While much has been made of once-unknown fashion bloggers earning front-row seats at tony fashion shows, those runway looks rarely work their way into the closets of everyday American women. By contrast, the mall stores that dress the nation, from the Gap (GPS) and Sears (SHLD) to Kmart and Forever 21, are turning to fashion blogs for style and trend input, seeking fresh ways to lure today's digitally-connected shoppers.
Chains are also turning to blogs to put their own styling twists on fashion items and showcase their apparel in a new light; some are even forging formal blog partnerships.
A Thumbs Up From the In Crowd
Retailers now consult fashion blogs as style sources, according them the same standing as traditional fonts of inspiration such as fashion magazines, trend forecasting firms, celebrities and street culture.
"During the start of the millennium, retailers relied upon trend forecasting firms like the Doneger Group and WGSN to drive their fashion trends," fashion and retail consultant Tom Julian, tells DailyFinance. Now, the immediacy of rapidly reacting blogs can feed stores trend input "more continuously and frequently," he says.
And retailers are all too aware that fashion bloggers have earned the trust of style-conscious shoppers: Fashion tips from these everyday-folks-turned-trend-watchers carry the weight of insights on hot looks from a member of the in-crowd.
Shoppers hit up such blogs for breezy content like "Three Ways to Wear Leopard Print This Spring," "How to Build a Designer Collection on a Budget," and musings on how everyday shoppers pulled together a particular look, or for insider tips on upcoming store sales.
"Fashion blogs derive their authority both from being alpha consumers -- the equivalent of the girl in school who always knew exactly what to wear, and whose influence is now multiplied via the Internet," says professor Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School.
And retailers want a piece of the action: They're out to leverage blogs' trend authority as well as tap into their ever burgeoning reach -- which has become "massive," according to Alison Jatlow Levy, retail strategist at consultancy Kurt Salmon.
Blogs also offer retailers something that can be elusive: an instant read on what's hot -- and what's not -- with shoppers. While monthly fashion magazines are just that, monthly, "the fashion blogs have become a daily source for many shoppers when it comes to trends, items of the season as well as ongoing conversation -- daily information, chats, tips, columns," Julian says.
Indeed, fashion blogs serve as a "quick and condensed form of consumer response," Scafidi says. "A retailer who wants to know whether a revival of the maxi-dress will be successful or whether consumers prefer to slip on shorts for summer can check the online reaction to new trends before investing heavily in a particular look," she says.
Blogs as the New Storefronts
For the Gap, "there's no question that blogs play much more of an integral role in fashion today than they did five years ago," Olivia Doyne, director of brand engagement, partnerships and public relations for the chain, tells DailyFinance.
Stores tap a variety of blogs to plug into all manner of trend information.
Forever 21 turns to Fashionista.com for current fashion trends as well as fashion news, Linda Chang, senior marketing manager of the fast-fashion chain, tells DailyFinance. The retailer taps TheManRepeller.com for a lighthearted take on style. Its "humor reminds me that fashion can always be fun and should never be taken too seriously," she says. Meanwhile, Stylebykling.nowmanifest.com's "simplicity and street style is a constant reminder that something less is more."
Kmart hits up sites like I Spy DIY and Penny Chic for trend inspiration, while sister chain Sears counts a long list of fashion, beauty, lifestyle and "mommy bloggers" as trend sources, among them What's Haute, Fashionotes, Babblings of a Mommy and Fantabulously Frugal, a spokeswoman says.
And that list doesn't even include Sears' many content partnerships with bloggers such as Sara Zucker, Alicia Lund's CheetahIsTheNewBlack.com and Tara McNulty's TheWondergirl.com for SearsStyle, the retailer's blogy microsite that's designed to be a style resource.
More, some blogs are starting to serve as digital storefronts for retailers. Stores are turning to bloggers to put their idiosyncratic stamp on the merchandise, banking on getting a lift in sales from the sites' populist credibility.
"For a retailer, collaborating with a blog is somewhere between crowd-sourcing and getting a spread in Vogue," Scafidi says. "The combination of street cred and editorial authority can be compelling, and readers are more likely to pay attention to a look styled by a familiar blogger than a slick corporate pop-up ad."
The Gap's Doyne says blogs offer shoppers different perspectives on its clothing. "Consumers turn to the blogs that best represent their style or the style they aspire to have," she says. "For us, it's about how blogs take our key pieces of the season and style them in a way that's relevant to them."
In what Gap describes as a first-of-its-kind digital partnership, the chain is teaming with blogs Refinery29, FabSugar, Lookbook and Rue on its Styld.by web site.
The looks those bloggers create are featured on the retailer's site, where viewers can pick up style inspirations, learn about the products featured, and of course, buy them.
Each blog has its own take. For example, the Gap's colored bottoms -- a hot trend this spring-- received three distinct fashion treatments from a trio of blogs on Styld.by.
"FabSugar took a 'Prep Schooled' approach to our Broken In Straight Khakis in blue by pairing them with an equally bold yellow top and edgy leather jacket; Refinery29 took a playful spin on our 1969 Always Skinny Jean in blue by pairing them with a sheer polka dot button-down and classic cropped jacket; while Rue took more of a 'Tomboy Glam' approach by pairing our 1969 Sexy Boyfriend Chinos in pink with a sheer button-down and cropped blazer," Doyne says.
Gallery: 2012 Fall Fashion Trends
The partnership just might be working: Gap reported last week that its denim and khaki pants in bold colors have sold briskly this spring, helping to break a long spell of poor sales at the largest U.S. apparel chain.
In a perfect world, a blog can ultimately move product and create promotion," Julian says.
"Read, click, buy -- with the prior approval of a friendly blogger," Scafidi says.