I promise I’m not planning on writing about fashion for every blog, but I thought for my first real post I would stick with what I know. Something I’ve noticed throughout my time in the fashion industry and that I’ve wanted to do research on for a while now is what some industry professionals are calling the “clicks-to-bricks” model. “Clicks-to-bricks” refers to the trend of online-native retail brands opening brick-and-mortar locations, flipping the otherwise current trend of brick-and-mortar brands going digital. This trend presents an interesting question for the online fashion industry – is there something specific to fashion that is fundamentally missing in a digital model? Brands are being forced consider that while consumers love the ease of online shopping, they be starting to miss the instant gratification and convenience of trying clothes on in-store and leaving with a bag of new merchandise.
I’ll provide an anecdote from the online retailer I know best, Moda Operandi (where I interned this past summer). Moda Operandi was founded in 2010 by socialite and former Vogue editor Lauren Santo Domingo as the first and only online retailer that delivers the latest designer collections directly from the runway. Fashion runs a season ahead, so fall collections show in the spring, and spring collections show in the fall. This used to mean that only the lucky few invited to fashion shows could purchase the collections in advance of their season, and have the items right when the new season begins, rather than waiting for them to appear in stores at the beginning of the new season. Moda Operandi revolutionized this system by leveraging Lauren’s relationship with designers to get them to allow Moda Operandi customers to preorder designer collections as soon as they walk the runway, for delivery before the start of the new season. The site launched with amazing success, but Moda Operandi soon found that even fashion fanatics, who trust designers implicitly and will do anything for the latest items, could not always justify the risk of buying something sight unseen. Wedding dresses and fine jewelry, for example, were offered on the site, but were much more difficult to sell there. After a few years, Moda Operandi opened two by-appointment showrooms in New York and London, where customers can go to see, try on, and purchase a selection of the collections offered on the site. Moda Operandi also initiated a personal shopping service connected to the site and the showrooms, that offers stylists who will bring some collections to a customer’s home, or meet customers in the showroom. Moda Operandi appreciated that although their primary market would remain online for now, they needed to provide the experience and amenities of a physical store to reach a certain consumer. Countless online retailers have come to the same realization over the years, including, but of course not limited to, Glossier, Warby Parker, Rent the Runway, The RealReal, Rebag, Allbirds, Bonobos, BaubleBar, and Farfetch.
Moda Operandi still only operates two showrooms, but other online retailers have dived more fully into the transition. As of February 2018, Warby Parker operated 64 stores, and had plans to hit 100. It used to be a natural progression that if a brick-and-mortar store was doing well enough, it would start selling online. There might be a little back and forth between online and physical as online stores were used to expand a brand’s reach geographically, then used as an indicator for where there might be sufficient consumer interest to sustain a new physical store. However, the proliferation of the clicks-to-bricks model seems to suggest that the new way to grow might be exactly the other way around. These brands are starting with an online store, and moving to a physical store when they see a specific reason to or simply enough demand. They often start out with a showroom, but I personally believe the difference between a showroom and traditional retail store has little bearing on this exploration. Even Amazon, the undisputed king of online retail, wants boots on the ground. It’s acquisition of Whole Foods was a step in this direction, and it now operates seven brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Some online retailers test the waters of brick-and-mortar with pop-up stores, before making the major investment, but online retailers might also want to ask themselves if they should try more diligently to solve consumers’ complaints about online-only before considering an expensive transition to physical. Some brands try to address the gratification lag-time issue with ever-faster delivery time. Same-day delivery in major areas has become commonplace among luxury online retailers, but not all online brands can accommodate that. Some luxury online retailers offer delivery in as little as 90 minutes, but both 90-minute and same-day delivery come at a high price to brands and consumers alike. Some online retailers have found small ways to help the issue of try-on, like showing each item on models of different sizes, or allowing consumers to enter their measurements and have their sizes calculated. Yet neither of these are easier, faster, or more reliable than trying something on person. Online retailers are also working hard to incorporate virtual reality into their sites for virtual try-on experiences, but this too is expensive and time-consuming on both ends. All things considered, it’s possible that depending on the location, opening a physical store might actually be the easiest and least expensive way to solve these problems for customers.
If peer pressure and practicality aren’t enough to convince online brands to go physical, there’s always the opinions of the old masters. As I mentioned in my class expectations post, luxury brands have always been chilly towards the idea of online shopping. Most top-tier luxury brands, like Chanel and Hermes, still refuse to participant, while those who do still don’t offer their full collections online. They often view online shopping as critically antithetical to what their brands are all about, a major part of which is experience. Experience is the one thing that can perhaps never been accounted for online. Still, some brands try with interactive websites and virtual showrooms, but there is nothing like going to the store, which is the physical embodiment of the world of the brand. This is especially true if the customer is planning on spending a lot of money. Why spend $5,000 with the click of a button and receive your prized purchase in a cardboard box a week later, when you can spend the same $5,000 to get whatever you’re buying, plus a glass of champagne and the royal treatment in a beautiful boutique that smells like Chanel No. 5? Even Glossier, where the most expensive product is no more than $50, understands this principle. The decorative mirror in its showroom has starred in so many Instagram posts that it alone has increased brand visibility and has driven sales both online and in-store.
So, it seems like even brands that were born online find themselves reaching for the new frontier…or old frontier…of brick-and-mortar. I believe the truth is that, at least for fashion, both strictly online-only and strictly physical-only are basically things of the past. Now that we have had a taste of both, we can’t go back to just one way.