In August, designer Joseph Altuzarra decided to live-stream his brand’s September fashion show online for the first time. To support the stream, the brand redesigned its site and added a new feature that would send traffic to retailers that stock Altuzarra products.

The brand, launched in 2008, doesn’t sell direct-to-consumer, relying entirely on wholesale partners like Neiman Marcus and Net-a-Porter.

“We wanted to capitalize on that live-stream traffic,” said Jodie Chan, head of marketing and communications at Altuzarra. Since Altuzarra hasn’t adopted an in-season fashion calendar schedule, it had to multitask: Customers watching the live stream for spring 2017 were directed to shop the fall 2016 collection on its partner sites.

“We had to figure out how to best present our existing collections while gauging the live stream,” said Chan. “The goal was to determine product demand,” based on customer traffic to product pages.

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An affiliate link on Altuzarra’s product page

Previously, Altuzarra didn’t pay as close attention to its online traffic data and how it could influence its wholesale business. But, thanks to fashion’s continuing focus on a direct-to-consumer strategy — led by young industry darlings like Everlane and Reformation — traditional wholesale brands are now navigating an increasingly tricky segment of the retail market: Competition is increasing, and department store foot traffic and sales are on the decline.

However, department store retail is still a $150 billion industry. Even as that starts to decline, customer expectations around capabilities like fast shipping, free returns and otherwise smooth e-commerce experiences are increasing. For a wholesale brand, opening a direct-to-consumer channel isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch and opening the online ordering floodgates.

“Brands like Michael Kors, Kate Spade and Burberry are doing a solid job in direct-to-consumer because their brands are well known and searched for, and they understand the pace we’re dealing with,” said Kristin Savilia, CEO of Joor, an online marketplace for wholesale brands. “You need the backend logistics, and if you don’t have those, you shouldn’t be doing it at all.”

So some brands are finding a middle ground, like Altuzarra and lower-market fashion brand BB Dakota. Each brand’s site functions just like an e-commerce site would, except instead of adding items to an online cart and checking out on the site, potential customers are redirected to a retail partner. BB Dakota’s site sends customers to sites like Revolve and Shopbop, while Altuzarra links to Nordstrom, Net-a-Porter, Matches Fashion, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys.

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A product page on BB Dakota’s website

Chan said the team is paying attention to the affiliate links to see if Altuzarra’s in a position to potentially open an e-commerce site.

Kelly Jo Sands, evp of marketing technology at agency Ansira, said an affiliate-linking strategy is a smart stepping stone for wholesale brands that are considering the idea of selling direct.

“Setting up a site, managing it and tracking traffic data is a low cost of entry on the way to making a much bigger decision,” said Sands. “Going to a full e-commerce presence can be pretty overwhelming. This lets a brand gain some initial independence.”

Tracking how a customer arrived on a site, for instance, offers good intel: If they’re seeking out products directly, that’s a an indicator of high intent, said Sands. But if they’re searching around for the lowest prices, that means specific product demand is lower, and a retailer competing on price will win out.

The biggest setback, however, is that brands probably won’t have a handle on one important piece of information: whether or not a customer actually purchased something.

“It depends on the retailer: Some might be willing to feed that information back, as part of a symbiotic relationship,” said Sands. “But if they don’t, you’re in the dark, and you never close that loop.”

Despite department stores’ woes, they’re still massive for customer acquisition and reach. Cutting ties and going adrift prematurely can spell disaster: New York designer Thakoon Panichgul’s business is currently on hiatus, nine months after he pulled his collection from wholesale retailers and went direct-to-consumer.

Using a test-and-see phase by ramping up customer data tracking technology and gauging demand could prevent such fates for other brands testing more independent waters.

“This way, a brand can look at its marketing, traffic and logistics to calculate the sales they could be making and decide if a direct channel would be cost-positive,” said Savilia. “But it’s rash to panic and say, ‘Wholesale is dead.’ It can really hurt your brand to sell in e-commerce if you’re not doing it the right way.”

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