Great fashion’s just a click away — you’ve probably heard that before. For as Pakistani fashion has pirouetted and spun into a razzling dazzling behemoth, it’s extended its feelers into the massive reaches of cyberspace. Online e-stores are the order of the day with mainstream multi-labels, hot stepping designers and high-street brands launching onto the web, one after the other.

It’s about time! The Internet is now a well-acknowledged lucrative avenue for selling anything and everything; fashion as well as less glamorous necessities like groceries, books and used cars!

From traipsing the high-street with mass-oriented Topshop and ZARA to the exclusive walkways of Parisian haute couture; for ages now, the whole world’s been cruising the Internet for its sartorial needs.

All it takes is a click of the keyboard and a credit card, of course. Life moves too fast for avant-garde styles to be limited to physical stock in stores. Uploaded, in high-resolution graphics onto the Internet, fashion becomes accessible globally.

For designers, the Internet offers an extremely cost-effective merchandising outlet. Not all designers may be able to afford a standalone store but they can certainly put up a virtual one. And apparel featured at a multi-label’s e-store tends to benefit from the clientele attracted in by the other designer-wear also stocking at the store.

As Pakistani fashion skyrockets and designers create retail-friendly, spellbinding fashion, online shopping is off to a great start!

E-commerce in fashion, though, is a tough cookie that crumbles all too easily. The detailed imagery of an e-store has to be followed up by efficient follow-ups on orders. Accuracy is imperative, from colour choices to sizes, which may be limited to standard small, medium and large options or be customised according to customer requirements.

Deliveries have to be made on time and stock has to specifically made available for online clientele — an ‘out of stock’ response to a paid order leads to riled buyers and the brand losing credibility. A delayed reply or unwieldy graphics simply causes potential customers to move on to the next online option.

In the wide spectrum of the World Wide Web, only the savviest, smoothest operators can survive. The nascent milieu of online Pakistani fashion stores have hiccupped and trundled as they’ve slowly found their bearings in cyberspace. Cutting-edge high-street brand Gulabo, for instance, launched out online a few months ago before retreating to a ‘Work-in-progress’ mode at present. Once technicalities get sorted, the brand plans to relaunch onto the web.

Earlier this year, bigwigs Sana Safinaz and Khaadi launched their e-stores only to have them slow down days later, inundated by far too many orders for their phenomenally successful lawns. Now that the yearly Pakistani lawn craze has subsided, both stores are back to functioning smoothly.

Most shopping takes place at night when cyber shopaholics log onto the Net after a long day’s work and succumb to their sartorial impulses. E-shopping is heaviest on Mondays and Tuesdays when women tend to order clothes in preparation for the coming weekend. Pret and luxury-pret flies off the (cyber)shelves while customers prefer the heavier, more expensive formals to be customised to their particular requirements.

Steering business, virtually

The nitty-gritties of e-commerce are laid open by a glimpse into the complicated maneuverings of multi-fashion boutique Labels’ e-store. From his vantage point at his head office, Labels’ CEO Zahir Rahimtoola observes the net-a-porter traffic: where are more orders coming from, when does most buying take place and what’s selling more amongst the wide range of designer-wear that forms the store’s entourage.

The demographics are riveting; most shopping takes place at night when cyber shopaholics log onto the Net after a long day’s work and succumb to their sartorial impulses. E-shopping is heaviest on Mondays and Tuesdays when women tend to order clothes in preparation for the coming weekend. Pret and luxury-pret flies off the (cyber)shelves while customers prefer the heavier, more expensive formals to be customised to their particular requirements.

Well-known labels particularly sell well not just because of their superior designs but also because customers trust their quality control. The most popular international markets for Pakistani fashion traverse the USA, UK, India and the Middle East.

In a separate department at Labels, operators answer queries over phone, e-mail and online chat. A packaging area teems with enticing parcels — designer-wear ready to be shipped off to all corners of the world.

So what goes into making an e-store successful? “We are pitching and selling to a customer that we can’t see and the key is to make the buying process as easy as possible,” reveals Zahir. “Our website is extremely user-friendly and since a lot of people don’t want to use credit cards on the Internet, we facilitate cash on delivery for orders placed in Pakistan. And word-of-mouth helps miraculously. We take a day to deliver locally and three days internationally. Recently, we delivered a mehndi dress to the USA right in time for the event. Our customer was extremely happy. Now she knows that she can rely on us — more orders simply follow.”

Yet another well-trafficked site is the Khaadi e-store, with masses of online aficionados buying into the brand’s ethno-funk ethos on a daily basis. “Physical stock often runs out at our mainstream stores very quickly. Rather than search for an outfit at a Khaadi outlet located further away from their homes, customers prefer to just make their specific purchases in their preferred size online,” observes CEO Shamoon Sultan. “The price is the same as at the store and the clothes conveniently get delivered to their doorsteps.” The universal popularity of Khaadi makes customers confident of the exact size and fabric quality that they’re buying.

