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Winning the Customer

The top retail Web sites featuring apparel ranked by The E-tailing Group's overall merchant scores.

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The top retail Web sites featuring apparel ranked by The E-tailing Group’s overall merchant scores.

This story first appeared in the February 28, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In this Internet Age, who’s doing things right when it comes to selling apparel online? The E-tailing Group, based in Chicago, has released its first-ever “E-tailing Index.” Said president Lauren Freedman, “We are looking for best practices across the Web. To me, it’s the same as a great store. It’s an expression of a brand’s freestanding store, only online.” The study analyzed 100 predetermined retail Web sites’ key pages, the overall presence and execution of merchandising and customer service, and then were given a merchant score. “In apparel, for example, the product page is really critical,” Freedman noted. “People need to see the use of video, color and whether or not the page is merchandise-heavy. These sites go the extra mile for issues like customer service, where questions are answered through offerings like a ‘Live Chat’ page.”

1. QVC.COM
Overall merchant Score: 86.5
“QVC continues to push the envelope by truly understanding their customers with their successful innovative features and functionality,” said Freedman. She added that the features, such as live TV feeds, the ability to shop in another language, promotions (including “today’s special value” and lunchtime specials) and a brand boutique for individual brands on the site are innovations that help to make the retailer stand out. Plastered across the home page is QVC.com’s latest feature, “New Spring Looks From A-List Designers.” Many designers — including Dennis Basso, Bradley Bayou, Dana Buchman and Marc Bouwer — have sold their creations on the West Chester, Pa.-based site, as have “Project Runway” season two winner Chloe Dao and season three’s Laura Bennett.

2. HSN.COM
Score: 82
HSN’s “Spring Fashion Week” series is unfolding this week, and some Hollywood names such as Suzanne Somers, Susan Lucci and Beyoncé Knowles’ mother, Tina, have collections featured here. Loulou de la Falaise introduced her first collection of costume jewelry and fashion accessories as part of the series. The site officially relaunched last August. Said William Lynch, executive vice president and general manager of HSN.com, at the time, “This site strategically leverages HSN’s extraordinary wealth of video content and TV production knowledge to create a more interactive, accessible and exciting shopping experience for current and future HSN customers.” The home page contains a section titled “Last 12 Items Aired,” which sends viewers directly to items recently shown.

3. REI.COM
Score: 80.5
Kent, Wash.-based REI — which stands for Recreational Equipment Inc. — is one of two sports apparel sites to break into the top 10. In addition to REI-branded apparel, the company offers brands such as The North Face, Billabong, Columbia Sportswear and Patagonia. REI is the nation’s largest consumer cooperative with three million-plus members. The site’s features include a section that provides advice on how to select the appropriate gear for various outdoor activities, and its help section includes contact and shipping information, live help and an “order tracking” feature, which allows customers to track their order approximately 48 hours after they place it.

4. NORDSTROM.COM
Score: 80
Long known for its dedication to customer service, Nordstrom is the first major brick-and-mortar retailer in the rankings. The Seattle-based specialty chain reported Monday that for the fourth quarter ended Feb. 2, total sales reached $2.5 billion, down slightly from $2.6 billion in last year’s fourth quarter. Nordstrom currently has a $600 million direct business. With regards to the site, customer service is key: If a shopper would like to return something previously ordered online, a prepaid return label is included with every order. And exchanges are totally free — by mail, by phone or in the store. Additional perks for customers: $5 standard shipping and live chats with beauty and designer specialists. Nordstrom.com also now has a blog, titled “From the Floor,” which features experts talking about the latest fashions from Nordstrom’s various departments.

5. POLO.COM*
Score: 76
WWD reported in October that polo.com, with its “merchan-tainment” philosophy, videostreams and custom-made programs, “has become one of Polo’s biggest success stories.” Initially a joint venture with NBC-Lauren Media Holdings and ValueVision Media Inc., Polo paid $175 million to take full ownership of Ralph Lauren Media last March. “We were able, for the first time, to offer an experience where not only can you look at a sweater or a dress but get the full experience around that dress, as if you walked into a store or stepped into our ad,” David Lauren, the firm’s senior vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications, told WWD at the time. The Web site is the largest single place to buy Ralph Lauren in the world. The site has had a five-year compound annual growth rate of 38 percent.

