Is fashion a step too far for Amazon?

For many retailers, Amazon can feel like an undefeatable giant. As if its achievements to date aren’t sufficient, the e-tailer has announced its first foray into private-label fashion brands – but is this a step too far?

Undoubtedly, Amazon has a loyal customer base. The site has 244 million active users and is widely praised for its convenience, prices and extensive choice of products. Jeff Bezos and colleagues also have deep pockets when it comes to fulfilment, which will ensure fashion followers get their purchases as quickly as possible, regardless of cost.

However, Amazon’s widespread appeal may also be its Achilles Heel. If their audience is everyone, how are they going to segment that vision for the highly targeted world of fashion?

To be successful, Amazon is going to have to compete with online upstarts like ASOS and internationally-established retailers like Topshop, which both have a strong following from style-savvy shoppers.

Equally, because they are focused on fashion and fashion only, the likes of ASOS and Topshop have had time to really get to know their customers – not just what clothes they like, but how they shop, what their interests are, what media channels they use. This has enabled them to craft a brand based around a clear picture of their target market.

So, is Amazon trying to conquer too much with a foray into fashion?

If anyone is going to make a new venture yield returns, it’s going to be Amazon. After all, the e-tailer has good knowledge of fashion already, having sold clothes since 2008. It added a series of high-profile names to its repertoire last year, including Hugo Boss and Gucci, and opened Europe’s largest fashion photography studio in London last summer.

Amazon is also investing in a knowledgeable leader to increase its chances of private-label success; the former womenswear boss of Marks and Spencer will be heading up the launch. With a background in how fashion and consumer behaviour, she may have what it takes to ensure Amazon’s new foray is completely customer focussed.

There are two things that will ultimately determine its success. The first is how well it can use the wealth of data it generates to map its fashion offering to potential customers.

The second is a problem that faces all online retailers: how well it can promote its private-label range without potential customers being able to feel and try garments.

While online is ideal for items such as electronics and entertainment, clothes are very visual, and many consumers still treasure the act of going into a store. Fashion shopping is a leisure activity, and asking a sales assistant to bring you a different size is always going to be easier than buying something in two sizes and sending one back – no matter how quick and simple the returns service.

Only time will tell whether Amazon lives up to its self-described vision of ‘the ultimate fashion destination’, but it needs to apply the innovative thinking for which it’s renowned to triumph in a world which values style AND substance.

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Are we teetering on the edge of a fashion brand crisis?

Brits don’t care about brands. That’s the latest declaration from Kantar Worldpanel, which this week revealed fewer UK shoppers are buying goods based on the label.

Fit, quality and price are now much more important purchasing factors – which is understandable, considering the memory of economic austerity still looms large for most shoppers. Indeed, purse pinching has led to a rising thrift shopping trend, meaning many consumers are likely to boast about a second-hand purchase rather than new designer threads.

There have already been casualties of falling brand sentiment; Kantar points to the decline of Ben Sherman, and the metamorphosis of other labels such as Diesel, which has begun producing cheaper ranges to supplement its flagship ranges.

However, this potential brand crisis isn’t solely the fault of cautious consumers. In reality, it’s growing increasingly difficult for brands to have a close relationship with their customers. The plethora of marketplaces through which they trade have obscured their view of shoppers, so not only are the transactions taking place within a third party portal, consumer data is being retained by that third party too.

Even on the High Street, brands often have to make compromises, particularly where they employ a concession strategy. They do not have the capacity or resources to merchandise the same way as in their own stores, and the personnel serving their customers aren’t always as clued-up on their products and values.

But this isn’t necessarily a death knell for the fashion brand as we know it – it’s just time to change approach. Many brands are exploring new routes to trade directly in online markets, while others are looking at technologies that can enhance bricks-and-mortar experiences.

Fashion retailers such as House of Fraser have already reshuffled their business infrastructure around the needs of the customer, and brands need to make sure they are doing the same.

More than that, they need to ensure this customer-centricity trickles right through their every presence – which may mean investing in point of sale technology to better ‘sell’ the brand to shoppers in-store, or a network that enables faster communications and transactions for greater convenience.

For mid-range brands currently struggling to make their mark, it’s worth looking at the techniques being employed by luxury goods designers. By focusing on customer experience, and building a store network that can support the digital devices needed to bring store bricks-and-mortar shopping to life, luxury shopping has weathered market difficulties and emerged relatively unscathed.

The more brands can turn their physical presence into a theatre, the greater chance they have of engaging shoppers. If the name itself can’t carry customers, they need to make sure their service can.