Umair Tabani, the business whizz behind Sania Maskatiya, is currently enjoying the influx of orders at the brand’s fledgling e-store. “We always had clients abroad who would be ordering clothes from us via e-mail,” he explains. “With this e-store, we’ve been able to widen our market to anybody and everybody from all over the world.”

The high-tech online system at Sania Maskatiya works in real-time. As soon as a certain design sells off completely — either physically in stores or online — it automatically gets removed from the website. “If still an order is placed and the design is no longer available, we make sure that we replicate it for the customer,” adds Umair.

From the quirky ethos of Deepak Perwani to the limited luxe offerings at Ayesha Hashwani, the easy silhouettes of Maria B., classic minimalism of Daaman, retail-friendly SHEEP and Ego, assorted offerings by multi-labels like Labels, L’Atelier and and an entire battalion of textile players — Gul Ahmed, al Karam, Kayseria and Nishat Linen — virtual Pakistani fashion has become a veritable box of chocolates, delectably packed with myriad aesthetics. Zoom in, zoom out, compare prices and take your pick. Place your trust in a newbie brand or invest into a mainstream label. Why lumber through shops when it can all be done from home, easily, conveniently?

Shamaeel’s lace top
Shamaeel’s lace top

The business of Facebook

At a lower-profile but often very successfully, small-scale fashion entrepreneurs advertise and sell their wares via the all-encompassing Facebook. Photojournalist Khaula Jamil’s ‘K for Karachi’ line depicts Karachi-inspired images on silver rings and watches, with the images posted up on Facebook and orders taken via e-mail. Lahore-based TGIF — Thank God I’m Fabulous — specialises in radically kitsch digital prints on tunics, advertised by the virtue of Facebook and delivered anywhere in the country.

On a much larger scale, Facebook pages of mainstream designers like HSY and Shamaeel Ansari enjoy huge fan followings. A case-in-point is Shamaeel Ansari’s seasonal luxury-pret. With their universally elegant aesthetics, Shamaeel’s designs receive queries from all over the world, from random customers to Shamaeel’s long-time crony, acclaimed Indian author Shobha De, declaring, “I want!” for a particular ensemble.  The recent images of apparel for Shamaeel’s Eid exhibit in Lahore instigated orders from Karachi, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and the far reaches of Dubai and London, to the extent that the collection is now sold out!

Shamaeel recounts the redeeming features of Facebook marketing as opposed to e-stores. “Facebook allows us a bit of storytelling,” she says. “Aside from posting images of new collections on a regular basis, we can write about our inspirations, share images of people wearing our designs and upload links to product reviews and profiles published in print and electronic media.”

While an e-store’s web address has to be typed specifically in order to be accessed, Facebook updates automatically filter onto a timeline once a user ‘likes’ a page. Then again, while Facebook is great for marketing, e-stores actually facilitate the buying process, with stock divided into generic categories, options to zoom in and observe designs up-close and all purchases placed into an adroit virtual ‘shopping basket’.

The flipside

So what’s the catch? An online image, despite exceptional graphics, can’t compare to the actual product. Creative Director at Kayseria, Waleed Zaman, notes, “There will always be clients who will prefer to feel and experience the product personally before making a purchase.”

Fraudulent credit card codes are a frequent pit hole. The personnel at the heavy-trafficked Sana Safinaz store spend hours confirming customer payments and orders before shipping clothes to the desired destinations.

Moreover, a badly constructed website can result in business disaster. The e-store of a well-publicised multi-label — that IoS chooses not to name here — has the strangest pricing mechanism. Changing the numerals in the web address actually alters the price of apparel on the website! A Rs20,000 designer exclusive can undergo a price conversion and, with a little tinkering, be added to the online cart for a mere Rs20. Placed in the hands of unethical web surfers, a website like this, festooned with some of the hottest names in local fashion, can be catastrophic.

Another blunder is an empty e-store. Once a brand has managed to build a clientele on the Internet, it has to sustain their interest. Multi-label Brands Just Pret’s webstore recently featured just a smattering of designs as it professed to be undergoing technical changes. The Labels e-store, boasting some of the biggest names in local fashion and hot-off-the-runway couture, recently went through a slow spurt with many designer options remaining blank while the website got updated to a better layout.

The now refreshed new look of the e-store is very trendy and user-friendly — but what of the customers who wanted to make purchases while the website was being constructed? Like a physical store, a web store needs to be active and packed choc a bloc with the latest fashions, lest surfers move on to greener, better-stocked pastures.   

The same goes for e-stores — or Facebook pages — with nothing new to offer. Year-old designs don’t interest online shoppers, just as they don’t attract buyers at actual stores. Online shoppers are fickle and time and effort has to be invested into keeping them at bay.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure all this out but selling fashion online is still a relatively new phenomenon to Pakistan. The virtual wheels of e-commerce in Pakistan are yet to function with the smoothness of well-oiled machinery although they’re certainly gathering momentum. More than anything else, what makes an e-store — or even a bona fide physical store — work is the design aesthetics it offers. And as Pakistani fashion skyrockets and designers progress to create retail-friendly, spellbinding fashion, this route — virtual or otherwise — is aiming high!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 20th, 2014


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