Inspired by fashion – morphological research for online fashion retailers

Dirk Ziems

Qualitative psychological market research on online fashion retail is exciting!

Today this requires immersion in the consumers’ whole world of communication and how they want this engineered – a cosmos that is continuously developing and throws up new opportunities for marketing. concept m has developed a unique approach to market research for this segment.

Online fashion: more than just shopping sites

It is long since online fashion retail just took place on e-commerce websites or on smartphone shopping apps. Successful fashion retailers exploit the full repertoire of digital possibilities: blogs as trend certification of the brand and territory for product placement, social network channels like Instagram with affiliated “InstaShop”, newsletters with new daily incentives, brand communities with peer group feeling and many more offers.

The guiding principle of systematically linking online with “brick and mortar” offline worlds is successfully pursued by most fashion providers. The H&M chain inspires its customers with its digital presentations showing: the brand is actually more daring, more fashionable and further ahead of the mainstream than can be experienced in the stores.


Online fashion: the unlimited flood of offers

To understand the “new world” of fashion commerce it is worth looking back to the time before e-commerce: the offerings were found in pedestrian precincts with a limited number of chains or independent boutiques. Distance selling was serviced by a manageable number of classic mail-order companies the customer had in her relevant set. Lifestyle and fashion magazines set the trends and promoted the brands.

The situation today: 24/7 involvement with fashion

Someone in the fashion game constantly gets new impulses through SoM, newsletters, cookies or the shops as such. The range knows no bounds: the savvy can choose the most extravagant brands and sources of supply from long tail e-commerce, e.g. boutique shopping all over Europe via, etc. In the world of influential blogs and in the social networks the dividing lines between independent discovery and commercial promotion become blurred just like they do between private and brand environments.

The consumers react in completely different ways to the unlimited flood of offers made possible by e-commerce. The group of “fashion waverers” seeks compartmentalisation and short-cuts in the e-commerce process. A rather overweight 45-year-old enters “black jeans size 46” on Google shopping and is immediately directed to detail sites that save her looking at overweight models. ‘Fashion enthusiasts’ love to constantly examine new looks and styles. In visual snacking mode, they filter enormous quantities of inspiring input from blogs, well-designed shopping sites, from Instagram or other social media channels just like the whale filters the krill.

Online fashion: integrated in usage states of mind and customer journeys

Different usage patterns of online fashion appear not only between people but also in one and the same person in different situations and usage states of mind. Sitting in the underground on the way to work and getting a small fashion kick with the favourite blogger while escaping from the grey weather outside to the beautiful beach settings of Barbados corresponds to a totally different mental state than the planned purchase of an evening dress because the best friend is getting married one month from now and you want to look stunning. In our qualitative market research we identified a consolidated model of 5 (7 or so) psychological online fashion states of mind, accompanied by detailed requirement profiles for the design of the online channels.

Surfing, Online shopping

Depending on the usage states of mind, the customer journeys differ while surfing through the online fashion worlds. Customers in a dreamy inspired state of mind let themselves drift pleasurably. What they look at how often on what channel (social network/ app/ web) using what device is totally detached at first from actual purchase intentions and price rating. Some providers like e.g. Asos manage to involve the online surfer in this state of mind with social media offers. After this phase of stimulation, the surfer is cleverly taken on to more retail-oriented channels. You can become an active part of the Asos (style) world!

Customer, Engagement

Based on an exact understanding of online retail states of mind we can also derive how the different online channels can be joined in a psychologically effective relationship of complementarity, i.e. a complete understanding that also includes analogue channels like classic advertising, second screen advertising, all kinds of print as well as stores etc..

Marketing, Affiliate

Morphological online retail research: the added value compared to classic qualitative usability tests

The examples show: the successful positioning and optimisation of fashion retail offers requires an overarching perspective starting from the psychological contexts the customer finds herself in.

How does morphological research actually proceed to meet these requirements?

As a first step we conduct morphological in-depth interviews to explore the surfers’ motives and intentions which the online store or other online channels should take up. Here we relate – following the integrated approach – to the specific fashion target groups the fashion retailer wants to reach and can reach. An offer from bonprix does not have the same goals as an offer from zalando – it is thus essential to understand which fashion expectations and style expressions are to be satisfied.

Using accompanied surf interviews, the morphological UX research derives the rules on how the websites and online stores address the longings and motives and establish the desired surfing states of mind. In this setting the test persons are requested to move freely over websites and to voice their thoughts out loud. Moderation is a kind of participatory observation, which follows the surfing process very closely, at each place probing what is visually attractive, what has stopping power, where to go next, etc.

To further structure the surf interview, the test persons are also given certain tasks, e.g. look for a dress for a festive summer occasion.

The central movement patterns on the websites and online stores can be reconstructed from a manageable number of stretched in-depth interviews.

For these interviews it has proven effective to use eye-tracking because this allows the unconscious surfing process and visual grammar of website language to be captured in greater detail. The standard method of morphological surf interviews is then varied as follows: in the first quarter of an hour an eye-tracking session is completed to record the fixation points while surfing in an eye-tracking video. In the subsequent in-depth interview this video is used as the starting point for further exploration of the conscious and unconscious drivers of surfing.

Another complementary technique of morphological UX research are webcam interviews where the interviewer follows the test person’s surfing process live online via screen sharing. Thanks to the flexibility and cost advantages, this procedure allows a larger number of short interviews to be conducted, benefiting the representativeness and width of the considered consumer groups.

Morphological online fashion research arrives at very precise strategy and implementation recommendations which provide online strategists and designers with extensive help to successfully manage their retail brand and their retail stores. Consequently, this research is a very relevant addition to classic usability or UX research focusing on user ergonomics.

The article was published in September 2016 in the MARKTFORSCHUNG.DOSSIER.

More information on the topic can be obtained on request from:dirk.ziems@test.local and veronica.ebenfeld@test.local


Dirk Ziems
Dirk Ziems ist Experte für tiefenpsychologisches Marketing und berät auf Basis von Markt-, Medien- und Kulturforschung weltweit Unternehmen und Konzerne in zahlreichen Branchen und Ländern. Als Mitbegründer der Global Research Boutique Concept M und der Marketingberatung Flying Elephant begleitet er Themen wie die Adaption von Erfolgsprodukten in neuen kulturellen Kontexten, das tiefe Verständnis neuer Konsumgenerationen in China und USA, die Transformation der Werbekommunikation in der neuen digitalen Medienwelt oder die Neuorientierung der Brands in Post-Corona-Zeiten. Dirk Ziems ist auch als Gastdozent an verschiedenen Universitäten tätig.

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