Shopping The Ecommerce World's New Frontier

Think virtual reality fitting rooms, two-hour deliveries and a butler who waits outside your front door while you try on denim…

I recently went to the mothership of sale price, Céline at Bicester Village. After a focused two-hour blitz, something struck me during my train ride home, buried beneath my purchases: I couldn't remember the last time I actually 'went shopping'. As in, traipse around, loading up my limbs and then schlepping the lot home at considerable inconvenience for someone who lives in central London without a car.

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But I could definitely remember the last time I swiped 'add to basket' on a pair of Gucci clogs while in the back of an Uber on my way home from work. And from the look of what's on the horizon, our future will be filled with lots of swiping.

According to market researcher Mintel, in 2015 we spent £12.4bn on fashion online in the UK (a 16% increase from 2014), with 68% of us buying clothing and footwear on the web*. Natalie Kingham, Buying Director at Matches Fashion, says the site now takes 40% of its sales through mobile: 'There's an intimacy to the way customers shop via mobile devices, which wasn't anticipated five years ago. Customers are now quite comfortable spending £50K shopping on their phones.'

Yes, we're living in an age in which I could drop £12K on an Alexander McQueen dress during breakfast and have it by dinner. And, if I lived in China, I could take advantage of Yoox's 'butler service' where the courier waits outside your door while you try on the spoils of your latest e-commerce spree. (Sadly, Yoox has no plans to roll this out here. Trust me, I checked.) When it comes to e-commerce, we seem to have reached peak levels of speed and convenience. Or have we?

Lucie Greene, Worldwide Director of JWTIntelligence, says: 'The new delivery expectation in cities is going to be two hours, not two days, and free.' And the idea of seasons will become increasingly meaningless. 'The archaic system of catwalks showing the season ahead is not relevant when in today's climate a consumer might be anywhere from Iceland to Cuba in a week,' she says.

Virtual Reality (VR) is also something that retailers are tentatively exploring. Headsets will mean you'll be able to roam around 'stores' from your living room and 'try on' items, with the piece being superimposed on to your avatar, something that is already happening; online boutique Styleworx has recently introduced its Fitsmart VR fitting room via its app.

Meanwhile, Instagram is inching ever closer to an e-commerce future. At the time of writing, it had partnered with 20 brands to test a shoppable photo tag. 'People come to Instagram to express their personal style,' says James Quarles, the company's Vice President of Monetisation. 'We want to make it easier for them to share these moments of inspiration and shop the products in their feed. We're eager to learn from this early test and expand to markets in 2017.'

The phone has become such an important part of shopping that Yoox and Net-A-Porter are looking at moving to a mobile-only future. Soon traditional websites will look as obsolete as those Lovefilm DVDs you'd always forget to return.

If you think snapping up shoes via your mobile is old news, Greene says: 'We'll be shopping in our cars. Autonomous vehicles have become a reality, and car manufacturers are designing spaces where you can watch entertainment, shop and do yoga.' But what about making the most of e-commerce as it stands now?

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'Soon traditional websites will look as obsolete as those Lovefilm DVDs you'd always forget to return.'

Half the battle is knowing when the new merchandise comes in. Sales spikes tend to occur when products are uploaded: Net-A-Porter and Matches Fashion both drop Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9am, Avenue 32 on Tuesday and Fridays, while ASOS has new pieces dropping every day with 4,000 new items every week. Lyst records a spike around midnight with dresses, lingerie and heels being the most popular, post-12am Friday-night orders.

But beware of the Monday-night blues shop: these pieces have the highest return rate, according to Lyst. I'd also offer the middle-of-the-night splurge – one fashion editor I know snapped up the Balenciaga Bazar bag during a 4am feed.

The key advantage that the online fashion world has developed is choice and variety. Katherine Ormerod, Lyst's Editorial Director, attests that: 'I've found amazing labels that I'd never heard of. There are so many of my favourite brands that are online only, from NE to Reformation.' Finery is a notable British e-commerce success story (the brainchild of former Topshop and ASOS Buying Director Caren Downie) and offers grown-up, sharply priced, fashionable, high-street pieces. Its delivery and service are exceptional.

