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The Tips and Tricks of Designing for E-Commerce

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While there’s no question that e-commerce has changed the way retailers sell their products, what’s also true is that it has had a big impact on how those products are designed in the first place.

The characteristics that might drive a consumer to pick up a dress or pants in store aren’t necessarily going to prompt consumers to fill their virtual carts, so brands are constantly tweaking product attributes with online sales in mind.

Betting on boldness is one way brands are trying to stand out—something difficult to do in a saturated retail landscape where items can as easily go viral as they can go overlooked.

According to retail analytics company Edited, which tracks online product inventory across the market, there’s been a shift away from black and neutrals with decreased product arrivals for both sets of colors in 2018. Instead, consumers are more keen on brights like green, yellow and red, across all apparel categories year-over-year, according to Edited analyst Aoife Byrne.

The trend toward color has also been fueled by ’80s nostalgia, resulting in aqua, fuchsia and teal collectively seeing double the number of full-priced sellouts compared with 2017 and demonstrating consumers’ current taste for stand-out pieces, Byrne added.

While color is one option, not every hue is a guaranteed hit online.

As Sherry Wood, director of merchandising for textile maker Texollini, explains, a brand might find that a particular color doesn’t read well online, and so a print might work better. “What gets photographed and works better visually—which yes, a lot of that has to do with color or texture and prints—that sort of thing is what helps sell,” Wood said, adding that anything with surface interest like texture or raised surfaces with a three-dimensional effect, metallic shine, or sparkle are also popular online.

Those same apparel principles apply to the lingerie market, since online sell-outs are as much about standout colors as they are about creating the illusion of a multi-dimensional product on a two-dimensional platform. But choosing the right fibers and fabrics to achieve that effect is “the secret recipe and there is no certainty about it these days,” said Arnaud Limousin, managing director of lacemaker Brunet.

“We tend to go for light [lace] grounds where the motifs will stand out and be very visual. It could also have tiny design details which are going to show up when customers are zooming in,” Arnaud explained. “Different layers and the ability to create dimension even on a rather flat product is also very interesting.” For example? “A floral motif where the petals are not 100 percent filled in will create the idea of volume and bring refinement.”

And though lingerie trends have shifted over the last few years—one can’t help but think of the searing headlines about the bra-killing bralette—according to Arnaud, when it comes to selling lingerie online, “the authentic Chantilly lace look is always a must.”

Beyond aesthetics, online sales are often determined by fit, which can mean wovens lose out. “Typically, knits [better sellers] since there are usually fewer returns and people are much less reluctant to purchase them because they are less concerned about fits,” said Kathryn Hilderbrand, chief executive and founder of garment maker The Good Company. Even though woven fabrics are more likely to introduce fit issues, there are still some unexpected woven winners. The Good Company’s stretch denim, for example, was a surprising sell-through, which in turn led to the production of new colorways and garments using that item’s fully developed base pattern.

But design isn’t the only differentiator between online and in-store. E-commerce shoppers are also more likely than their brick-and-mortar counterparts to be wooed by a compelling story.

Regardless of the popularity of a print or textile, Wood explained that the value proposition for shoppers isn’t about a garment or fabric itself, rather, it’s about the marketing behind it, be it one about ethical sourcing and sustainability or, as is the case for Texollini, a Made in the USA tale. “The big trend with online consumers is that they care about transparency, the story behind where a fabric is made…That’s what has been important,” she said.

While the industry has a few rules of thumb, none of this is an exact science, which is why it’s good that testing products is also easier via e-commerce thanks to the latest supply chain innovations.

First, both digital native brands and omnichannel retailers have shifted their production practices such that they can afford to test new products. Producing smaller runs of a new offering means mitigating the risk that comes with producing an item at scale that ends up being a dud at market.

As Hilderbrand explained, it’s more costly to produce fewer items in the short-run, but that upfront cost ultimately mitigates losses if a product is unsuccessful. While The Good Company’s typical manufacturing run might consist of 1,000 units of a product, Hilderbrand said her company is able to produce as few as 10 units to test the market.

“As an e-commerce brand and a manufacturer, we’ve had to learn to grow and be flexible and be quicker in changing our design thinking and our design process,” Hilderbrand said. “And with online, we need to be agile, and to be prepared to move on a dime.”

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