The late designer Karl Lagerfeld declared, “Fashion is about change — and I like change.”
But the changes that are sweeping the fashion industry may not be what he had in mind.
Technological innovation, increasing globalization, and shifts in consumer behavior have been huge disruptors.
Shoppers are veering away from brick and mortar stores and hunkering down in front of computer screens.
The abundance of online options is great for consumers – but for an industry built on personal interaction, it’s a challenge.
Your business can stay ahead of the fashion curve – if you have the technology.
The seismic industry shifts of 2020 threw a spotlight on trends that were already emerging – particularly, on the increase in consumer digital consumption.
The Fashion and Apparel Industry Report predicts growth in worldwide eCommerce fashion revenue from $405B in 2020 to $475B in 2022.
That means a bigger pie – and more competition to get a slice of it.
This also means increasing globalization as fashion retailers from halfway across the globe compete with you for your target audience.
Besides the language barriers that small retailers face while negotiating with foreign suppliers, you also have the need to learn local languages and customs in order to serve your global audience effectively.
And there’s another challenge facing fashion merchandisers: how to generate and maintain relationships with customers – and stay competitive – despite dwindling face-to-face interaction.
According to research by Nosto, a leading developer of personalization software, 75% of consumers prefer brands that create content that is personalized in its messaging, offers, and experiences.
That means you need to get to know your customers – and you do that by tracking behavior and personalizing your contact with them.
Machine Learning (ML) algorithms make it possible to customize the content according to each shopper’s tastes, creating an experience that is both meaningful and unique to that individual. Software tools like Nosto allow merchandisers to review their customers’ actions, determine their preferences, and deliver personalized, real-time recommendations.
Your collected data can help you maintain the customer connection. Send timely messaging and special offers when customers open an account or make a purchase. And put your customer insights to use by embedding them in your brand. Simply adding a sticky widget to your site where you offer personalized discounts could help increase sales by several multiples.
Nobody’s suggesting that Artificial Intelligence could give Coco Chanel a run for her money.
Yet the intersection of fashion and technology isn’t really surprising, given that fashion has always been about buzz. And if there’s a buzz in today’s tech world, it’s focused on AI.
The growing range of software tools now available can empower merchandisers with valuable insights into their markets.
You can put these tools to work in a number of ways:
- Managing Inventory
Maintaining accurate inventory is problematic for sellers: they need to maintain sufficient stock to keep business flowing, but avoid overstocking and losing cash on unsold items. ML algorithms make predictions and selections by using historical data – allowing retailers to accurately forecast demand.
- Connecting with Customers
Many fashion retailers are using AI chatbots to connect with customers and provide individualized recommendations. So while they’re saving money on staffing, they’re also providing personalized, interactive service – and building customer loyalty.
- Getting the Right Fit
Software tools like Virtusize enable online shoppers to find the right fit. Customers use either clothing they own or similar styles as reference items and get a virtual illustration of the desired item.
- Tailoring Recommendations
Using analytics along with AI and ML, retailers can ensure they offer clothing that customers will actually want to buy.
For example, the online “personal styling” service Stitch Fix uses algorithms to tailor clothing recommendations. It reviews the customer profile, then sifts through thousands of potential purchases to handpick items that match the customer’s preferences and budget.
Sure, this could potentially mean data privacy issues since your IP is tracked and cookies placed on your browser, but as long as it is done ethically, the consumer gets what they want.
- Reducing Returns
Returns are a headache for buyers and sellers alike.
AI averts the pain by personalizing the shopping experience. When shoppers receive customized information, they make better-informed buying decisions. This enhances customer satisfaction and reduces unnecessary time wasted on processing returns.
- Improving Product Search
Visual search is another retail trend powered by AI. Shoppers simply snap and upload photos of the items they want.
The visual tool then assesses color, size, proportions, and shape to find identical or similar items online.
A picture’s worth a thousand words.
- Designing Apparel
Technology offers equal-opportunity access to fashion databases. Digital pattern libraries provide patterns for downloading at low or no cost – eliminating the risk of loss or damage with paper pattern use.
And thanks to increasingly sophisticated data collection strategies, designers can create fashion that more accurately reflects consumer tastes,
One example: Zalando, a German-based fashion platform, partnered with Google to create AI-generated fashion designs based on customers’ preferred colors, fabrics, etc.
Amazon takes a different tack. It uses an AI-enabled fashion design algorithm that designs clothing by copying on-trend styles and applying them to new creations.
- Anticipating Trends
Merchandisers using AL and ML tools can now identify rapidly changing fashion trends and stock retail shelves more quickly and effectively than traditional fashion retailers. That allows savvy brands like Top Shop, Zara, and H&M to stay ahead of seasonal demand and supply the right product at the right time – or sooner.
- Staying the Course
Software tools like Shopify’s Launchpad allow you to plan, coordinate, and monitor events like product drops, sales, and inventory restocks. They can also display your top sellers, total orders, and total sales.
All in real-time, so you don’t miss a beat.
Define Your Audience
Companies no longer rely solely on a statistical analysis of historic data. Increasingly, they’re using AI to precisely target their markets.
Nike, the $100 billion shoe empire, recently acquired AI startup Celect in order to optimize its analytics.
This move will help Nike define its multiple markets by determining what’s hot (or not) in specific locations, and stock its stores for sales success.
Platforms like Celect and Nosto allow retailers to pinpoint their audiences based on multiple factors like behavior, demographics, preferences, etc. The more detailed the segmentation, the more effectively you’ll connect with target markets.
AI-powered technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are shrinking the gap between the in-store and online shopping experience.
Integrating with AR and VR apps benefits both shoppers and merchandisers. It allows customers to “experience” fashion before buying, while for retailers it creates an option for online retention of jaded in-store shoppers.
Case in point: The Gap – which had been struggling with bricks-and-mortar sales – recently unveiled DressingRoom, its new AR app. It allows customers to try on clothes in an augmented reality setting, complete with an avatar.
These technologies are also useful when you’re outsourcing manufacturing: they’ll provide a life-like merchandise preview to ensure that the products you’re paying for measure up.
If you’re not ready to go the avatar route, stick to the more conventional form of customer service: hire “real people” to provide virtual help. Virtual styling assistance for loyal customers is a powerful value-added tool that makes them feel appreciated – and inclined to stay with you.
New technologies are shaping the future of fashion – and merchandisers who invest in them now will reap future rewards in conversions and customer loyalty.
But it’s not just about the sophistication of the technology itself – it’s also about how it enables retailers to connect with audiences in ways that make them feel valued.
Feeling special and being “seen” is what consumers of fashion - whether in 20th Century Paris or 21st Century London - have always craved.
Few fashion followers will have a genuine atelier experience – but thoughtful, customized online attention could be this decade’s equivalent.
Coco might not approve, but she’d probably understand.