Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — It’s not exactly being touted like plastics in “The Graduate,” but apparel — a category slowly but steadily gaining traction in cyberspace — does have a viable virtual future.
At least that’s one strong implication of a recent study of apparel purchasing trends online, which found that 16 percent of the Internet users it surveyed in June had bought clothing in cyberspace during the previous month.
That purchasing action topped by twofold the 8 percent of users who said in September 1999 that they’d bought apparel online during the prior month, when PricewaterhouseCoopers last staked out cybershopping patterns for apparel.
Two primary engines are fueling the upswing: the expansion of established brands on the Internet and the proliferation of women shopping the Web.
“We were surprised with the twofold increase in apparel purchasing online,” acknowledged Mary Brett Whitfield, principal consultant and director of the E-Retail Intelligence System subsidiary of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which conducted the research.
“It’s a category that has a lot of momentum,” Whitfield continued. “As people get more comfortable buying commodities online, they’re branching out into ‘higher risk’ categories, like apparel.
“But we were still surprised,” she added, “especially given some of the high-profile dot-com flameouts like Boo.”
Likely drivers of this pickup in apparel purchasing online, Whitfield noted, include positive holiday experiences, convincing some seasonal online purchasers to stick around, more established brands moving online and a broader array of online apparel shopping options.
“Online clothing shoppers shop and purchase at various sites, but their site selection and purchase incidence seems to be driven by the familiarity of established retailers and manufacturers,” she stated.
In fact, 80 percent of the people who have shopped online for apparel during the past six months — and 77 percent of online clothing purchasers — do so at Web sites mounted by a brick-and-mortar retailer or a catalog marketer, according to Price-waterhouseCoopers. Internet destinations of branded manufacturers saw shopping action from one-third of the people prowling the Web for clothes.
In contrast, during the first half of 2000, only 12 percent of Internet fashion hounds hunted the Web for apparel at online shopping malls, dot-com pure-plays, auction sites, portals or via search engines or shopping bots.
“Online clothing shoppers are much more likely to agree that the Internet is a tool that saves time and makes the shopping experience easier,” Whitfield noted. “However, the current roster of online shopping options hasn’t been able to convince apparel non-Internet shoppers that shopping online saves time compared with store-based shopping, is easier or is a preferable way to browse.”
Roughly 60 percent of Internet users contacted by the consulting firm between May 31 and June 8 said they’re shopping online for apparel. Among those people, 41 percent shop the Internet for clothing at least once a month and 56 percent have made at least one apparel purchase online. Approximately 40 percent of the online apparel purchasers expect to buy more clothing in cyberspace.
The virtual world is imitating business at the bricks and slicks (catalogs) players when it comes to selling apparel, according to the study, which found online purchasers of the category are “significantly more likely to be women.” About 40 percent of those purchasers are younger than 35, and 70 percent are under 45.
Additional buying attitudes of Internet apparel shoppers, as determined by the new data, include:
Even among those who have bought clothes online, less than 30 percent prefer purchasing it there than at stores.
Internet apparel purchasers are likely to be catalog customers who are used to buying it from a remote location.
Familiar brands alone won’t get the non-Internet purchasers buying apparel online, as fewer than 40 percent of them said a known brand is more likely to spur a cyber-purchasec.
Not surprisingly, women’s apparel is the most frequently purchased item of clothing by females shopping the Web.
Interestingly, however, women who have bought apparel online typically prefer to shop for it in the brick-and-mortar world in different venues than women who have not yet purchased clothes in cyberspace. PricewaterhouseCoopers found the Internet purchasers are “significantly more likely” to have purchased apparel most often at specialty stores or from catalogs, during the past year. Those who have not yet bought clothes online, by comparison, are “significantly more likely” to purchase clothing at discount stores.
The reason: Consumers who haven’t bought apparel on the Web have few Internet options that mirror the offer at traditional stores.
“One barrier to shopping online for clothing among current nonshoppers,” Whitfield said, “is the absence of alternatives for consumers who typically shop discount department stores for apparel.
“This represents a significant opportunity for discount department store retailers,” the consultant added.
Apparel shoppers of specialty stores and catalogs, in contrast, have more options online. As for why 44 percent of U.S. Internet users have not yet purchased apparel online, the inability to try on items was cited by 81 percent of those surveyed.
Other leading reasons were: unable to feel clothes for the quality of material, with 45 percent offering that explanation; concerns over possible difficulties returning products, 44 percent; worries over whether Web sites will keep personal data private, 32 percent; total cost of buying goods is more expensive than at stores, 25 percent; and the Web is difficult to browse, 14 percent.
In addition, “very few” respondents cited no problems with shopping for apparel online, and more than one-third of the group said that nothing will make them more likely to buy clothes in cyberspace.
When asked what Web sites can do to spur consumers to shop them, pricing issues overwhelmingly took the top two spots. Nearly half of the non-Internet buyers indicated free shipping would up their prospects of purchasing apparel online, while more than 40 percent said they would be more likely to do so if Web sites offered lower prices than stores or catalogs.
Although the new numbers on apparel purchasing online were surprisingly strong, Whitfield cautioned that she doesn’t expect a rush to buy clothes on the Web over the next few years.
“Our overall projections for online sales as a percent of total retail sales is 3 to 5 percent by 2004,” she said.

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