Consumer

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

It's no secret that Amazon.com Inc. has been bitten by the fashion bug.

The e-commerce juggernaut has shown it's serious about becoming an apparel destination. Its site features a mushrooming collection of private-label clothing brands. It recently debuted Prime Wardrobe, a service that lets shoppers try on clothes at home before buying them. Even glossy magazines now feature ads for Amazon Fashion.

But Amazon has some hurdles to clear if it wants to become a bigger player in apparel.

L2, a research firm that studies brands' digital performance, recently analyzed the kind of clothing that makes Amazon's Best Seller list. A clear pattern emerged for both men's and women's brands:

Getting the Basics
On the men's apparel best-seller list, these labels had the biggest presence
Source: L2 Amazon Intelligence: Fashion 2017

 

Getting the Basics, Pt. 2
On the women's apparel best-seller list, these labels had the biggest presence
Source: L2 Amazon Intelligence: Fashion 2017

On both lists, most of the brands trade in commodity-type apparel. A six-pack of undershirts or an eight-pack of panties from Hanes isn't something you buy as a fun treat or a gift -- it's something you buy because your old ones got ratty. The same goes for gym clothes from the likes of Champion and Russell Athletic, or undergarments from Fruit of the Loom and sub-$20 leggings from 90 Degree by Reflex.

In other words, Amazon is doing a good job of selling clothes. But it's not doing a good job of selling fashion.

That distinction is part of a broader problem Amazon must solve in its quest to dominate more retailing categories. Currently, the Amazon user experience is great for replenishment or task-oriented purchases. When you run out of laundry detergent, Amazon makes it easy to find and buy the same brand you always purchase. When you want to buy the novel your book club is reading, Amazon also makes that simple.

But Amazon is not so great for shoppers who are in discovery mode. When you're looking for a dress to wear to a wedding, you're not necessarily looking for a specific neckline, length, color or brand, you're just browsing for something that catches your eye. When you're redecorating your bedroom, you know you want a new duvet, but don't have some specific pattern in mind.

And the "everything store" experience is lousy for that. The amount of choices is overwhelming. The search parameters can be befuddling. Sometimes, the product photography isn't great -- something that matters little when you're buying an extension cord but matters a lot for a highly considered purchase such as a dress.

For Amazon to make greater inroads in fashion and other discovery-oriented shopping categories, it must figure out how to better present its vast selection.

It has taken some steps in the right direction. For example, it's grouping merchandise into themed assortments such as "What to Pack: Rustic Getaway" or "Trend to Try: Velvet Crush." Such curated bundles are more manageable for shoppers and give them direction, just as an in-store display or store associate might.

But other efforts in this realm have been flops. Amazon appears to have cancelled "Style Code Live," the QVC-like streaming TV show that was supposed to highlight its fashion offerings.

Meanwhile, the booming sales of basics on Amazon may seem like a boon for companies such as Hanesbrands Inc., the corporate parent of the Hanes, Playtex and Champion brands. But, as researchers at L2 point out, this success might simply encourage Amazon to challenge these players more with its own private-label alternatives. 

This chart shows which of Amazon's private brands cracked the apparel best-seller list during the study:

Making Itself Essential
During a one-month period, Amazon Essentials far outpaced other private-label brands in landing on the best-seller list
Source: L2 Amazon Intelligence: Fashion 2017

As you can see, fashion-focused labels such as Lark & Ro aren't in the mix nearly as often as Amazon Essentials, which sells low-priced packs of T-shirts and underwear, among other basic pieces such as polo shirts and cargo shorts. If Amazon is scoring with the Essentials line, then there's a good chance it will try to build on that by competing directly with Hanes and others that make these garments.

Anybody selling apparel -- whether that's ultra-cheap undergarments or luxe overcoats -- should feel threatened by Amazon. But until the site gets better at helping you do more than just routine errands, some competitors will feel the heat more than others.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Some of Amazon's private brands didn't make the best-seller list at all, including: Paris Sunday, Ella Moon, Society New York, North Eleven, Scout + Ro, James & Erin, Frankin Tailored and Franklin & Freeman. 

To contact the author of this story:
Sarah Halzack in Washington at shalzack@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net