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An Online Clothing Retailer's Stumbling Blocks

I own a niche e-commerce company that sells custom-designed dress shirts. We need help in three areas: friction over our 21-day lead time, a product consumers can't try on or touch, and the negative attitude some people have about online shopping. —D.W., Wellesley, Mass.

You need to reexamine and perhaps rethink the 21-day lead time for your custom orders. That's likely to be your biggest business obstacle, says Paul Ratoff, a longtime apparel industry consultant and president of Ratoff Consulting in Orange County, Calif.

"Why does it take so long? You need to figure out a way to develop a much faster turnaround time," Ratoff says. "Even if you're making the shirts overseas, you should be able to turn them around pretty quickly."

Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Assn., says sewing and shipping one-at-a-time garments should take no more than 10 days. If you're purchasing textiles at the time the order is made, you'll save money and time if you discontinue that practice. "You would probably save more than 30% of the cost of making your product if you had faith in the textiles, limited the customers' choices, and purchased a small amount of fabric inventory in advance," she says.

Bob Shirilla, president of Keepsakes Etc., sells custom-made throws and embroidered bags online.The Youngstown (Ohio) company cut its lead time and improved revenue when it brought its shipping in-house rather than outsourcing to a drop-shipper. "Customers want it now. We do custom embroidery the same day it's ordered and ship it out immediately. That's been our magic," Shirilla says.

What Customers Will Wait For

Customers will endure long waits to get unique throws, such as those specially woven to incorporate family pictures, Shirilla says. But the products have to be niche items unavailable elsewhere. A shirt—even one that's custom-made—probably isn't unique enough to justify waiting three weeks, when consumers can go to a neighborhood tailor and get a hand-fitted shirt with a one-day turnaround.

"You have to offer something other shirtmakers cannot, whether it's great graphic tools, or special materials, or workmanship," Ratoff says. Even then, a three-week wait won't be acceptable in the long run.

Your other problems—hesitation about ordering online or buying clothing that can't be examined ahead of time—are less likely to be long-term sales obstacles. "Have a toll-free number, be transparent about your business, and you'll find that most of those fears are long gone," Shirilla says. "For nine hours a day, we answer the phone every time it rings. Lots of times, people will call just to see if we're legitimate, and 60 seconds later their order comes through online."

The Value of Testimonials

Customers likely to buy online look for money-back guarantees, free shipping on returns, and a robust customer service department. "Yes, some people still have a negative attitude, and some will never buy online, but neither one of these thought processes defines your customer," Metchek says. "I suggest you concentrate on those who do shop online and forget the rest."

Using new "fit" technologies that define proper fit for the online consumer could help assure customers you'll get their order right the first time, Metchek says. She recommends you explore the fit systems at Tukatech.

And make sure you solicit and use testimonials from satisfied customers. "First-time customers want to know that other people have been happy with the results," Ratoff says. "Your Web site should be full of clearly visible success stories."

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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