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April 13, 2012 6:29 PM

Letting Go Online

Fashion's best brand managers are, at their core and in the nicest possible way, control freaks....

Fashion's best brand managers are, at their core and in the nicest possible way, control freaks. They have a strong vision and they stick to it. They are on-message all the time and that's what helps them be heard above the din. When Ralph Lauren opens a shop, sends a look down the runway, lays out an ad campaign, signs up for a cause or shows off his fine car collection, it's all so, Ralph Lauren -- and almost everybody knows just what being "Ralph Lauren" means.

In this regard, there are many who aspire to be Ralph Lauren, and some come close. Younger brands, though, might not be able to enjoy or even want to achieve the same kind of control. The consumer now wants to play a more active role and interact with brands.

Empowering the shopper with a sense of control has, in fact, become the point of differentiation for e-commerce Web sites, according to new research made available online by the Journal of Retailing this week.

Having collected questionnaires from 220 online shoppers in the U.S. and Europe, four researchers put some of their academic mojo to work and found that online shopping experience is no longer determined by the skill of the user or the speed of a Web site. Those two are kind of no-brainers, but get this -- the researchers also found that, "While a high degree of emphasis is still placed upon the visual design, graphical features, and technical functionality of e-retail Web sites, these are of less importance to the customer." So it doesn't even matter, so much, that a Web site is attractive. Or at least, that won't really help set one apart.

"Of more importance is a sense of control and empowerment," the researchers said. "This is a powerful insight for e-retailers because control influences the emotional feelings generated in online transactions."

The study found three ways brands can help online users feel they have control. They can make the site easy to use, they can allow users to customize the experience so they can "form their own rituals and routines" and they can enable consumer-to-consumer interaction, letting shoppers exchange thoughts.

This is still just the tip of the iceberg. Consumers have been grabbing more control for some time -- venting their frustrations, ideas and kudos in online reviews, using electronic stores as showrooms as they buy their gadgets online and so on. Ralph Lauren did indeed get in the game in a way, allowing customers to customize their Polo shirts.

This is a game, though, that's going to be played best by new brands born in this environment. Take Warby Parker, the online eyewear company. The site has options, but it isn't overloaded. You can take a picture of yourself and try on glasses digitally. They will send you five frames to test out at home. They have free shipping, free returns. The consumer feels very much like a part of the process.

There's more to do to become more interactive and it's going to be the new companies that will truly be able to accept collaboration into who they are.

As Neil Young -- an aging rocker who's always managed to seem young -- said: "We were right, we were giving/And that's how we kept what we gave away."

Many of today's big brands are just never going to operate that way.

The study, "Online Customer Experience in e-Retailing: An empirical model of Antecedents and Outcomes," was put together by Susan Rose and Moira Clark of the University of Reading, Phillip Samouel of Kingston University and Neil Hair of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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