Shopping online is becoming the preferred method to purchasing everything from groceries to electronics, and more people are embracing it to fuel their fashion needs.
Today, people are using online retailers more than ever for their fashion purchases.
According to datafeedwatch.com, in 2018, the industry generated a worldwide revenue of US$481bil (RM2.02 trillion), which rose to US$545bil (RM2.29 trillion) in 2019 and is projected to rise further to US$713bil (RM2.99 trillion) by 2022.
While an e-commerce site serves up additional revenue to their in-store sales for conventional brick-and-mortar stores, many brands have gone the way of choosing an online-only sales platform.
Sure, there is the matter of getting your sizing wrong, but most brands provide a detailed measurement chart as well as videos to help you choose the correct size. Plenty of brands also feature models of different shapes and sizes, including user reviews to aid you in your shopping experience.
If all else fails, it’s never been easier to return items that don’t suit you, as many brands have partnered with convenience stores where you can easily drop off items you wish to return.
For brand founders, running a retail business without a brick-and-mortar store is no longer a grey area.
Homegrown fashion brand Whimsigirl launched in 2017, but as the years went by, they felt that a fully online presence gave them more room to grow.
“As a startup in the early years, cash flow is king and we always think of options that would maximise returns. We chose to invest in online marketing, talents and production and an in-house warehousing system. Rather than committing to brick-and-mortar at the beginning, we opted for physical pop-ups instead,” says founder Syazana Sukiman.
When the pandemic hit, they thanked their lucky stars that they did not have a retail store at the time.
“We’re forced to bulk up and face the uncertainty but we ended up finding creative solutions and were able to design better products and our sales grew exponentially! Being online has worked so well for us and we’re excited to grow more in the space,” she adds.
Kulet, a Malaysian-based footwear brand that offers staple nude colour palettes that complement different skin tones, was launched in 2016 and has always operated online.
Founders Julie Anne Kang and Aina Syahirah work closely with local craftsmen to create footwear for a predominantly female customer base.
“We have always operated fully online as our target was to reach a bigger audience throughout the region,” says Kang, who adds that their pieces emphasise on comfort and wearability.
Hanya, run by founder Tan Veen Dee, has a physical presence in weekend markets, and is available in Isetan, but only during Eid.
“We have no plans to include a brick-and-mortar in our near future due to the uncertainty of the economy, the difficulty in securing good ground manpower and we are pretty strong online,” quips Tan.
“I have always run Hanya as an e-commerce platform rather than a fashion label, hence, offline has not crossed my mind though there were many offers along the way. With online, we can serve people in Brunei, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia all at the same time but we can’t do that with offline, it’s just not economically realistic for a small local brand like us.”
Persevering through uncertain times
Sales fell for many during the pandemic, but for these online stores, business didn’t suffer too much. At Whimsigirl, sales did dip but only during the early part of the pandemic.
“We had to dig deep, find creative solutions and step out of our comfort zone because we felt like we had nothing to lose. Sales only dipped for a month or two but quickly stabilised and we were back on track to meet our projected target by year-end,” says Syazana.
“Being in the pandemic forced consumers to familiarise themselves with online shopping and by now most consumers are happy to continue shopping online. We also offer all kinds of perks and exciting online shopping experiences,” she adds.
At Kulet, operating during the height of the pandemic was a challenge as their production lines were directly affected by the numerous lockdowns.
“Luckily we have since picked up the pace and seen an increase in sales once again since people are going out more,” says Kang.
Other brands diversified their repertoire, by pivoting their businesses.
Hanya has sold more than 20,000 fabric face masks so far and are expanding the category to include disposable masks as well.
“We are very fortunate to be hit by ‘Covid magic’, also we managed to pivot into selling face masks, so face masks really did help us and elevate the business. We are re-introducing more grab and go clothing, such as oversized shirts and tops that are more comfortable yet chic,” says Tan.
Getting the word out
Without physical stores and potential sales from walk-ins, online-only brands need to be creative with marketing in order to improve their visibility.
For many, this means focusing on building a community around the brand to get word of mouth going through their own customers.
