Consumers Are Talking…Are Brands Listening?

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Consumer Facts from Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™

Once consumers became comfortable purchasing apparel online, brands and retailers sought to enhance the experience through social media sharing options, crowdsourcing — and online customer comments sections. What may have begun as a means of increasing sales via search engine optimization has grown to be a barometer of what’s in and what’s out of favor with the buying public.

Customer Comments
Project Reveals Key Apparel Complaints

Cotton Incorporated set out to quantitatively measure these customer comments, and the result – the Cotton Incorporated Customer Comment Project – reveals what makes apparel consumers rant or rave about their purchases.

“Initially, we wanted to see if customers noticed that synthetic fibers had been substituted into their traditionally cotton- rich apparel after the run-up in cotton prices in 2011,” explains Kim Kitchings, Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Program Metrics at Cotton Incorporated. “What we realized was that we had access to a vast pool of verbatim customer comments on a range of textile issues.”

Ultimately, the project looked at a collection of more than 200,000 customer comments from 25 key retailer websites including: mass market retailers; chain, department and specialty stores; online-only retailers; and sports specialty stores.

But with all these consumers talking, are any brands listening?

Kantar Retail’s Anne Zybowski, vice-president of retail insights, says comments boards are a high priority for some retailers.


“On some boards, comments run from product-specific merchandise issues all the way to broader customer service problems and how they’re being handled,” Zybowski says. “In fashion, with so [much product] turning over so quickly, merchants look at reviews online and take action based on that.

We’ve seen some retailers whose redline or clearance items correlate with a product’s negative online review.”

While 53% of consumers say they are just as likely to write a review about a garment they were satisfied with as one they were dissatisfied with, the Cotton Incorporated Customer Comment Project shows that most customer ratings across all retail channels are positive.

But those negative reviews reveal some key learnings and significant textile issues consumers are facing today.

Quality Control?

“We found that consumers do indeed notice that retailers have been substituting cotton with synthetic fibers in some of their favorite clothes, and they are not happy about it,” says Kitchings.

Whether or not they are writing product reviews, apparel consumers believe that they are paying more – and getting less.

More than seven out of 10 consumers (75%) say clothing prices have increased over last year, yet 55% say they have also noticed fiber substitution, 62% have noticed clothing seems to be made of thinner fabrics, 59% say their clothing does not last as long as it used to, and 52% say the overall quality of their clothing has declined, according to Monitor data.

Ultimately, consumers recognize the value in cotton and are unhappy with fiber substitution, particularly in their underwear (60%), denim jeans (61%), t-shirts (59%), and socks (53%), Monitor data reveal.

Reviewer’s Choice

Even among those who may not consistently write reviews, they remain a key component of the online due diligence today’s consumers complete before making apparel purchases. Fifty-eight percent of consumers say they read online reviews before purchasing apparel in-store, as well as 77% who say they compare prices online, 73% who browse other styles, and 71% who look up coupons, according to the Monitor survey.

“Apparel consumers are concerned with getting quality for their dollars, not just finding a bargain price,” says Kitchings. “Reading product reviews from peers lets consumers learn from the experience and opinions of people just like them.”

Indeed, 71% of consumers say clothing reviews are influential, and a full 81% say those reviews are believable, according to the Monitor survey. And according to a 2010 survey of U.S. Internet users by online video review site EXPO, consumer reviews are nearly 12 times more trusted than manufacturer or retailer descriptions.

What’s driving the need for all that research? Price remains key, but quality is important, too. With consumers still concerned about the economy, they are on the hunt for apparel that will last. Monitor data indicate that consumers are more likely to equate good quality with durability than with price; 64% define it as “durable or long-lasting,” while 24% describe it as “made well” and only 10% define it as a “good price/value.”

When those apparel purchases don’t meet their standards for quality, then, consumers are quick to voice their displeasure.

“The Customer Comments Project reveals that broadly, quality remains a significant concern for consumers,” says Kitchings. “More specifically, textile issues like fiber substitution, wear and tear, and pilling continue to trouble them.”

Perhaps partly due to thinner, lower- quality fabrics, textile issues are fairly prevalent among consumers writing online reviews. Eighty three percent of consumers say shrinking is an issue, and 82% cite holes/tears/falling apart as a top issue, according to Monitor data.

Other issues, from pilling to wear and tear, continue to plague consumers. The majority of consumers (76%) say they experience pilling; 79% say they are bothered by it, and 64% say they would check fiber labels to avoid pilling, according to Monitor data. And when consumers mention they have a pilling issue in their clothing, the average negative star rating of the product (one or two stars out of five) more than doubles.

A majority of consumers (80%) also say they experience holes or tears; 82% are bothered by it and 69% say they would check fiber labels to avoid it, according to Monitor data. Wear and tear issues may be due in part to poor quality or cost cutting measures – but regardless of the cause, consumers are noticing and taking to online sites to share their frustrations. According to the Customer Comments Project, when consumers mention they have a wear and tear issue with their clothing, average negative star ratings more than triples.

Denim Blues

The Customer Comments Project also revealed some surprising findings about key products. Positive ratings for denim jeans are the lowest compared to other major categories studied, and uncover significant consumer dissatisfaction with negative textile issues, as well as fiber substitution away from cotton. Fading (23%), shrinking (22%), and stretch recovery (19%) were the top negative textile issues, and when consumers noticed fiber substitution away from cotton in their jeans, negative ratings nearly quadrupled.

“Our Monitor data indicate that 81% of consumers are not likely to seek out jeans made from fabrics other than cotton,” says Kitchings. “When retailers substitute cotton for synthetic fibers in this category in particular, consumers notice and are not pleased.”

Now that cotton prices have stabilized, those retailers who turned to synthetics may want to consider switching back to natural fibers like cotton – or risk the wrath of their customers, who can turn to those very sites to share their discontent with a ready audience.



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