Think of shopping on Amazon and perhaps you think first of your monthly bookclub buys, some minor electronics, bulk toilet paper or Alexa (the robot, not Chung). You probably don’t think of your entire summer wardrobe, including bridesmaids’ dresses, swimwear and the perfect bright jumpsuit. But that may be about to change. Over the past few years, the online department store has been making moves into the fashion world in a bid to challenge the traditional high street, as well as our dependence on other internet retailers such as ASOS. Having launched a new range of private brands, that challenge is suddenly looking like a strong one.
Amazon’s secret weapon in this battle is data. “We have taken some time over the past few years to develop our private brands, listening to customer reviews on site and learning from what our customer loves about our products and our brands,” says Frances Russell, vice president of Amazon Fashion Europe. “It’s still early days for Amazon Fashion Private Brands, but so far we have seen that our customer really loves what we are able to offer them.” Russell was head of womenswear at M&S until she joined Amazon in 2016.
The company doesn’t provide detailed breakdowns of sales stats, but 2016 figures logged more clothing sales to US millennials than any other online retailers. The recent launches of four private brands aim to build on this.
The clothes look good, designed on a par with anything else you’ll find on the contemporary British high street: trendy, wearable and fun
The various private brands take a divide-and-conquer approach, according to Russell, creating a “family of brands” that can offer a solution for every possible fashion need. For underwear, Iris & Lilly uses data gathered from Amazon’s millions of annual purchases to track trends and see who is buying what when it comes to affordable bras and underwear. Find is the name of the retailer’s glossy, trend-driven arm, with outerwear around £60 and dresses about £30. Truth & Fable, an occasionwear line, comes in around the same price point. Meraki, meanwhile, which launches later this month, is centred on basics and essentials (T-shirts, jersey dresses, jumpers, etc) with a Scandi-inspired aesthetic. Overall, the clothes look good, designed on a par with anything else you’ll find on the contemporary British high street: trendy, wearable and fun. While this is just the beginning for Amazon Fashion, the response, Russell says, has been fantastic.
It has been relatively easy for online retailers to disrupt the fashion market. One report last year found that in the UK we now spend £16.2bn on fashion and accessories purchased online – impressive, if you recall initial Web 2.0 concerns about how shopping online would never allow us to experience fit and feel, the way bricks-and-mortar shops do. Yet Amazon seems to linger in the minds of consumers as a destination for books, gizmos and household odds and ends – specific items that you search out and purchase online simply because it’s more convenient than running out on your lunch break. As retail analyst Simeon Siegel told the Financial Times earlier this year, “fashion is a browse, and Amazon is not a browsing experience".
So, perhaps it’s the browse experience that has held Amazon back so far. A wide selection of items is great, but it can also turn finding a little black dress, for instance, into a chore. What makes a really enjoyable online-shopping experience is often the curation. We’ve had aggregation and bulk; now, we’re seeking a careful edit, aimed at our own sensibilities. Here, Amazon is taking tentative steps: a packing list with eight essentials for summer holidays and some gorgeous Instagram-ready images to accompany. But when I scroll to the bottom, I don’t see a slideshow of recommended off-shoulder blouses and espadrilles. Instead, I see random items inspired by my pre-existing browsing history: a rice cooker, caffeine tablets and three memoirs on women and alcoholism. Chic!
But maybe these are just growing pains. Looking at the retailer’s dominance in books and household goods, it seems almost inevitable that fashion will follow. And there is plenty to recommend about Amazon Fashion’s private brands. I eyeballed enough to fill a summer wardrobe of my own such as these mid-heel, ankle strap sandals and this Find high-neck, spotty blouse, which would work with most of my current wardrobe. This pair of red chino shorts would get worn again and again, as would this fine-rib dress, both from Meraki. And this trouser suit is making me want to try green all of a sudden. Iris & Lilly has swimwear as good as anywhere else on the high street – stylishly cut one-pieces and bikinis. The racer-back swimsuit and high-neck one-piece are particularly lovely.
The beauty of the brands is that they all complement each other. I can see myself searching out a bold, pink top from Find, then adding a basic Meraki T-shirt or a bra from Iris & Lilly on to my order before checkout. I can imagine Truth & Fable helping out many desperate shoppers stuck without a frock days before a wedding or a big party. Returns are free, so sizing isn’t too much of a worry. Providing a full range of sizes would be a real way to disrupt the fashion market, and Amazon’s run from 8 to 20. The other bonus is that everything is available on Prime, if you’re a member, so next-day delivery can be a real temptation.
The beauty of the brands is that they all complement each other. I can see myself searching out a bold, pink top from Find, then adding a basic Meraki T-shirt
Of course, the same qualms people might have about buying books on Amazon apply to its clothing range, too. If you’re interested in shopping locally, supporting the British high street, aiming for a lower carbon footprint and trying things on before purchase, this method might not be for you. If you just don’t like the idea of big companies using your data history to sell you products, you might want to avoid, too. (Though, in that case, you’re better off avoiding Netflix and Facebook, too.) And the green credentials of buying multiple items from a big-box retailer only to return them by post don’t exactly stand up to intense scrutiny. But for convenience, it really can’t be beaten.
So, one question remains: can Amazon become a bona fide fashion destination? It could do with relinquishing algorithmic control (no more drill bits next to the bikinis) and the user experience needs a bit of work (currently, typing “Find Fashion” into the search bar leads to a sponsored ad for a women’s golf slogan tee). But the clothes are certainly there, and if you’re looking for a few new pieces to add to your summer wardrobe, it’s worth a look.