Unintended consequences of online sales

Today I spoke with a friend who is an online retailer. She was complaining about the lousy emails she gets from sales reps (shades of 2 sales mistakes: pitching wholesale buyers by email). The pictures included are too small and few emails provide links to better photos (hint). When a sales rep followed up with her, she mentioned the problem. The sales rep waved it off as being unimportant because “she’d see the line when she went to market”. Problem is, my friend isn’t going to market so the only impression she’ll have of the line is via the internet.

This is a multi-faceted problem with technology as a double edged sword. With the help of technology, my friend doesn’t need to go to market as frequently, saving her money on travel costs considering the lower margins in this troubled economy. The roundabout being that hiring a booth at market is of decreasing value to you. It is also tragic that the average sales rep today is so out of touch with the impact of technology that they don’t realize why buyers aren’t going to market and what they should do about it. The obvious first step is that all sales reps should start with getting email addresses since at least half of them don’t have one but in the end, it’s not worth mentioning. Too few of the older reps are willing to change their behaviors so it’s a lost cause and they’ll end up getting pushed out of the industry. Don’t hire a rep who doesn’t understand changing demands of the marketplace.

But I wonder if there are other unintended consequences of online sales. For example, my friend can tell from a photo if she is interested in the product. You’re probably thinking the same thing I was, how can she know? Doesn’t she have to see the garment in real time, feel the fabric etc? But no, she doesn’t. The reason being that her customers will also only see the product via the internet. If the product doesn’t photograph well enough to show the design features, she’s not going to buy it no matter how exquisite it is. What’s worse, one excellent design feature actually looked like a flaw in photos. In the end, one unintended consequence of online sales is that designers may increasingly need to design for the camera.

Another unintended consequence of online sales is consumer expectations for fit, appearance and performance. It is a hassle to return things to say nothing of the cost. After a time of being accustomed to under performing goods, people won’t know any better and/or their perception of value will devolve. Or arguably, they’ll know less than they know now. This could mean that a motivated designer producing goods to stringent fit standards may be wasting much of their time and money on a value proposition that isn’t appreciated or expected by the customer meaning the line loses its unique selling proposition if the majority of the goods are sold strictly online. One can only imagine that the level of merchandise will continue to degrade.

Someone I knew used to say, “it doesn’t matter what is, it only matters what it looks like” and it annoys me every time I find he is right. This person was largely incompetent but his desk was always tidy, he spoke personably and steadily moved up the ranks over co-workers with messy desks but much higher levels of competence. The matter of increasingly needing to design for the camera is yet another example of it and there is little to be done about it but to fall in line. Perhaps that’s why tee shirts sell so well online. You just need a good photo of the graphic to fill the frame.

Thoughts? Ideas? Other unintended consequences of online sales? What say you?

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12 comments

  1. Rebecca Sloan says:

    I think the issue of fit may go both ways. I agree the hassle of returning things may lead to consumers to become accepting of poorly fitted goods. The flip side may be that if a consumer finds that a particular brand fits them right, and that the fit is maintained across styles and seasons, you could have a customer for ever. The trick will be getting the fit right first time. Or making your return process so simple that it doesn’t put your customers off ordering from you again. Zappos’ system, in my experience, is great. You can print a return label off their site, put it back in the same box it came and it doesn’t cost you anything except the time to drop it at a UPS store. I guess the free shipping is possible because they are big, but you could probably build return shipping costs into your prices, especially if you can’t get the goods anywhere else cheaper. I didn’t keep the shoes I ordered from Zappos, (because they didn’t fit properly) but I’d have no hesitation in buying from them again.

    So while I agree that goods need to photograph well, i think that fit and service are going to be equally important in retaining customers.

  2. Dana says:

    These challenges are not exactly new, although broader in scope today. They are the same issues that those of us who’ve worked in the catalogue world have dealt with for decades. The photograph is your main selling tool, followed by copy, and consistent fit and quality (whatever your standards) are key to gaining consumer trust. In some ways, cataloguers have had a customer advantage in that returns are a feedback tool that gives tremendous consumer info. It’s been rare to see that type of info captured by wholesalers or retailers. We can learn from this info. Those of us who want to push online direct to consumer business should think of it in some ways, as an evolution of the mail order model for ideas on over coming these types of obstacles. Luckily without the awful lead times!

  3. Barb Taylorr says:

    I don’t think technology is a double edged sword. It is just a matter of how it is used, like any other selling tool. While some things about buying on-line are undesirable, there are also plenty of benfits. Being an eternal optimist, I suggest that the industry will adapt with flying colors, and quality will not be any different than the array that is out there in the stores now.

