customer and how many pieces of the brand she owns. Visitors might also see who is planning to attend trunk shows. Customers can upload photos of themselves in St. John to their profile.

Each St. John boutique will have a kiosk where customers can learn how to use the site and an interactive room where sales associates can look at customer profiles. Associates can send customers links to fashion shows and pieces she thinks the customer might like. The customer can reserve items, have them sent to her or make an appointment to come in and try them on.

In June, Sears and Kmart launched a community site at (The name is temporary; a new one will be picked by members in a contest.) Anyone can create a profile, comment on message boards, write reviews and participate in surveys. While the site is focused on Sears and Kmart, users can post on any topic and review any product, not only those sold at the two chains. So far, users have reviewed Gap T-shirts and posted on topics as varied as the economic bailout and diet strategies.

“We definitely left this to be very open in terms of expressing both bad and good experiences,” said Robert Harles, vice president of the online community. “We are careful not to edit or try to direct the conversation too much, and the feedback we get is used to enhance the customer relationship and service programs.”

The site has attracted passionate current and former customers and has connected Sears and Kmart shoppers worldwide, such as military personnel. A woman living in Japan because her husband is stationed there offered advice on how to ship more quickly to the country, and cut Sears and Kmart’s delivery time to two or three weeks from three or four months, said Harles.

In answer to the post “Why don’t you shop at Kmart?” Mamasun3 of Niagara Falls, N.Y., wrote: “Dirty store, sale merchandise not in stock, messy aisles, poor cashier performance, grooming and attitude. Horrible wait times in checkout lines.” Another member, Mommida from Oxford, Mich., commented, “I am making an effort to shop at K-mart….If I’m not shopping there a lot, it’s because with this economy — we don’t have money to spend.”

In April, The Wet Seal Inc.unveiled a social networking community on its site where teens can create, tag, share, vote on and purchase outfits. They can also create profiles, network, block friends and spam, message each other and report abuse. The purpose of social media is to give the customer a voice, said Jon Kubo, Wet Seal vice president and chief information officer.

So far, 1.2 million outfits have been created, and the site has generated a 10 percent increase in revenue. Conversion rates double when a shopper visits the fashion community, and 25 percent of buyers visit. Those who visit the community spend three times as long on the site. Because only 10 percent of teens have a credit card, most of their purchases are made in Wet Seal’s stores rather than online. But teens can scan an item and look up the most popular outfits on the community or in that particular store on in-store kiosks.

A small number of customers are the most active participants, said Kubo. “The conversion comes because the general community is viewing that advice and taking it,” he said.

American Apparel, Macy’sInc. and Urban Outfitters Inc. are three apparel retailers that have embraced user reviews. Urban Outfitters’ approach has extensive social features, including profiles and the ability to add reviews to other Web sites such as Facebook. Reviewers can upload video and photos of themselves wearing the clothes they have reviewed. EBags has said it plans to add user-contributed video to its site soon.

Other companies such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Topshop have experimented with cross-platform contests and contributing to blogs, YouTube and other social sites. Earlier this year, Jockey held a contest in which participants uploaded videos of themselves dancing in their underwear to The site received about 250,000 visitors, 8,720 of which created profiles and 161 contributed videos.

“We wanted to generate awareness about the Jockey brand and we more than succeeded,” said Tim Pitt, Jockey International Inc. vice president of global marketing and advertising.

Nike Inc. has created a community about running, and Woot is an online-only closeout store known for encouraging its customers to post out-there rants and raves about politics and other subjects. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Best Buy have also experimented with social sites.

Blending community and e-commerce has been talked about since the early days of computer networking. Sears Holdings Corp. and IBM launched one of the earliest online services and communities, Prodigy, in 1988. Community features such as message boards and e-mail took off in a big way but shopping and advertising did not, partly because personal computers at the time did not support graphics. Eventually, the service was eclipsed by the Web.

Social features and networking are not appropriate for every apparel brand, said James Gardner, ceo of interactive agency Createthe group, which developed both the Juicy and St. John sites on its custom community and commerce platform. The New York agency’s other luxury clients include Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney and Bottega Veneta. But in the case of Juicy and St. John, it made perfect sense.

“In particular, girls are really influenced by other girls and what they’re doing and wearing,” he said. “It’s an equally powerful way for brands to sell products and much more powerful than traditional advertising methods. You’re in the community one second, and in the next second, you’re in the shopping bag.”

Luxury brands in particular have shied away from the possibilities for many-to-many interactions the Web has created. Some have not yet ventured into e-commerce. Earlier this year, the message from experts at the Luxury Institute conference in New York was that they need to get involved.

“Whether you like it or not, consumers are already discussing your brand online,” said Guy Salter, deputy chairman of British luxury trade association Walpole and an advocate for the potential of the Web to transform the relationship between luxury brands and their customers. “The important thing is to have a dialogue with your customers, not just to take the software out of the box and set up a community. If you could have a luxury brand that developed the opportunity for customers to meet each other within the context of the brand on the site and they were able to discuss products and recommend and give advice to each other, that would be immensely powerful.”

McMahon doesn’t worry about what St. John customers will say on the site. “You can’t control the content,” he said. “I think you go into this with best intentions and trust that people — there’s always a risk that somebody out there doesn’t like what you do or has something negative to say, but they could say that whether we have a social network or not. So I don’t worry about any of the downside risk. We know who we are, we know who our customer is and we respect our customer, and that goes a long way with the public. We’re not trying to be anybody we’re not.”

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