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Who Has a Better Site Experience? M&S and Next Beat Pure-Play UK Rivals

The influence of online pure-play retailers such as Asos and Boohoo has been undeniable, especially during the pandemic—in fact, both companies now crack the top five e-commerce sites in the market based on visits, alongside online giants in Amazon and eBay, according to a recent Wunderman Thompson Commerce report.

But a high volume of traffic doesn’t guarantee that sales are converted. And although high street retailers across the country have been battered by store closures and bankruptcies due to extended lockdowns, they’re actually outperforming their online-only counterparts in the experience department.

While 42 percent of U.K. shoppers visited Asos and 39 percent went on Boohoo, the best online experiences came from four high-street retailers: Next, Marks & Spencer (M&S), New Look and H&M, the survey said.

While 30 percent of shoppers say they have visited Next, 80 percent ranked the site experience as good or excellent. Eighty percent said the same about M&S, even though only 24 percent have gone online to browse there. Conversely, although Amazon was by far the most-visited site with 60 percent of shoppers viewing it, 69 percent called it a good or excellent experience.

“To win online, retailers and brands need to adopt a service design approach to experience—from the top down and bottom up—focusing on the end-to-end customer journey from awareness through to post purchase, for new and returning customers,” Rachel Smith, director of customer experience, Wunderman Thompson Commerce, said in the report. “By looking at the macro and micro experience, human needs and tech platform and tooling, product, price, processes and reach—and not standing still, retailers and brands can create experiences that meet a desired customer need, enabling them to attract and retain customers.”

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The Wunderman Thompson research report analyzed the responses of 2,052 consumers who have bought fashion online at least once in the last month in the U.K. between Feb. 3-9.

Shoppers want new fashion every three weeks, and FOMO keeps kicking in

So how can these pure-play retailers go about building an ideal shopping experience? Newness is a factor in standing out among a sea of apparel players. Today’s fashion retailers feel the pressure that the fast fashion firms have thrust onto them in recent years, as they now have the burden of getting new products to the customer at a rapid rate.

Over the course of a year, consumers expect ranges to change on average 17.21 times, equating to new product introductions every three weeks. This means apparel and footwear retailers must make sure their e-commerce platforms and inventory management capabilities are up to speed with the task of deploying new lines at increasing scale—in essence allowing them to operate more like their fast-fashion peers.

Wunderman Thompson found that 30 percent of shoppers took roughly three hours to make a purchase, while 19 percent are self-described impulse shoppers who make their purchases immediately.

When asked what convinces them to buy on impulse, 40 percent cite exclusive offers, while 39 percent value positive ratings and reviews.

Tools that play on fashion shoppers’ fear of missing out seem to work well too, with time-sensitive deals (25 percent), limited stock of the item they want (25 percent), and high numbers of shoppers having previously bought the item (20 percent) all playing some factor in driving purchase urgency.

Across the ages studied, younger consumers are more affected by the urgency created by other shoppers; 26 percent of 16-24 year-olds said that they are encouraged to make quick purchase decisions if a high number of consumers have already bought the item. This falls sequentially as consumers get older, dropping to just 9 percent for over-55 age group.

And though they expect to see new products introduced at a rapid clip and decide on their purchases quickly, on average, U.K. fashion shoppers say they are happy to wait just 2.14 days for their online-ordered fashion items to arrive, an effect perhaps of Amazon’s influence on digital retail. One-quarter of respondents actually are less patient than that, with 7 percent expecting their products to arrive within 24 hours, and 18 percent expecting them to arrive by the next day.

As far as delivery payments go, many U.K. fashion shoppers want to go the Amazon Prime route as well, with 59 percent preferring to pay a one-off yearly fee for delivery, similar to what Asos offers. But the price they would pay isn’t anywhere as steep as a Prime subscription—consumers who chose a one-time annual spend were willing to pay an average of £15.91 (approx. $22).

Fit still holds back online fashion

Fashion retailers in general are still hindered by the fact that online don’t always provide the same experience as a physical store experience. The biggest barrier is one that will be tough for online to address; 26 percent of respondents cite that they want to touch and feel the product prior to purchasing.

According to the Wunderman Thompson Commerce research, fashion retailers are at least getting T-shirt fit right, with 73 percent of U.K. consumers rating them as an easy online purchase. Shoppers also have a high opinion of the online experience when it comes to jumpers and hoodies (70 percent), sleepwear (66 percent) and loungewear (63 percent), items somewhat less dependent on the nuances of fit.

It appears retailers hit their biggest snag in fitting bottoms for the online shopper. Twenty-five 25 percent of consumers say jeans were hard to purchase, with 22 percent saying the same about trousers. Women, in particular, find it harder to buy jeans online than men (29 percent vs 17 percent).

Swimwear (21 percent), lingerie (20 percent) and suits (20 percent) all round out the most difficult items to shop for online.

One way of addressing the difficulties is through the quality of content, but this present challenges with information regarding sizing being insufficient for many consumers (21 percent), as well as the content not being compelling enough to make a purchase with confidence (15 percent).

Shalina Ganatra, a client consultant at Wunderman Thompson Commerce, highlighted Asos’ Fit Assistant tool for personalized size recommendations and MatchesFashion’s enhanced size guide as tools that retailers can take inspiration from when crafting their own fit education strategy.

“Other brands have used a more visual approach such as photographing clothing on different sized models or providing product videos which gives customers a better sense of the material and styling of the item,” Ganatra said in the report. “Future developments in this area include the use of augmented reality and virtual reality to create virtual showrooms and the use of AI to build personal profiles for shoppers.”

Nevertheless, these brands still have opportunities to do better. While the balance of discounting and offering full price may be difficult, when it comes to fashion, 67 percent of consumers said they would think more of brands that enticed them with discounts and promotions. Thirty-two percent cited discounts and promotions as areas of improvement, tied with free returns for the areas retailers have the greatest opportunity to do better.

Purchase intent still starts at the e-commerce site

The key to delivering an exceptional shopping experience is to be able to understand the precise intent and specific goals of the shopper at the exact moment of engagement, according to David Newberry, chief marketing officer of AI-driven search and merchandising company Attraqt.

Inspiration for shopping decisions occurs most while browsing online, with 38 percent of consumers getting their encouragement there. E-commerce sites are well ahead of every other possible inspiration point, with in-store browsing (24 percent), social media (23 percent) and friends (23 percent) all carrying the same weight.

But the tides change depending on the customer’s age—social media platforms inspire 16-24 year-olds the most at 33 percent. Social media influencers are important for this age group too, with 26 percent taking inspiration from them, well above the 17 percent across ages.

Beyond the inspiration phase, retailers must understand more about the consumer’s search habits to find what they’re looking for. Forty-nine percent of shoppers search on brand websites and apps, ahead of search engines (41 percent), and Amazon searches (33 percent). The overall split between search options indicates that direct-to-consumer sites are important, but must form part of a balanced e-commerce strategy.

On average, fashion shoppers will have visited a site 3.33 times before making their purchase, with men visiting slightly more often than women (3.5 vs 3.25 times).

“With every visit, the intent of the shopper can change from browsing for inspiration on the first visit to validating their purchase decision for a specific product on their third or fourth visit,” Newberry said in the report. “The retailer must be able to understand this intent and then deliver the right experience in that exact moment; an experience that increases the perceived value of the product in the mind of the consumer and motivates conversion, by showing how it helps them achieve their goals.”

Newberry said that for retailers to convert searchers into purchasers ASAP, they can convey ethical sourcing, provide social proof, highlight performance benefits, provide ratings, enable product comparisons and offer multiple fulfillment options.