    The advantages I see right off are; 1 – No more problem with “hangar appeal”. Photograph that lovely silk chiffon dress on a model, or even video the way it moves and you’ll gain way more than you’ll lose by not being able to touch it. You’ll never see it hanging like a limp rag on the rack. 2 – No more problem with how to display sweaters and bias-cut garments that stretch when hanging. No worries about customers messing up the neat folded stacks on the shelves, or shoppers not bothering to unfold them to look at them. Just show it on a model. 3 – With accurate fit chart information, people will have the whole internet of choices to find a brand that works for their body and their style. I totally agree with Rebecca, a company that can be relied on for good consistent fit will do better than ever with internet sales and customer loyalty will become stronger than ever.

    I don’t think designs will evolve to look good for the camera. I think companies will just understand that they need to invest in excellent photgraphers and web designers. Also excellent writers who can put into words the way a fabric feels and performs. It all needs to be honest & accurate too, to keep that customer happy & coming back for more. Some companies are already doing an excellent job of this and the bigger ones even have live “clerks” you can chat with about fit and fabric etc. I think it’s awesome to bring so much great selection to people no matter where they live. It does makes me wonder though if all that is any less costly than maintaining a storefront?

  4. Sales reps have been my biggest problem from day one. In the mid nineties I used to co-own a line called monkeywench. My business partner paid the bills (actress who wanted a clothing line) and I did the design and production managing. It was small, but we sold internationally and made anywhere from 100-200 pieces per design a season. The problem we had was that I ended up also having to do our sales because we could never find a good rep. We learned lessons fast when we hired a rep who actually sold our actual sample pieces at the wholesale prices instead of taking orders on it (obviously they didn’t know what they were doing) and then we had two others who just sat on the pieces and never actually showed them. So, I ended up going to Magic and running the booth and approaching stores myself. It was too much work to be the designer, production and sales. Eventually we closed the business when I moved to AZ for family reason. I started up my own line in AZ called Angela Johnson and to this day I still have never found a good rep. So, any sales I have are from stores that have found me on the internet because I don’t have time or money to invest in going to Magic anymore. The nature of my line doesn’t allow for the usual production processes (because it is all made from recycled T-shirts so I can’t make a marker and cut in quantity) so it is difficult to meet orders that are large anyways. So, that is part of the problem. But, I get more online orders than I can keep up with these days which is unusual and the only reason is because I’ve been persistent at it for 8 years! It’s not my main income, but more of a hobby. I’ve realized that the photos have to be really clear and have made that my main expense.

    BUT, a rep did approach me last year and he was very reputable….having worked in the industry for 40 years and was even the former VP of a very large company. He wanted to work with me because he moved to AZ and still wanted an income, but saw that there were not really any real designers in AZ to work with. So, he and I met and were going to work together, but I ended up not following through because he was so behind on technology. He didn’t even have email. He had to have his wife email me. So, he couldn’t even understand the nature of how I usually get my sales online or anything. He was not willing to learn technology either. I was shocked at how someone who could have been in such a high position at such a big company could be so behind on technology now. But, from what I’m reading here, I guess it is more common than I thought.

  5. Dawn says:

    As an online retailer, I have noticed that items with greater contrast (in print, or body and trim) photograph better and sell better. Lower contrast, subtle colors, complex pastels – all look drab. Much more difficult to get a good photo and those items sit unsold for longer. I’m sure one could hire a good photographer to overcome some of this but it is a challenge.

  6. cdbehrle says:

    I so agree with what Angela has to say, sales reps are a BIG problem. I have experienced reps sitting on line, giving samples away to curry favor and even stealing samples! I have given reps specific (and modestly realistic) goals, based on what I myself was able to sell (not considering myself a salesperson by any means) at the limited number of trade shows I could physically do. This limitation leads to a wall as Angela notes.

    There are way too many “reps” making promises that they either cannot keep (or have no intention of keeping) especially here in NYC where the wacked out business model is basically set up so DE pays reps rent and all expenses & gets little in return, including sales. There is little incentive for rep to actually do sales to on this model. As far as technology, I have never been able to figure out why the industry (buyers reps etc) did not embrace it fully a long long time ago. (In the late 90’s I was trying to distribute line sheets via cd-rom- boy, was that entertaining!)

    Finding a rep, I think, is like finding the holy grail….

