eCommerce: Bricks-to-Clicks Changing Fashion

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She admits that customers might find it creepy that Brooks is collecting data on their buying habits or storing their measurements in a database. But Garvey says the company plans to keep the information it collects private, as it has done with databases it now keeps separately about catalog shoppers and credit card customers. The organization doesn’t share or sell customer data, she says. Meanwhile, the database of measurements Brooks collects for custom shirts and suits aren’t linked to purchasing history, so employees don’t routinely have access to personal size information.

Nevertheless, the company has replaced an e-mail-based form for recording customers’ measurements for custom-made shirts with a Web-enabled version that can be stored as part of a customer’s profile. That way, customers can reorder shirts online. Garvey says that information can be transmitted to its suppliers’ manufacturing systems without any person being able to see whose data it is.

Meanwhile, like many retailers, the company’s website already provides customers with commonplace personalization tools. Register with Brooks, and, along with customized promotions, you’ll get services such as the capability to review past purchases or save what’s in your shopping bag if you aren’t yet ready to buy. Of course, if you’ve also shopped at a Brooks store, none of that data is captured in the system. Garvey says that next spring, Brooks will test out new point-of-sale systems that will do more than ring up purchases and adjust the store’s inventory as the current cash registers do. The new machines would collect information about customers’ buying history and e-mail addresses and let salespeople review that information, as well as give them access to the corporate intranet. With intranet access at the register, salespeople wouldn’t have to retreat to a back room to order an out-of-stock item for a customer.

Most apparel retailers are also eyeing in-store Web applications like making computers available to customers who want to look up merchandise. Only two Brooks Brothers stores, in Manhattan and Seattle, have put Web browsers on the sales floor for customer use. And in theory, the stores could use the Web to display items they don’t stock. But, Friedman notes, it’s still easier for the salesperson to pick up the phone and find needed items at another Brooks Brothers store. Meanwhile, when she was the CIO, Garvey wasn’t planning to make in-store Web access widely available to customers until the chain upgrades its internal network infrastructure. It would frustrate customers if access times were slow, she says.

Getting the Word Out

For brooks’ online strategy to succeed, however, it needs to do more than put the right technologies in place at the right time. The company has yet to explain its e-commerce strategy to the commission-based sales force in its stores (the salespeople will be asked to collect e-mail addresses from customers and point them to online services). "We’d be much further along in the e-commerce business if we had buy-in from the retail channel," says Friedman. He says that when he came on board in March, salespeople "had no understanding of what we were doing." Now, the company is beginning to inform its staff about its plans during regular training programs. But, Friedman says, employees, who work on commission, must be convinced that "it’s not just taking money out of their pockets" if customers buy something online. He concedes he hasn’t yet figured out how to demonstrate concretely that a strong e-commerce presence is good for the overall brand.

Dennis Ephlin, director of strategic services with SeraNova, an Edison, N.J., consultancy, says many companies are changing how they compensate employees to encourage them to embrace e-commerce. Some companies, he says, are rewarding in-store salespeople for helping customers buy from the Web. Others, meanwhile, are paying employees based partly on how their stores score on customer satisfaction surveys or other metrics, like corporate profitability.

Gromek won’t discuss what, if any, changes Brooks Brothers has made in how it compensates its staff, except to say that the company doesn’t intend its staff be penalized for aspects of the business it can’t control. "We try to use our stores as marketing vehicles and our sales force as ambassadors," he says, emphasizing top-notch service as the No. 1 priority of the company.

Brooks has also been struggling to get its e-commerce message to customers. A woman from suburban Philadelphia examining cotton T-shirts on a sale table in the Fifth Avenue store during the summer says she hadn’t heard about the site, even though she occasionally shops online. She’d buy from Brooks on the Web, she says, if she didn’t feel like driving an hour to the nearest store.

Yet it’s only in the last four or five months that the company has put its URL on its store windows and shopping bags. "You could have walked into our store, and if you didn’t know there was a brooks brothers.com you wouldn’t have found out," says Friedman. The company has also signed up to be a featured vendor on Yahoo, and it joined Fashionmall.com, a site for brand-name clothing retailers. Still, says Steven Love, a vice president in the Chicago-based retail and consumer products consulting group Cap, Gemini, Ernst & Young: "If I wasn’t in retail consulting, I wouldn’t know about it."

"The problem is somebody has to think of Brooks Brothers to find it on the Internet," concludes Aaron. "The bigger issue is telling its story in a broader marketplace. It will probably have to work harder to tell that story through other traditional marketing, like catalogs, print and outdoor advertising."

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Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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