Innovation in retail — particularly in fashion retail — is quite a challenge, isn’t it? Steps taken towards digitalization of brick-and-mortar have been hesitant and have not become mainstream, as mentioned in previous articles. Here, I finally want to explore what exactly could unable fashion industry to scale to the next level and fully catch up with technology and the Internet of Things, like so many other fields in our everyday lives.
As it was mentioned in the recent BOF COVID-19 special edition, fashion is under high pressure to reinvent itself, but that was true even before these difficult times. But why is it that fashion makes a case on its own? Standing tall among the creative industries, fashion stands for pluralism and extreme variety. Different brands have distinct strategies and approaches, strategies that target customer groups whom we know little about. This creates an ever-complex situation, wherein markets with undefined geographies are merged with customer behaviours, needs and demands. On the other hand, despite the differentiation of the users, we are all united by our need to shop efficiently. By that, I mean the need to have quick access to the products we are looking for, have a seamless and optimized shopping experience and ultimately being able to “keep the world of fashion in our pockets”. This is the fundamental difference and mismatch between the party’s needs and demands.
Due to the absence of magical synching technology, brands are competing with each other by producing more and cutting costs. They are striving for higher profit margins and attracting new customers at multiple distribution channels via different retail channels (at least for a bigger part of all brands). Strangely enough, brands are still trying to improve profitability by producing more being responsible for the 10% of the world’s carbon emissions as mentioned by UN, when they could identify and target customers with a high potential to convert instead, or produce an optimized collection according to a high-quality trend prediction and then give them exactly what they want.
Additional data would give a helping hand in this instance, as the strategy of overproduction is clearly obsolete and costs more than it brings in. And yes, we do allude to costs tied to reputational risks that could, for instance, come from accumulating or destroying unsold stock — especially in the era of corporate social responsibility. So, the obvious solution would be to collect more data in order to get a better grasp of customer needs. Wouldn’t a systematic collection of data on consumer behaviour help? It certainly would solve part of the problem, as I had concluded in the previous article.
Unfortunately, the most useful kind of data, those from brick-and-mortar footfall remains unavailable due to low digitalization. Also, the context of data and its unified format is another aspect we need to consider while talking about data in and for fashion. A good example is the existing data collected online. Brands find it hard to exercise full power on it due to distributional shifting used by omnichannel solutions. The bitter truth is that brands are losing a big part of data once they affiliate themselves with e-giants. Due to the involvement of omnichannel e-distribution, brands’ data integrity and full control over data pay a high price.
A s a consequence; brands risk having a somewhat fuzzy understanding when it comes to consumer needs even for a trend prediction. This means they urgently need to improve and expand their access (see ownership) to data in the future without ultimately relying on sales and distribution channels. Reliable data is clearly an asset at the service of brands — it allows brands to make correct predictions and can directly reduce the overproduction.
But data cannot solve it all. There is a multitude of customer needs waiting to be realized, such as the user-friendly and seamless connection between online and offline retail, direct multi-brand experience, omnichannel curation and digital accessibility of products anywhere, at any time. This is just wishful thinking for the time being, as we only have the choice between multi-brand online platforms or shop-in-shop stores or own-brand shops with an online presence. From a user perspective, the product discovery is pretty tough, as they need to choose the distribution channel first and hope to find what is needed via the chosen channel.
But where is Plan B, if data, even if collected in the needed way can solve only a part of the problem? I believe data should become a part of a new and truly democratized product discovery with a synchronized availability check and digital product accessibility. What is this, you’re probably asking yourself right now. To understand this better, we need to have a look at the current situation in fashion retail –a distribution-channel-centric system which is competing for customers, very often failing to attract enough into the sales funnel (both online and offline) to sell out the stock, without making it easy for customers to find what they are looking for. This is about a chain of processes where retailers are taking over a considerable part of the marketing and customer connection in order to promote the store willing to create sales.
How can brands optimize stakeholder performance and profitability within this distribution-channel-centric system? Difficult. Considering the times of growing consumer demands? Very difficult. And to be honest, at a certain level, considering such situations when some distribution channels are affected as in a situation of a lockdown, could become even impossible. We end-up again in the never-ending dilemma between online and offline retail and oversee a highest-ever demand for offline retail to be fully digitized and connected. My vision for the future of fashion includes not only closing the gap between online and offline retail but also rethinking this distribution-centric strategy and opening up to a new consumer-centric approach in fashion retail. This has nothing to do with installing more user apps ( one for each brand), or corresponding to the needs of a niche group of customers, or just a marketing purpose, or even covering some nice features and ideas with coding.
To make clear on what consumer-centric strategy is, we need to see what customers want. And this is to be able to make the truly democratized product discovery as a first step in a shopping journey, where no one is forced to decide the place-to-buy in advance. This is to feel at ease when browsing through fashion products of different fashion brands, have guidance in product search and being directly connected to the brand and its products as a unified digital asset with a link to a most convenient place of purchase. This would be a concept of a fully connected, unified and completely digitized retail based on an ultimate user-centricity.
And to make this happen, we need to shift our perspective to the complete product catalogue digitization in a unified format. To centralize this information, the fashion industry would require a synchronized information pool grouping all brands, who would act as owners of information, a pool aiming to connect users with the information/fashion item they are looking for. What would be the end-goal of this centralized information pool, which is also open for use to other distribution channels, such as retail shops? Sales. But effective, targeted, direct and data-driven sales. Sales with no or very reduced overproduction and ultimate D2C (direct to customer) connection.
