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May 11, 2023
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Analysis: in tough times, fashion search shines

May 11, 2023

We all know that the cost-of-living crisis has affected buying behaviour, and it’s affecting search behaviour too, before consumers ever get to the point of hitting the ‘buy’ button.

Photo: Pexels

That makes search engine optimisation (SEO) and putting the insight into action more important than ever for retailers and brands that are aiming to maximise sales in tough times.

And at a time when search king Google is investing heavily in advanced AI to take related tech to the next level, it’s clear that getting search right is crucial for fashion in both goods times and bad.

Fashionnetwork.com spoke to someone who’s an expert in the field, Louis Venter, founder and CEO of MediaVision. He’s worked on SEO with some big names including New Look, Moss, Karen Millen, JD Williams and Jacamo, among others.

But first, some background about the current environment. As mentioned, times are tough. Inflation started accelerating in 2021 and hit a 41-year high in October at 11.1%. It’s stayed stubbornly in double-digits ever since.

Rarely a day goes by without a piece in a newspaper or online telling us about how consumers are cutting back on discretionary purchases in order to be able to afford essentials. And that’s bad news for fashion.

A survey last month from Barclays showed a majority of consumers  prepared to cut back on fashion spend in order to be able to afford essentials. And luxury e-tailer Mytheresa’s results only this week showed that even fashion webstores selling to the most affluent consumers are very promotional at present.

But they are still spending, and search is a vital part of the path to purchase.

Louis Venter

Such an environment may be creating problems for brands but also huge opportunities, Venter told us.

Fashionnetwork.com: Can you see a direct correlation between inflation and search behaviour apart from just a desire to find brands at cheaper prices?

Louis Venter: Something retailers must fully understand to remain competitive throughout this period is how inflation has impacted online search behaviours, and how search engine optimisation (SEO) and other marketing strategies and investments can take advantage of these changes.

For example, as people look to save money they are in the market for better deals, and are therefore more likely to try new things, and tend to be more open to different brands. By understanding these, and many other often nuanced trends, it’s possible for retailers to better weather the storm and outperform rivals.

This is especially important in the fashion sector because it’s notoriously competitive and, unlike many other industries, trends can change overnight which means retailers need to be unusually agile.

FN: So what big changes have you seen?

LV: A defining moment for fashion search happened last year. Previously, using our digital demand tracker, we were seeing non-brand fashion search (generic terms rather than brand-specific) increase by around 20% year on year, which is extremely healthy. However, by October 2022, we’d witnessed a drop of 20%. 

Although most fashion categories were adversely affected, the data around search semantics gives a more nuanced picture. 

For example, in accessories we have seen demand improve with the likes of jewellery up 49%, scarves up 86% and gloves up 48% as people engage with potentially lower-price items. People have also been more inclined to spruce up an outfit rather than just invest in new occasionwear — something we witnessed particularly around the Christmas party season.

However, we have seen purchases that might have longer consideration periods drop — with dresses down 22%, women’s boots down 7%, and girl's coats down 22.5%.

We’re also seeing people use more specific, long-tail keywords when searching for products or services in order to find the best deals or save money, for example using words such as ‘budget’, ‘discount’ or ‘pre-loved’. Or people are combining searches — such as clothes they can wear at work and when out — to make cost savings. 

Photo: Pexels

FN: How much of a headache is this for brands?

LV: Demand for branded searches has declined across the board. For example, brands without a strong non-brand organic strategy — a plan that focuses on improving a website's search engine visibility and rankings for more generic keywords such as ‘running shoes’ rather than ‘Nikes’ — have been particularly affected, as they’ve been forced to rely on costly paid search ads, which have a lower return on investment. Paid search, by consequence, is also becoming far more competitive in the current climate.

FN: But there’s more than just a cost-of-living crisis going on. We’ve heard from other sources that sustainability is cropping up more often. But what about ‘inclusivity’? Has this also been changing the way we search?

LV: Recently, there’s been a shift in the semantics of search terms surrounding ‘plus-size’ clothing, which presents an interesting opportunity for retailers. In a pre-body positivity era, people may have refrained from using it or struggled to find suitable clothing options. However, as the conversation around body shapes and sizes has evolved and become much more inclusive, the lexicon around size has evolved, and the implications of this transformation for search are noteworthy.
Our data certainly shows there has been an increase in the search volume for size-inclusive terms, highlighting how retailers can leverage non-branded search terms to better understand customer preferences. By analysing how customers refer to these items and what terms they use to search for them on Google, retailers can optimise their SEO strategies and ensure their products appear in relevant search results.

FN: Clearly, things are moving fast and search trends can emerge very quickly. Are retailers able to keep up with all the data they have at their disposal?

LV: The big challenge for fashion retailers now is being able to spot growth opportunities ahead of competitors by tapping into these shifting search behaviours — something they must learn to be ‘fast and first’ for.

For example, MediaVision uses a bespoke platform called Metis that gives our team access to search data trends across thousands of fashion categories weekly rather than the usual monthly cadence, offering a fast-mover advantage. This is driving non-brand SEO growth for retailers like New Look, Monsoon and Moss.

What we see in every category are search phrases rising and falling, and by focusing on the rising phrases we’re able to win market share at the right time. Tapping into this is what allows retailers to build the most finely tuned SEO strategies. It’s also informing trading decisions, email campaigns and other e-commerce considerations by responding to market demand, rather than an internally focused data set.

FN: It’s obviously not as easy as just looking at the data though and saying “let’s make green dresses”?

LV: Using this data means retailers can extrapolate deeper meaning to build new marketing strategies. However, this requires businesses to look at the data from two distinct points of view.

The first provides insight into which categories should be prioritised to meet relevant demand, and the second point of view gives you a good steer on the product set to focus on. 

For example, in the jeans category we have seen huge initial demand for mom jeans — but that tailed off substantially when flared jeans became more prevalent. 

The strategy has to be focused on speed and agility in order to take advantage of these trends. Being data-led, with an ability to move at pace, has to be front and centre of all marketing objectives. 

Search demand data can help trade teams to appreciate and input into sales planning more effectively. By knowing which products to sell and the optimum time period to present these products to customers, fashion retailers can preserve margins by reducing the potential need to discount, or worse still, be left with unsold stock to dispose of. 

FN: Is this particularly important in the current tough economic backdrop?

LV: Even in tough times there are opportunities to grow. In difficult times SEO can really deliver — making it much more than just a ‘hygiene factor’ for businesses.

However, to make better gains fashion retailers must adopt a market data-driven approach to marketing and SEO. And as the cost-of-living crisis continues, they must take the time to understand and adapt to changing consumer needs. As economic conditions change, people's priorities and spending habits can shift dramatically, and businesses that are able to keep up with those changes are more likely to succeed.

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