As online shopping becomes increasingly popular, brands and retailers compete to make it a more convenient experience, writes Kavita Daswani.
Take a photo on your smartphone of a fabulous pair of jeans in Milan and have near-identical options brought up on your screen almost immediately. Flick through the pages of a digital magazine on your iPad, touch an item on the screen, and have it bought, paid for and shipped right away. Read about a striking window display at a store in Barcelona, and order a handbag from it through your mobile phone in Shanghai.
The walls between traditional brick-and-mortar retail and online shopping are being dismantled, as consumers seek out speedier and more efficient ways to buy online, and luxury brands are compelled to adapt to a drastically changing retail landscape.
What that means is there are now capabilities that allow shoppers to give in to their desire for immediate gratification. Amazon Prime Air, if launched, uses unmanned aerial vehicles to get products into customers' hands within 30 minutes of ordering. Meanwhile , Slyce is at the forefront of visual recognition software. The Canadian-based company works with retailers whereby shoppers can take a smartphone picture of any product anywhere in the world, and be instantly connected with the closest available match. You could be walking down the street, spot a dress on a passerby, take a quick picture of it, and instantly be connected to a retail catalogue that can offer you the most similar item.
Slyce embeds the technology within the apps of top retailers, among them prestige department stores, connecting the shops with potential customers who are "browsing" anywhere in the world. The technology will launch next month.
"We worked around the concept of 'how do you take a moment of inspiration of seeing something and transforming it into a point of transaction?'" says Joel Smith, head of the company's business development.
"We are integrating with a lot of catalogues right now," he adds, explaining that the app will largely be useful for those seeking out fashion and jewellery products, but would later extend to home improvement, tools, toys and baby products. Until the partnerships are confirmed, Smith can't name the retailers participating, but can only say they would be among the biggest names in retail.
The Slyce technology has all manner of visual recognition applications: still in concept stage is an idea to implement "hot spots" within the boutiques and other retail spaces. As a potential customer walks in, his or her attributes and clothing are analysed, and merchandise options are suggested. The application is still at least a couple of years away.
For technologies available now, online retailer Moda Operandi allows impatient buyers to pre-order pieces straight off the runway, via what they call "online designer trunkshows".
Then there are technologies that let you window-shop from the world's top luxury stores when you're nowhere near the boutique, or even the country.
WindowsWear, a New York-based company that launched a few months ago, set itself up to allow shoppers in other parts of the world to purchase specifically from highly-curated windows in major prestige retailers and boutiques in the United States and Europe. Given the importance store windows have on the fashion landscape, the idea is an intriguing one. "It's meaningful information, because windows contain the latest fashion that exists and the must-have trends that people are looking for," explains Jon Harari, CEO and co-founder of WindowsWear.
Log in to the site and you can browse the windows of Fendi in Knightsbridge, Herve Leger on Rodeo Drive, Diane Von Furstenberg in Paris or Maje in New York's Soho district. The site is easy to navigate; a click allows you to shop the window directly, and go straight to the specific items located in them.
"The world is already globalised, and the trend is in continued globalisation," Harari says. "If you're a retailer in New York, and the Chinese market is important to you, you should be thinking about any commerce opportunity to that market. If you're in China, whatever is in a window, or New York, London or Paris is important merchandise. The window is a very easily understood opportunity."
The site has 300 shop-able windows in the high-fashion/luxury category from European and American fashion capitals. Among the most popular are Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Harari says his goal is to feature windows from up to 20 fashion capitals from around the world before the end of 2014, including those in Hong Kong and China.
Because of the ease of this virtual window-shopping, Harari says many customers tend to buy the entire ensemble as seen on a mannequin, all with a few clicks of a button. China is a big focus for WindowsWear. In January, the company announced a partnership with Diexun in China, the country's leading online trend analysis and research company. And, as more and more countries help with shipping and customs requirements, a potential shopper in Taipei or Hong Kong need only wait a few days to have an entire look shipped from Tory Burch in London, or Joseph in Paris. Windows - and, as a result, shopping options - are updated monthly. New applications and features aren't the only thing changing the retail landscape; the shopping medium itself is also evolving rapidly. One of the biggest trends in online shopping is via mobile: executives say that being able to shop easily and efficiently via tablets and smartphones will be among the largest growth areas in the realm of e-commerce - so much so that technology is already in plto allow shoppers to tap an image of a product in a digital magazine on their tablet, and have it instantly be placed in an online shopping cart, paid for, and shipped.
Coach Wei, the CEO of Boston-based Yottaa, a company which helps retailers enhance their mobile shopping technology, says that mobile traffic for shopping has increased 77 per cent over the past 16 months - much of that concentrated on smartphones.
Still, as more and more luxury purchases transpire online, with a growing number of luxury sites coming into being all the time, a host of potential problems arises - not least among them counterfeiting. It's a trap all too easy to fall into: a shopper could be physically at a designer store somewhere in the world, and, using a smartphone or tablet, can check the price of the item online. He or she might be directed towards an e-commerce site, including one of the numerous flash sale sites popping up. An identical product might be offered - but how does the consumer know they are getting the real thing?
"There are now hundreds of platforms, and millions of independent e-tail sites, selling counterfeit goods," says Alina Halloran, vice-president of global online brand protection for OpSec, a Boston-based company which works with major global brands to prevent their merchandise being illegally copied.
"We have developed technology to go into products and packages to authenticate them in the supply chain, as well as technology that can monitor the internet to look for rogue networks of criminals selling counterfeit goods." Luxury brands are, inevitably, especially prone to the problem - specifically in designer handbags, wallets and other accessories, which, in 2012, made up 40 per cent of counterfeit products seized, Alloran says.
"The internet makes it much more difficult to understand the quality of a given product, versus if you walk in to, say, Louis Vuitton and see and feel the product. When you're shopping online, it's much more difficult to discern the level of quality. But counterfeiters are smart enough to increase the price of their products to evade detection, and to make shoppers believe that the product they are selling is real."
A number of sites out there, she says, are straightforward about it, listing the product as a "replica" of a particular luxury brand. That can still lead to legal issues, with the offending product being removed, although it's much harder to shut down an entire site. But Halloran points to a sweeping trend in the realm of rip-off designer goods, which she called "upscale counterfeit". "Price points are higher, the whole online experience is much more luxurious, so it's harder for consumers to discern an authorised retailer from one who is not."
So as online shopping on the go gets easier, and more e-tail options abound, consumers, she says, have to be savvier and more alert than ever.
"They need to be more knowledgeable about what they are purchasing. If you see a handbag in a colour that the designer doesn't make it in, then it's not the real thing." Halloran also suggested checking out designer websites for the list of authorised retailers.
"If you do shop through an e-tail site, look at the overall condition of the site: does it appear to be professional, are there proper return policies, what sort of customer service offered? "These counterfeiters don't discriminate," she says. "They will cut across any brand.
"But if you see something which has very limited distribution, and it's readily available at a discount, that should send up a red flag. A lot of the onus is on the consumer."