The Online Fashion Exodus

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. 


  1. Jaclin Murphy · ·

    I think you are right to pose the question, “is there something specific to fashion that is fundamentally missing in a digital model?” I would say yes. Fashion is inherently tricky to be online only, in my opinion, due to sizing. I find that from one store to the next sizing can vary a lot, particularly for women. If you try something on in the store and it doesn’t fit, no harm no foul, don’t buy it or grab something else off the rack. However, if it arrives in the mail, there’s a.) the frustration that you waited for this specific item and it’s not all you imagined, and b.) you have to go through the hassle of sending it back. As you mentioned virtual try-on could potentially be a solution. I have also heard of companies that send sample sizes, so you can actually see how their small, medium, large, etc. fits in real life. But at the end of the day I don’t think brick and mortar are going away anytime soon!

  2. dilillomelissa · ·

    I agree that there is going to be a mix of brick and mortar and online stores so that they can truly cater to all individuals. In many of my previous marketing classes, we’ve talked about the experiential factor in reaching a customer. Birchbox for example, is such a simple concept in providing trial sized samples and yet grew exponentially popular for consumer segments such as the fashionista, to bridal parties, to men! By getting something customized, the online world simply took off. I have always loved the idea of someone understanding my style and not having to actually shop. I tried out Stitch Fix for a while and still got some type of fun experience with picking out my style and receiving communication from a stylist without having the hassle of going shopping in a brick and mortar store. With that being said, the one thing that I cannot stand is online shopping fees. I honestly wait until there is a sale, free shipping, or some promo code that can either reduce prices or provides me with a free shipping label. I spend more time shipping things back for an extra cost than I want to admit. There are pros and cons to both ways of shopping and I am curious to see what other technologies that are relatively affordable to companies come out that can give consumers that experience we are looking for

  3. That’s actually extremely interesting. I have never heard the term “clicks to bricks” but it does make sense! Its an interesting business model to see how companies are using the inexpensive online presence as a way of testing the market, before investing “bricks” their first physical retail store. I think this idea is certainly a refreshing inversion of the stale business model at this point where business are going from “bricks to clicks” if you will. But I think this same business model has the potential to prove successful across industries! On a side note, I definitely think that as Augmented Reality has a real future in online retail. If you look at Wayfair for example, you can see what a piece of furniture would look like in you own living room and even have cloth strips sent to you to see how the colors match. Imagine the same in online fashion! What do you think?

  4. This is the first time I’ve heard the term “clicks-to-bricks” – it’s so interesting to see that a trend that you might vaguely notice in a visit to the mall is pervasive enough and happening on a large-enough scale to generate its own industry term. In so many of my management and marketing classes, we’ve learned that “straddling” between brick-and-mortar stores and the web is usually considered to be a guaranteed route to cannibalization and internal difficulties – as your post suggests, certain industries and the modern dynamic between online and in-person shopping seem to be turning this type of logic on its head. I think a lot of the entry (or re-entry) into physical stores, particularly for fashion, has to do with perception of quality and brand trust, even beyond whether or not a good or brand is considered to have luxury status. Virtually any brand or company can design a stellar website and present its products in the best light possible on the screen – it takes a much stronger product, strategic space design, and cohesive service experience to convince a customer that is company is worth buying from and engaging with. With the ubiquity of digital retail spaces today, it is possible that a web presence is no longer thought of as a product quality proxy.

  5. This is definitely a pressing trend in the fashion industry. I totally agree that a shopper’s experience is one of the most important factors in their relationship with a fashion brand; this factor increases dramatically when considering luxury brands. While a click’s only approach works for many emerging brands hoping to avoid high costs, and click-to-brick or even clicks-and-bricks work for many existing names in fashion, figuring out how to digitize from a luxury standpoint is one challenge that luxury brands face now. While almost every other industry has digitized and sells online, it is interesting to note that luxury fashion has been slow to do this, and that not all brands have made this switch. It will be interesting to see how they confront this in the future. Although the argument can be made that they have digitized through social media rather than online selling.

    I believe luxury brands you mentioned who don’t sell online likely do so because they can’t offer a the same quality experience as they do in stores. However, the 21st century customer (especially many luxury customers to whom money is no object), is increasingly demanding faster business. And if they can’t get instantaneous service via online from one brand, they may not have a problem taking their business somewhere with a strong online presence.

  6. Olivia Crowley · ·

    Last semester I attended the London College of Fashion while I was abroad for a ‘Fashion Business Semester’, and this topic was essentially the basis of most of the discussions we had in class. One huge buzzword that was mentioned time and time again was ‘experiential retailing.’ In the past decade, experiential retailing has emerged as a prominent contemporary trend that has allowed retailers to combat the vast shift toward shopping online. By merging various forms of entertainment and services with traditional shopping, the experiential retailing strategy allows retailers to use their physical stores as marketing opportunities to form deeper connections with prospective customers. I like how you mentioned Glossier, which is a really good example how a company can utilize this trend while simultaneously utilizing social media by urging customers to post photos while shopping at their stores. At this point in time, I am a strong believer that the best strategy for any fashion or retail company is to use clicks and bricks together in a synergistic type of way.

  7. Purchases of greater value are undeniably harder to make online. I always ask myself the following question before making a big purchase: “Do you love it?” If the answer is no, then I can’t seem to muster the courage to follow through with the purchase. The only way I can be confident enough to say that I love something is after I’ve seen it with my own eyes, touched it with my own hands, and tried it on in person. When it comes to clothing, especially, size measurements are always tricky. As convenient and effortless as an online shopping experience may be, I realize more and more that consumers are shifting to desire a more tangible, intimate customer experience. With the possibility of virtual reality affecting the fashion industry, I wonder whether it would pose more benefits than drawbacks. Sometimes, it’s simply better to stick with the classics.

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