Yesterday RFID, today the blockchain, meanwhile you still wonder whether your app really needs its own technical design now that your homepage is finally responsive?
Take a breath, sit back, and let me help you gain some perspective on the latest fashion tech trends.
Losing Sleep Over Bits and Bytes
Around three years ago, I embarked on the journey of propelling myself into the 21st century, or so I thought. Born as part of generation X, I was leisurely reading my daily fashion and retail newsletters and felt like a dinosaur watching the industry change at light speed. Increasingly unable to understand what was going on, staying on top of what matters and what doesn’t became a challenge. Bits and bytes everywhere, it seemed.
Not one day passed – and still doesn’t – without at least one mention of a new company popping up to disrupt and change (fashion) retail fast and forever. In the process, established brands and retailers would supposedly be made obsolete overnight. Funding was available by the billions to help drive the change, and happy founders continue to smile into cameras (despite just having handed over lots of control to outside investors).
Long story short, I was losing sleep over figuring out what I could and should do to keep up with this rapidly changing industry environment. Today, I’m in a position to share some insights on current fashion tech trends that help put things into perspective. These are based on my experience as an investor in a retail marketplace startup, and on a few years of helping brands and retailers assess the impact of technology on their business.
Fashion Tech Trends and Their Impact on the Industry
We live in times where even German bureaucracy boasts its first ever ‘Minister for Digitalisation’, a sure sign that something must be going on. If you are in the fashion retail industry, I highly recommend reading CB Insights’ overview about which elements of the fashion supply chain are being ‘disrupted’.
Here, I look at three key aspects of the CB insights report to provide some perspective on fashion tech trends and what they can do to the fashion retail industry.
1. Technology Helps Understand Consumers Better and Faster
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on track to becoming a new generation of designers. Design AI will be able to learn what consumers want and make better predictions of what will be worn by humans than your current human designers. Have a look at Project Muze, a cooperation between Google and Zalando, for an example of what this looks like.
Does this mean you need to massively invest in technology to replace your designers now because they cannot interpret reality and trends as well as technology can? My experience tells me that the key step many brands and retailers still need to take is to actually collect adequate consumer data, for example via customer loyalty programs, and then base their decisions on the analysis of that data.
Will AI be able to interpret that data (and that of relevant social networks) faster and more accurately in the future? Probably so. But unless you have all the data in the first place, neither you nor your future AI can analyse it at all. So, if you don’t collect and use consumer data yet, you should urgently begin doing so now.
2. Technology Helps Optimise the Supply Chain
This is one of the areas where technology has made the biggest leaps over the past years. Production technologies are changing and fashion tech trends like 3D printing are allowing more individualised products than ever before. As of now, 3D printing is still small business and it remains to be seen whether it will become relevant on a larger scale.
One of my favourite examples of how fast technology is changing the dynamics in retail is RFID. Over the last couple of years, RFID has gained traction as a key element of omnichannel commerce. By enabling real-time inventory visibility, it plays a pivotal role in enabling a truly integrated cross-channel experience for consumers.
But, has this happened overnight? Certainly not. I vividly remember RFID being a hyped topic in the early to mid 90s. Called ‘Efficient Consumer Response’ (ECR) at the dusk of the 20th century, the technology was supposedly already the thing to do back then. Its true impact, however, only became apparent many years later when other technologies like the internet and mobile had changed the way consumers access a retailers’ offer. There was suddenly a real business case to be made for technology to enable revenues.
3. Technology Helps Create a Better Shopping Experience
CB Insights also references Augmented Reality (AR) as a key transformational technology (as do I in this recent post). AR is a powerful tool and can certainly play a great role in many aspects of consumer interaction: from selecting products, to bringing your retail brand to ‘life’ at POS, all the way to after sales service, especially in a B2B context. And AR mirrors even promise to improve consumer conversion ratios in your changing rooms.
But, how many consumers or retailers have you actually heard speaking out openly about how great these things are and how much they have improved their shopping experience? Or about how they are more than merely interesting fashion tech trends but had a tangible positive impact on the bottom line?
How to Find ‘Your’ Technology In Time?
When new technologies come and go at the speed of fashion trends, it is smart to have a few simple ground rules to determine whether and how you should jump on the next fashion tech trend. Your IT department will have the expertise to evaluate the technology as such. But as the executive, you need to be able to consider its potential from a strategic long-term perspective.
So how to decide whether the blockchain is relevant to your business, or whether you can wait as long as you did with RFID? Is this like missing the shift to online marketplaces while fiddling around with the UX of your loss prone own web shop all over again? Does your app really need a proprietary technical design now that your shop page is responsive and finally working across mobile devices of all sizes?
An overriding topic I believe it really is high time to act upon immediately is the change in consumer shopping behaviour towards digital and mobile commerce. This is a fact and has been impacting your business for years already.
Does this mean you will be disrupted away soon if you fail to act now? Not necessarily. But if you have witnessed decreasing revenues in your own stores or from your wholesale partners (particularly non-pure-online ones) as a result of a decrease in physical traffic, you need to do something. Work either on the gross margin or on the cost side to counterbalance your cost structure vis-à-vis your decreasing revenues. And, work on winning back those digital native consumers by providing more digitally integrated shopping options.
The speed of change in this area likely means a yearly loss of around two percentage points of market share on ‘mainly physically enabled’ business for the five to ten years to come. If digitally enabled purchases currently account for 15%-20%, it seems realistic for this number to increase 20% or 25% in the near future.
Two simple rules may help your decision making in this area:
1. Don’t Let Yourself Feel Pressured to Move
Despite much media hype, the last few years have not seen any technology that was ground breaking enough to warrant jumping on it immediately. Instead, tech firms and consultancies create PR pressure to sell their services and products in ever accelerating cycles.
Most of the time, there is no first-mover advantage in fashion tech trends. Unless, you are 100% convinced that a technology will fundamentally change and improve your business you should become comfortable with simply studying the topic for some time before making a decision.
Don’t fall victim to any media frenzy about the latest hyped technology. An age-old question helps you resist artificial pressure to move: ‘what’s in it for me?’.
2. Consider Processes & Costs of Interface
New technologies almost always come as a new stand-alone solution. Without considerable effort, they will become their own island within your ocean of existing IT infrastructure. Be it an app, a KPI-dashboard, or fancy digital in-store displays – they all need technical and human process interfaces to truly improve how things work in your business.
All these solutions have one thing in common: their follow-up cost can be significantly higher than their implementation cost. So, before you decide to invest, consider how to build bridges to your new technology island. A technology is great a great fit for you, if you can implement it in smart and lean ways and are able to track its financial impact on your business.
Experience with the successful implementation of new technologies shows that strategic and financial paybacks can be difficult to track. And that famous quote you know from marketing, ‘50% of our marketing spend is wasted, if only I knew which 50%’, applies to fashion tech trends too!
About the Author:
Christoph Berendes built his expertise as a consultant and brand manager in the brick and mortar world. His passion and confidence in the changes turned him into a digital manager. He currently helps businesses grow their digital distribution. To discuss this post or other fashion tech trends, comment below or reach out to Christoph by email.