Let’s Get Virtual: How the Internet has changed the (fashion) game

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Written by: Frances Connolly
LdM Fall 2014 Fashion & Study Abroad student

 

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Happy Birthday to you! As I’ve recently learned in my Introduction to Fashion class at LdM, August 10th, 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the invention of online shopping. The first-ever purchase was a $12.48 Sting CD; twenty years, millions of transactions, and billions of dollars later, online retailing has really up-ed its game. In honor of this big birthday, we’ve been exploring how online shopping has shaped the modern fashion world – be that fashion retailers, fashion lovers, or fashion designers. Growing up in a generation where we’ve always had online shopping, it’s been pretty cool to take a closer look at the fashion world before things got virtual. I invite you to consider a few then and nows to better understand just how much this online medium has affected the modern shopping experience.

 

First, think about the physical realm of where you shop. Back then: People came into stores and relied on a salesperson to advise them on what to buy, including things as personal as what size they would be to which colors best suit their complexion. Retailers played a major role in determining what was in a shopper’s wardrobe. But now: shoppers have become accustomed to doing their own research in order to get the biggest bang for their buck. Spend enough time surfing the web today, and you’ll acquire a wealth of knowledge about current trends, emerging brands, differing price points, and even the quality of certain fabrics, ultimately becoming an educated shopper. Shoppers now know what size they are in any particular brand, which fabrics they prefer, what styles look best suit their figures, and can even compare prices of the same item amongst various retailers. But what does all this mean? For one, salespeople do not need to be as specialized as they were in the past, with the exception of high-end luxury retailers. Secondly, competition is fiercer among retailers. Different incentives, such as customer rewards or free shipping, can make or break a retailer’s success as noted by my teacher, Professor Alessandra Ferroni, who has a background working in fashion marketing for major retailers like Bloomingdales and Nordstrom.

 

Which leads me to my next then and now… Let’s take a look at the reputation of retailers. Back then: Shopping was considered a recreational activity, an experience shared by friends and family. Retailers relied on word-of-mouth to get their new products out there, and small shops stood a chance at competing with major retailers thanks to their local clientele, as I learned from the Giorgio Armani documentary shown in class last Monday. Armani was able to make the leap from owning a small design office in Milan that serviced local clients to becoming a major fashion empire that influences up to this day the fashion world thanks to a few (very) good words shared between the (very) right people. But now: word-of-mouth has been replaced by its technological counterpart, word of keyboard…unfortunately, not nearly as catchy. Today, a store or designer’s success is not necessarily dependent on the fashion elite’s opinion, but more so the average customer. People are sharing their opinions on stores and their products and services with millions of people in real time. Slip-up and upset the right amount of wrong customers, and retailers today face the threat of losing major business. The upside of this quick communication? Smart retailers have recognized that the web can be a double-edged sword…opportunity lies in this digital world, too. Retailers have begun to use targeted advertisements to trace a customer shopping behavior. Like magic, an advertisement appears for the very same shoes you were admiring just moments ago on the sites you visit most often. Invasive? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.

 

And there ya have it kids, some retail then and nows! Whether or not the Internet has changed the shopping experience in a positive or negative way is a matter of opinion, one that I invite you to make. But the most important lesson that I’ve taken away from looking at the way the Internet has affected the way we shop expands beyond the computer screen. I’ve seen how important it is to look actively around you, including the past and its perspectives, the result being a better understanding of our world and how we relate to it. And I think that’s pretty cool!