Fashion’s New World Order Powered by Tech
The pandemic has had repercussions far beyond retailers’ revenues. During the lockdown, nearly every facet of the fashion industry was brought to a standstill. From manufacturing to media, social distancing threw a major wrench in fashion’s roadmap.
Unlike other industries that have been quick to adopt tech innovation, fashion had grown accustomed to the conventional ways of operating. Previous attempts to integrate tech were mostly short lived, or contrived gimmicks.
However, the current state of society necessitates the use of technology to allow everyday processes to be done remotely – or at a safe distance. As our reality stands, the COVID-19 crisis is far from over and social distancing remains a part of our ‘new normal’.
Even in China, where conditions have improved greatly, physical retail has only regained 30-40% of its foot traffic post-lockdown, indicating brick-and-mortar recovery is still a way off. This leaves retailers no option but to continue exploring tech solutions to overcome the gap between physical and digital retail.
Digitising the Supply Chain
One of the first functions to be directly impacted by the pandemic was the supply chain.
Due to social distancing regulations, all manufacturing activities were quickly halted, disrupting the flow of goods sourced internationally. In South Asia, the situation became increasingly dire when many fast fashion retailers started cancelling orders, resulting in a humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh when thousands of garment workers lost their main source of income.
Today, manufacturing has resumed but social distancing and travel restrictions pose new challenges for the product development process. Designers, unable to work in their studios for months, have shifted to fashion tech solutions like 3D software to produce realistic digital renderings of their designs.
These renders have been especially helpful in the sampling process, enhancing the accuracy of tech packs while reducing time and cost by up to 70%. With less time required to produce samples, leads times can be halved, expediting speed-to-market for retailers.
This particular process was adopted by Levi’s during lockdown. Chip Bergh, President and CEO of Levi Strauss shared that, “leveraging this digital technology to hold the meeting virtually, we were able to engage everyone simultaneously and complete the process in one meeting, taking weeks out of our go-to-market cycle.”
Robust Merchandising with Fashion Tech
As consumption was disrupted by COVID-19, historical sales data is no longer indicative of future performance, which makes forecasting future inventory cover and sales targets more difficult. Brands that have not gone through any previous events like this suddenly find themselves completely in the dark.
Merchandising through a crisis involves a hands-on approach that involves monitoring trade performance consistently so that new-in launches, restocks and markdowns can be deployed to align with market sentiments.
One of the major consequences of lockdown is the amount of overstock stuck in warehouses. Retailers that are more agile have been able to reallocate stock to other stores in less impacted areas or move it online. But as the crisis started spreading globally, e-commerce and online marketplaces became the only viable retail channels.
Data analytics provided brands insights into identifying the right online channels to allocate their stock, going granular at SKU-level with the ability to monitor stock movement and spot best-sellers that need to enter a replenishment cycle immediately. This helped to improve sell-through and maximise profits on products that were in demand.
Navigating Pandemic Fashion Trends
From “Zoom worthy looks” to loungewear chic, pandemic-driven fashion trends continued to shift. Even in a time when consumerism is slow, emerging trends can still be a strong motivator.
When the ‘stay at home’ order was first established, many brands such as Boohoo came out with work-from-home ranges to meet consumers’ new lifestyle needs. These ranges eventually became best-sellers, even spurring viral products trending across social media. However, as cities begin to reopen, this trend no longer carries the same hype as two months ago. To continue investing in this trend would be risky.
As consumer trends shift rapidly according to the evolving situation, planning for next season’s merchandise can be tricky. Trends forecasted previously may no longer stand in today’s climate, therefore brands must validate trend forecasts against current data to understand where demand truly lies.
Real-time fashion analytics have the ability to track and compare trends against product data to understand how a trend is performing in the market. Analytics can also detect early signals of a trend by revealing spikes in product demand, creating an opportunity to plan and design products early on to meet as the trend grows.
As a result, trend validation helps to minimise the probability of overstock. With more context and understanding behind a trend, merchandisers and buyers have more data to base their line sheets on and forecast the right quantity of units for a strong sell-through.
Integration with Virtual and Augmented Reality
While brick-and-mortar stores in many countries have reopened, strict social distancing regulations still prevent customers from freely interacting with the products on display. Among these rules include no physical try-ons in fitting rooms.
Augmented reality (AR) technology provides customers with the option to virtually try on outfits. This technology was recently adopted by Asos, who launched ‘See My Fit’, an AR tool that allows customers to gauge how items will look in different sizes and on different body types.
Beyond the retail experience, fashion shows and other fashion events have also shifted online. London Fashion Week, a major event in the runway calendar, was the first fashion week to be executed entirely digitally as brands like Charles Jeffery LOVERBOY, Bianca Saunders and Martine Rose presented their collections through fashion films, virtual exhibitions and zines.
Congolese brand, Hanifah, went viral after it presented its latest collection using animated 3D models of the designs. The Instagram video became a huge marketing success for the brand – the collection soon sold out and raked in more than 300,000 views.
Other designers like Marc Jacobs and Valentino took a more unusual route by releasing virtual collections in partnership with Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s latest game offering which debuted in March this year. Valentino’s virtual collection featured key looks from its Spring/Summer and Pre-Fall releases and consequently, Omnilytics detected a 55% uplift in sell-out rate from April to May for the dresses category.
Forging the Future with Fashion Tech
The integration of fashion tech in these conventional retail processes shows us how speed-to-market can be faster but also profitable. The budgets saved from a leaner supply chain and accurate merchandising allow for resources to be spent in a more cost-effective manner. Reducing wastages and chances of overstock also helps in fashion’s long-term mission towards sustainability.
In distribution, an omnichannel strategy should be looked to as a means of survival. In the past few months, we have seen long-established retailers meet their demise due to their inability to stay relevant in the ever-changing retail environment. As the pandemic continues, the WHO has announced the possibility of a second peak that may incur even stricter procedures or lockdowns. Therefore, digital integration in the entire value chain is a necessity to navigate the unpredictable future of retail. The long-term payoff of these digital solutions outweighs the initial investment.
The use of immersive tech like AR and VR in fashion has moved way beyond fad. We have seen how AR has been integrated as a marketing tool for social media and as the technology evolves, the practical function behind it will also improve user experiences for other platforms that require a bridge between a physical and digital touch.
Although the odds of brick-and-mortar retail disappearing completely are thin, social distancing has certainly accelerated the need for retail to shift online. We are still a long way from a full retail recovery but digital spaces provide an opportunity to speed up the rebound process. With months worth of overstock, how retailers choose to handle this inventory will be a huge determining factor in their business continuity.
In this time when demand remains turbulent, there is no doubt that retailers with advanced online capabilities are better positioned than those without.
This article was originally published at Inside Retail Australia in August 2020.
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