6. AMAZON.COM*
Score: 76
Seattle-based Amazon.com calls itself “the world’s leading online retailer” and its shopping experience is focused on customer service-friendly components, such as its “1-Click” ordering system, product recommendations, wish lists and order updates, among others. Apparel brands offered from Amazon and its partner sites include Juicy Couture, Calvin Klein, Nicole Miller and BCBG Max Azria, to name a few. Rick Dalzell, who was behind the creation of many of the site’s technical features, left Amazon last October after 10 years of helping to build the company into a $14.8 billion retailer. Noted CIO.com in October, “On his watch, the company’s IT infrastructure has scaled to support $10.7 billion in sales, more than 69 million active customer accounts, 42 product lines from apparel to video games and more than 1.1 million third-party sellers.”

7. NEIMANMARCUS.COM†
Score: 75.5
The Dallas-based retailer may have turned 100 years old last year, but it’s been a pioneer of selling luxury and designer products on the Web. Neimanmarcus.com offers unique ways to shop for various apparel categories. For example, women can shop for dresses by either silhouette, occasion, popular trends or by designer names. In the “Swim Shop,” accessories such as sunglasses, hats, shoes and handbags are featured to accompany those interested in putting together an ensemble to accompany a swimsuit. In December, WWD reported that during the first quarter ended Oct. 27, Neiman Marcus said the company achieved Internet sales growth of almost 23 percent to $124.1 million, exceeding its expectations.

8. WALMART.COM†
Score: 75.5
“I have high hopes for apparel,” Walmart.com’s chief executive, Raul Vazquez, told WWD in November. “We need to focus on basics like the stores. That’s very low-hanging fruit for us. That’s why I’m so optimistic about apparel. Apparel is a category that continues to grow online.” The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has been willing to take some risks within the apparel category on its site. “Our role as walmart.com is to be innovative,” Vazquez said, noting the Web site will continue to add proprietary apparel labels, like Z.b.d. design, in the months ahead. “If the lines are successful, they will go to the stores.” Key Web initiatives include a site-to-store program, rolled out in July, which takes products available online and ships them to a customer’s local Wal-Mart. A reviews and ratings system went national in July as well.

9. ORVIS.COM†
Score: 75.5
The 150-year-old family-owned company, with headquarters in Manchester, Vt., offers outdoor apparel, gear and products through its Web site and growing network of retail shops. The company’s apparel offerings include a collection of wrinkle-free T-shirts, tunics and blouses for women, along with a “travel wear” collection, which features dozens of styles for every destination, climate and activity. The company has unveiled its newly expanded product review system on the site, which is designed to allow customers to provide feedback about and rate Orvis products by writing in, sending pictures or even creating videos. Other sections include a size chart, detailed fabric information and an “easy exchanges & returns” feature.

10. TARGET.COM
Score: 75
As WWD reported Monday, “Wal-Mart’s fashion star is rising just as Target’s appears to be waning.” It looks to be true as well when it comes to the two mass retail giants’ Web sites: Target.com falls slightly behind number eight-ranked Walmart.com. The retailer has worked with designers such as Proenza Schouler and Behnaz Sarafpour, but these are only temporary offerings, while other private label brands, such as Mossimo, Merona and Cherokee, appear to be duplicating each other’s styles as of late. As for customer service, shoppers can take advantage of free shipping for orders over $50 in categories such as apparel, accessories, jewelry and handbags, among others; the home page contains a “New At Target” section, which highlights the retailer’s latest offerings and the site also carries a section on product safety and recently recalled items.

SOURCE: THE E-TAILING GROUP INC., AN E-COMMERCE CONSULTING FIRM; THE STUDY ANALYZED 100 DIFFERENT RETAIL WEB SITES; THE TOP SCORE ATTAINABLE WAS 100 WITH WEIGHTING OF A POSSIBLE 33 POINTS FOR KEY PAGES, 38.5 FOR MERCHANDISING PROWESS AND 28.5 FOR CUSTOMER SERVICE EXCELLENCE; THE AVERAGE SCORE ACHIEVED WAS 67.9; * AND † INDICATE TIES

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