Needless to say, that would take more than collaboration: it would mean the end of politics between brands regarding the product data format and the creation of standardized garment information and interaction technology used as an omnichannel and multi-brand consumer-focused channel. An example of a data unification could be the unified IBAN account number at the bank within the EU. But how do we do this in fashion? For the moment we are attempting to work with GS1 IoT data unification which is making identification and verification possible but does not reflect the core primary and essential needs of the fashion industry (my opinion). We would need much more to reshape the entire system, as well as to improve the interaction between brands and their existing or potential consumers through the newly standardized digital fashion product interaction within both online and brick-and-mortar retail.
This disruptive and ultimate digitalization of the fashion industry and the reshaping of the existing business model could be potent enough to fulfil the dream of all parties involved – businesses and retailers while meeting the needs of customers. Here, I would like to conclude with my personal vision and a kind “to-do-plan” on how we can achieve this — part of my guiding principles applied to the radical solution that SCROBLE is.
1. CLOSING THE GAP BETWEEN ONLINE & OFFLINE RETAIL
The technology would act as a merger of both online and offline environments in the ultimate customer-centric way. The application of VR to simulate real stores is a great tool, but not enough. Customer-centrism is about transforming the classical retail experience to a place of digital user-product interaction and taking it to the next level of functionality by entering the mobile user experience within offline retail to satisfy digital customer needs within the offline environment. This is the way to reduce customer contact in the store.
2. INTRODUCING A NON-RETAILING TECHNOLOGY FOR FASHION
The technology should take a purely technological position between the parties (data unification and connection), connecting the dots and enabling unprecedented product discovery and highly effective search, including availability checks. The fully connected retail would let stores remain operating even in case of a lockdown.
3. ENABLING PRODUCT ACCESSIBILITY ANYWHERE, ANYTIME
The new technology would digitally unify fashion products, going beyond the product identification and making them easily accessible, eliminating hurdles of time, variety and place — enabling consumers to find garments anywhere, anytime. It becomes possible through the digital rendering process within both — brick-and-mortar and the online spaces.
4. RESHAPING THE ROLE OF THE PHYSICAL PRESENCE IN RETAIL
We know that online shopping is faster and more convenient when it comes to ordering items or accessing garments; however, it cannot replace the physical experience of product discovery which is, on the other hand, very often extremely inefficient. The new technology is a part of the physical retail of the future. It should enable retailers to profit not only from direct sales but also from a mobile product-user interaction. The said technology would guarantee the traction of value creation between customers and physical items, providing customers with complete and relevant information. Retailers would be freed from the fear of customers entering the shop and then leaving without making a purchase. Eventually, the store would profit from any future purchase of products first discovered in the store. The brick-and-mortar should be a starting point for the customer journey where all human senses can be satisfied, and sales would be seen as an additional service, and product discovery can happen only with a mobile phone. The new technology could also track and reward the retailer for any value multiplication that takes place after the customer has left the shop, but was incited at the store.
5. SHIFTING THE MARKETING & COMMUNICATION
The new technology enables a direct connection between the binary users-brands and users-retailers, shifting the power of marketing and PR to fashion brands, but allowing stronger sales functionalities to retailers with plugged-in life-time availability approval.
6. DEMOCRATIZING & UNIFYING THE PRODUCT DISCOVERY
This technology would be a “brand-and-retailer-neutral” space for customers to start a fashion journey, letting them deal with fashion primarily as a semi-gameable and semi-shoppable content. It would be a place of creativity and exchange, allowing users to create multi- and cross-brand content within the fashion community and democratize access to all the distribution channels.
7. EMPOWERING BRAND’S PERFORMANCE WITH QUALITY CONSOLIDATED DATA
Creating, collecting and analyzing new data chains would drive the efficiency of the planning, production and logistics. Helping brands produce less or, dare I say, zero unneeded items is the ultimate goal. It would be able to solve challenges on both sides and deliver a true win-win solution that is needed for a smart, environmentally conscious future.
It is clear; there is a pressing need to rethink and rebuild the entire process and set ourselves free from the belief that existing structures are the future. From my point of view, a new generation of innovation in retail means change, and the discussion has been going on without concrete results for a while. Speeding up/tweaking the existing processes, i.e. fast check out, variety of payment methods, VR-powered tools for visualization or search optimization cannot take us so far that we can solve all current and future needs and demands. Despite the undeniable value of such solutions, it is the creation of new processes that can drive the fashion industry forward and bring about the reincarnation of the fashion retail and restore its leading place in the retail business — leading us finally to a “Fashion in Technology”.
Such a big step forward requires a critical mass of fashion leaders, pioneers, visionaries and innovators willing to collaborate to take the industry to the next level of functionality and offer customers unprecedented user experience. Will they unite to make this change possible and start the most significant change in fashion? That remains to be seen, but at least, I can promise you this: we are opening this door by putting a new business model and a new tech solution in place to make this first step toward a New Shopping Reality and Sustainable Future for Fashion.
Photos by Ross Findon Luca Bravo, William Iven and Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash
Driven to improve social, environmental impact and quality of life, Anna Salewski, Founder & CEO of SCROBLE, is a passionate visionary for disruptive innovation, business models and technologies.