I recently ordered a dress at 5pm and it was on my desk by 10am the next morning. No wonder it hit £5m in sales in its first year of trading**. Where the traditional high street may be faltering, online is a different story: low-cost e-commerce retailers ASOS and Very are flourishing with a clever business model, which understands its audience. The brands also work for all women, with petite and plus-size ranges (and even Bridal on ASOS).

Alongside this, smaller brands are making it easier for shoppers to find unique pieces. Have a penchant for minimal style? Try The-Acey for a brilliant edit of ethically sourced brands; want to buy British? Look up Patrick Grant's new endeavour, Community Clothing, selling affordable basics (jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts) via Ebay.

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Want new, under-the-radar designers? Then visit Young British Designers and Avenue 32; the latter's founder Roberta Benteler is encouraged by 'the ease of returns, which means people have the confidence to order more, which allows for a more experimental shopper.' In turn, Benteler aims to tailor-make the experience: 'It's possible to recommend products from digital DNA, which we create based on the consumer's behaviour and shopping habits.'

Lyst's Katherine Ormerod sees the internet as a research space: 'I want to know I've properly considered my purchase before I hand over my card, that I've scoured the world for the best price, and have read about the material and fit. That makes you think about how you'll wear a piece with your wardrobe – it increases anticipation and ensures you actually want it, rather than it being a shiny new thing you buy on a Tuesday after payday.'

I snagged some Gucci loafers on Matches Fashion by wishlisting them when they were 'coming soon'. When in stock, I received an email alert and bought them 10 seconds later (after ample time to think about them). Ideal.

Social media is also key to finding out new information, so keep scrolling. Blogger Frédérique Harrel, a self-declared Zara obsessive, says the key to sales is to 'keep an eye on Instagram. They never announce it, but once it's on sale they'll post about it on social media. I'll then rush to the site as everything is half price.'

'Beware of the Monday-night blues shop: these pieces have the highest return rate, according to Lyst.'

While designer and denim obsessive Kelly Harrington uses the platform to discover unknown brands: 'I online stalk W Concept, a site focusing on Korean fashion and new independent brands. I discovered them in Seoul, then "followed" them. They stock quirky brands, many of which can't be obtained in the UK.'

Personally, there is nothing like browsing a rail to pique your interest in items that online can't match. This summer, I bought an oversized Emilia Wickstead top that caught my eye in real life, while I'd scrolled past it countless times online. However, I don't think anyone now looks at online and 'IRL' shopping as separate activities.

Everything is interlinked. The key is that you have fluid choice to find out exactly what you want to buy, and how. But, most importantly, all online shopping developments are conceived with one thing in mind: making it quicker, easier and more efficient for you. More than ever, the consumer is in control, which makes for a pretty bright future indeed. Especially when you're in shiny new Gucci shoes.

THE 7 NEW RULES OF ONLINE BUYING

Focus and refine…

…your searches. Scouring Lyst, Farfetch and Polyvore can be exhausting (use the filters), but equally rewarding when tracking down that last J.W.Anderson skirt in your size from a shop in Azerbaijan.

Always check...

…the shipping and import taxes.

Compare prices...

…on sites such as Lyst

and Farfetch. Luxury stores have different deals. Items and designer names can be as much as £50 cheaper at a different retailer.

Wait it out...

…if you can. Online retailers are rampantly competitive. Once one has marked something down, the others will soon follow suit. It then becomes a stand-off as to which knocks off a further 20%.

Wishlist everything you like…

…so you'll be alerted when the sales start. Wishlists are also crucial for items that are 'coming soon' or sold out. If enough people register interest in a sold-out piece, the store may reorder it. Or if an item is returned in your size, you'll be the first to know.

Always have...

…a tape measure to hand. That skirt might be mini on the model, but if you're 5ft 4in it might be a midi.

Search online for discount codes…

…and new drops before shopping on the high street. Download store apps, too; Mango's app offers good discounts.

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