Retailers try on online clothes reviews for size
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Online shoppers are accustomed to reading customer reviews of books ("no plot!"), electronics ("too expensive!") and computer equipment ("just what I wanted!"). Now, a growing number of Web sites that sell clothing are giving shoppers a chance to post their picks and pans of apparel online as well.
Sears Holdings Corp.'s Sears.com and Federated Department Stores Inc.'s Macys.com added reviews in recent months, as did smaller sites such as Genesco Inc.'s Journeys.com, which sells shoes. Gap Inc.'s new Piperlime shoe site is considering adding reviews next year. And at J.C. Penney Co., customer reviews are "something that our internal teams are looking into," a spokesman says.
The result: Shoppers online are tipping each other off on everything from how the latest fashions fit to who's wearing them.
"I love the shoes they are great and would love to wear them again but my big toes feel differently about that," read a review of a Steve Madden Pawla platform peep-toe pump on Macy's.com.
Some retailers, particularly at the higher-end, remain skittish about exposing their merchandise to customer critiques. But a growing contingent are adding reviews in a bid to lure more traffic to their sites, convert browsers into buyers and reduce the costs and hassles of returns.
The moves mark a coming-of-age for online apparel retailing. While Amazon.com and shopping-comparison sites such as Pricegrabber.com and Epinions.com have long allowed apparel reviews, such postings on skirts, jackets and cocktail dresses have been "sparse," says Pricegrabber.com Chief Executive Kamran Pourzanjani. That's because online apparel shopping has only recently taken off, and shoppers have yet to establish the kind of consumer "communities" that techies have, he adds.
Some retailers use the reviews as a form of market research. When several customers recently posted negative reviews of a shoe sold by Macys.com, complaining of fit problems, the department-store behemoth's site responded by pulling the shoe, says Peter Sachse, chairman of Macy's.com. (He declined to identify the shoe.) "We view the site as informational and interactive, not just for purchasing," he says. The site has received more than 350 customer reviews a day since it began posting them in September, fueled partly by contests for gift-card giveaways offered to reviewers. The result has been "a very engaged customer," Mr. Sachse says.
Some retailers even actively solicit reviews, waiting a few days after a customer buys an item online, then sending an email with a link to a review form on the site. Or, customers can go to a Web site themselves and click a link to get a review form.
Apparel reviews are taking off in part because tech vendors such as PowerReviews of Millbrae, Calif., and the Austin, Texas, firm Bazaarvoice have recently started offering the service to retailers. PowerReviews adds customer-review platforms to retailers' sites in exchange for rights to post the reviews on its own reviews site. Bazaarvoice, whose clients include Macy's and Sears, charges retailers $2,000 a month, based on traffic and transaction volumes, plus fees for extra features like internal searches and photo postings.
Other big retailers that recently have added customer comments to their sites include Home Depot Inc., Petco Animal Supplies Inc. and outdoor retailers Cabela's Inc. and Bass Pro Shops.
Critiques can be quite pointed, as was the case recently at Target Corp.'s Target.com, which was early to feature customer reviews on clothes, posting reviews for the past four years on a site that's powered by Amazon. The store had touted a $44.99 sleeveless taffeta dress by upscale designer Behnaz Sarafpour, saying it would "shine in the boardroom or on the boardwalk." But one reviewer called it "really cute ... for a junior-high dance." Another complained of a "weird bustline" that was "absurdly poofy." A third ruled that it was "cut for an elf."
The tech vendors like PowerReviews and Bazaarvoice have staffers who screen the review emails for relevance and objectionable content, such as profanity. But negative comments about merchandise remain intact, the companies say.
Advocates of reviews say the feedback is more useful than focus groups because shoppers tend to be so frank in their emails. Another benefit for retailers: Reviews boost traffic by adding keywords that might not turn up in a retailer's product description, but might be used by shoppers to search for clothing online, says Jason Billingsley of Elastic Path Software, a Vancouver-based consultant.
Some reviews do such a good job that they look suspicious, Mr. Billingsley says. A recent online review that read "Festive yet classy. Simple yet dressy. Comfy yet still fun," and prominently included the name of the maker, raised his eyebrows. On top of the sales-pitch diction, the entry contains "tons of keywords" that would come in handy as search terms, Mr. Billingsley says. Such a review "could raise suspicion and cause us to investigate," says Sam Decker, vice president of marketing at Bazaarvoice. However, while other online retailers, notably travel resorts, have received attention in the past for alleged fake reviews, "we have not seen this to be a problem" in apparel, Mr. Decker adds.
Some apparel retailers say fashion changes too quickly for online reviews to be useful. "Building up a bunch of feedback on products that are designed to sell through seasonally is not necessarily valuable," says Toby Lenk, president of Gap Inc. Direct, which runs Web sites for Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Reviews are more useful for retailers like Macy's that sell lots of different brands that consumers can discuss, he says.
Luxury retailers also have been wary of reviews. Upscale forums such as Conde Nast Publications's Style.com have flourished, but the commentary comes from highbrow fashion writers rather than shoppers. Having meticulously cultivated their brands, some luxury retailers may be wary of customer postings that might point out lower-priced alternatives to their wares, including knockoffs.
Macy's parent Federated Department Stores hasn't added reviews to its pricier Bloomingdale's site, and "isn't yet planning to," spokesman Jim Sluzewski says. And at Nordstrom, where the site offers real-time help from sales assistants, customer reviews are "currently not a priority," a spokeswoman says.
While clothing reviews tend to be more subjective than those for, say, digital cameras, some are finding ways to attach specs to clothing. The Journeys.com shoe site, for instance, asks customers to comment on size, width, comfort, uses, pros and cons, in addition to describing themselves. An upgrade to the Macy's site early next year may allow shoppers to move sliding bars between extremes such as fitted and relaxed, modern and classic and night and day, says Brett Hurt, Chief Executive of Bazaarvoice.
Andy Chen, Chief Executive of PowerReviews, says his firm aims to lure more apparel clients with new features, including allowing shoppers to post pictures of themselves modeling clothes. "I'll be surprised if apparel in a year isn't as heavily reviewed as technology is," he says.
But some shoppers, like Kate Riley, a 19-year-old New Yorker who frequents Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue, aren't excited about the prospect of poring over fashion reviews online. Ms. Riley, in fact, finds the idea "geeky." While a review might be useful for judging the quality of an item, she says she doesn't care what other people think of the styles she likes. "If it's all about quality over style," she adds, "then that seems almost anti-style."
A sampling of customer comments on retail Web sites:
For a dress on Macys.com: "I got A LOT of compliments but three other girls had it. ... an awesome dress but way too common."
For a T-shirt on Journeys.com: "When you sweat you don't feel it has much as a regular tee."
For a pair of jeans on Target.com: "The back pockets are so perfectly placed -- your butt will thank you."
Sources: the Web sites
First Published December 7, 2006 12:00 am