“We find that new customers tend to trust someone they know before making a purchase and they either ask a friend or refer to product reviews on the website,” quips Syazana.
“We have highly engaged online customers and our approval rate on our site is super healthy. Building trust with the customers we already have is key, once they love you, they’ll spread the love to people they love.”
Tan adopts a similar philosophy, and ensures they are consistent with their social media messaging and engagement.
“The dream is to build a community, and a community does not necessarily need a constant physical presence to maintain. We are very consistent with the messages we sent out on our social media, constantly engaging our customers not only on a commercial level but an emotional level, making them feel included,” she says.
Another way to market products organically is to allow and encourage customers to share their experiences.
“We encourage our customers to share their experience with our products, as we believe that word of mouth is very effective therefore customer satisfaction is very important in improving the visibility of our brand,” says Aina.
Every once in a while, brands take advantage of weekend markets and pop-up store opportunities, as this is a great way for them to meet new customers, connect with existing ones and to give them the chance to experience their products in the flesh.
“Yes, before the pandemic we participated in a handful of pop-ups as we wanted to interact with our customer base,” says Kang. “It was essential for us to have a physical presence from time to time for our customers to try their sizes and get a real feel of Kulet’s products.
“This in turn helped ease their shopping experience on our website in the future. It’s always an enjoyable experience for the both of us whenever we get to meet and get to know our customers in person.”
To Tan, reconnecting with the brand’s community once in a while is important and weekend markets and pop-ups are the perfect platform.
“It’s a short-term commitment, yet it still preserves that exclusivity that we are after,” she says.
Ups and downs
With online businesses, the flexibility factor is a major plus point when it comes to operations.
“Cost savings on the rental is a big one. Especially in malls where they will usually have a revenue share percentage for sales made in-store,” explains Syazana. “But operating online also gives us the flexibility and freedom to experiment with what works best for us in terms of design, production quantity, location of pop-ups and others.”
For Kang and Aina, when the pandemic broke out, running the business on their own meant that they had less to worry about.
“By being purely online we could easily adjust to changes of the current situation without facing too many losses. At the same time we did not have to worry about maintaining a store front and all the cost that comes with it,” says Aina.
“We also could operate from our own homes during a handful of months in 2021, and that was key in seeing our business continue throughout those challenging times.”
Thanks to data crunching and various ways to track consumer behaviour, it’s becoming easier to cater to a customer base.
“For me, it’s more on the scalability of the business, the speed and the convenience to scale our business is easier to do it online,” opines Tan.
“We are currently investing in data crunching and analytics to forecast our fashion trends. We can’t do that with offline data, it’s just too difficult to retrieve. With online, we acquire customer behaviours from their cursors’ behaviour, such as our customers’ time on site, website bounce rates and heat maps, these are all very important to us.”
The downsides to running an online business include the lack of that physical touch element – many customers still need to feel, touch and try on items before they make a purchase.
Brands do their best to recreate that in-person experience through video content that shows clothes from various angles, and they offer free returns and exchanges.
“Being purely online, we do not have the benefit of customers being able to try on their sizes before purchasing. As consumers ourselves we understand these struggles, therefore we try our very best to provide as much information as possible to aid them in their purchase. We probably face more size exchange requests than a physical store,” says Kang.
The e-commerce model also misses out on last-minute shoppers who may need a dress or shoes the same day.
“Any express shipping strategy won’t be able to beat a grab-and-go convenience,” notes Tan.
Staying true to their goals
Despite these obstacles, online-only brands continue to forge ahead by finding ways to improve their services and product quality.
“Seeing the growth in the local shoe industry is such a good sign for our brand as it means there is a demand for locally made shoes,” opines Aina.
“We see it as a healthy competition. As appealing as it is to adjust and fit to the growing market and trends, we believe it’s important to stay authentic to our brand ethos.”
At Whimsigirl, the community of real women is always at the heart of the business, catering to women who juggle work, home, children, school and relationships.
“Our job here essentially is to make getting dressed and tackling day to day life easier for our ladies by providing thoughtfully designed products that are both timeless and easy,” explains Syazana.
“We want to help with some mental clutter so that you have extra head space to tackle real-life ‘things’ to the best of your ability.”