  7. Very interesting. I don’t have a rep and sell my items online via a few sites – my own, and 2 others like Supermarkethq.com . I would have to say that a lot of my new customers find me through various blogs that write a feature about me. The ones I pursue are the ones that have a great big following of my target customers. Since I am about 1 1/2 years into the line, I have found that these features have been in a way my reps in that they send me customers and sales. I’ve also been contacted by stores through these and since anyone can view these I’ve had lots of international stores contact me as well. The photographs are key and well, having an adorable smiley baby modeling your item is “priceless”.
    -Alessandra

  8. Sandy Peterson says:

    This is my first post on here and yes, I am very nervous. Anyway…

    We have had this discussion in our family about taking photographs and some of our kids seem to think that we need better equipment before we can take good quality photos. But I have always disagreed with them. Why is it that I have seen professional photographers who use equipment that cost tens of thousands of dollars who have photos that do not look good!!

    When my husband and I got married we “hired” a “professional” to take our wedding pictures. At the same time, we had a friend just snapping pictures all day (we didn’t know about it until later) and our friend’s pictures were 10 times better then the professional that we hired!!

    Somehow I found this article online, and I thought that your readers would be interested in it. http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/notcamera.htm. With all due respect, it is in response to Barbs comment “I think companies will just understand that they need to invest in excellent photgraphers and web designers”. I don’t think that we need to spend money where it is not necessary.

    I have taken great photos with our Kodak EasyShare Z650. A cheap camera, as I call it, but at the same time, I have a son who just can’t take a good picture for nothing. As you will read in the link above, it’s not the camera.

    After I was done reading this article to my family, I would have to say that they were speechless.

  9. nowaks nähkästchen says:

    To come back to the question of the beginning… if you talk about “unintended consequences”, wouldn’t it be a good idea to define first, what the “intended” consequences are?

    My experience (in general, not with garment industry or retail business, because there I am nothing but a customer) says that unintended consequences are what happens if you did not plan well.
    Like just going online without having spent a thought whom you want to address and what you want to offer them.
    Going online with bad usability that makes your site unattractive to use for your market/intended customeres.
    Knowing what you want but never bothering with getting the knowledge (either by reading a lot of books about it or by paying someone who knows) how to act to reach that goal….

    If I read your post I get the impression that you expect more or less all important sale to happen online in the future?
    As far as clothing is concerned I am less sure about.
    As a customer nothing can replace the possibility to touch the fabric, to see the color in real and to put the garment on to see how it fits and how it moves on my very body. So online shopping is okay for garments that do not require much fit like simple T-Shirts or pull on pants for occasions where you just don’t care how it looks, but an evening gown or even a good business suit? Not really…

    So one consequence might be that fashion industries divides, some garments beeing produced for brick and mortar stores, needing hanger appeal but also being able to show interesting textures, using fabrics that feel good when you touch it, etc. and others that are produced and marketed for online sale.

  10. Marie-Christine says:

    Totally right about the need to design for the camera, that’s just the way things are. SOME of your sales are going to be in circumstances where the camera does it all. And supplying a real live store with good photos helps them with their advertising, and means that your clothes will be more likely to be featured, not a bad deal.

    One thing about the camera for instance is making sure you have light-colored samples, even if what you’re selling is mostly black. Might be worth picking light grey over pale green if you want to keep to a NY image :-).

    Another unintended effect is that we’ll probably see even more coffin clothes in the future. (I used to call them ‘catalog clothes’ till I ran across Kathleen..). If that’s not what you do, be sure to provide a back photo as well!

    I also agree with Rebecca that consistent fit goes a long way toward getting a regular customer, and that easy and hassle-free returns are essentials to someone even trying to test whether your fit works for them. This is not just true for long-distance orders, I’m more likely to go back to a live store if I get something there that fits me the first time. And Sandy, you’re right that professional photographers don’t always give great results, but you’re fooling yourself if you think you can produce great photos without decent equipment and at least basic skills.

    As to sales rep without email, I’m just boggled at the thought that half of them are in that state! I can’t even believe any can survive at all without it. Off with their heads. That’s inexcusable in the current state of the world.

  11. vee says:

    Good reading material. I am on my fourth digital camera. The first two costed under twenty dollars and didn’t have a screen. I had to plug into the computer to view the pictures. This became annoying but that was ten years ago. I still have the cameras. The third was an Olympus I loved that camera, I paid two hundred dollars for it. Someone stole it from my briefcase at work. My fourth camera is an Kodak. It was cheap. It does the job for selling on ebay before I launch my own website. It takes practice for various lighting techniques. I still enjoy my 35mm olympus camera but need the digital in order to sell on line.

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