Fifteen years ago in my capacity as Merchandise Manager at M&S we were very focussed on store layout, store launches, catalogue production, and the Christmas shopping season. All of our activities followed a central idea – relevance to the customer’s demands.

In Ireland, for example, we discovered that first communion dresses were much more in vogue than in the UK, and wives controlled shopping decisions. In the ‘90s customer trends inspired a futuristic look – Velcro, shiny fabrics, and Lycra. As we dipped into the year 2000 fashion turned on its head again and we found ourselves taking comfort in traditional fabrics such as tweed and leather.

Fashion is constantly in flux. But underneath, what’s important in fashion retail stays true: Cater to the needs of the customer by using insights to be relevant and fashionable, and to quickly adapt to what sells. Advances in technology, while daunting, actually help meet these goals when used correctly.

Gaining insights from reviews

At M&S, to get feedback on the latest ranges of clothing we would visit our flagship stores, speak to the shop floor, and run focus groups to determine what customers wanted. But now, retailers can instantly aggregate content from customers online to adapt in real-time, and make smarter decisions faster. For instance, are reviews saying that the pockets on a pair of trousers are too small, the fit of the shirt too long on most body shapes? The key is to use technology to get the feedback that’s useful in driving change – and not be paralysed by it. Feedback is a rich resource to the fashion buyer who no longer has the luxury of working season by season, but has to meet the demands of three to four week fashion runs. They are on a constant cycle to meet trends – trends which reviews reveal.

Meanwhile, customers get to poll UGC to make their own purchases and find the right products for them. When shopping for a shirt recently I was able to feed from opinions to help inform my decision. And not just from any other customer, but from others that show they have similar tastes to me and are in the same age group – making my purchasing more informed and intelligent.

Replicating in-store experiences online with virtual fitting

To meet the needs of omnichannel shoppers, fashion brands have to bring the best parts of the in-store environment to online shopping. Thomas Pink was one of the first retailers in the UK to start experimenting with virtual fitting rooms, giving shoppers a photographic realisation of fit. They’ve gained a conversion rate of 21% from shoppers using the facility.

ASOS has a fit visualizer tool that allows customers to compare specific measurements of an item they are looking to buy with a similar item they already own by displaying and overlaying silhouettes of both garments. The tool has proven to reduce fit-related returns by up to 50% on other ecommerce sites.

Bringing digital initiatives in-store

Incorporating digital techniques in-store, M&S is trialling new multimedia zones in its stores that combine digital touchscreens, video walls, and displays of outfits to provide shoppers with inspiration. The Style Online touchscreens help shoppers keep up-to-date with the latest fashion trends and provide a digital stylist tool that enables shoppers to combine different garments and accessories to create their own personalized looks.

Burberry, known in the fashion world as true digital innovator, launched its flagship “store of the future” on London’s Regent Street earlier last year, which features technology such as RFID tags in its clothing and accessories so a customer trying on a garment can view more information about where the garment was made or how it was designed when they try it on and look in the mirror. Burberry is also looking into sensor technology that would help customer service assistants identify who a customer is as they walk in to a store. The technology would pick up on details available on those consumers’ mobiles, through an app or from publicly available social networking data.

Speeding up the product cycle  

Getting people talking about new product launches is important in every industry, and especially so in fashion, where public perception is everything. Sparking conversations around new looks is huge, and many retailers are using digital elements to spark that chatter immediately upon reveal (or even before) – a departure from the standard waiting period between the elite catwalk and public availability.

All eyes will be on Burberry as we lead up to London Fashion Week commencing in September. They’ve already digitised the catwalk by launching Tweetwalk, which brought its runway collection to a Twitter audience before it hit any physical runway. Their Autumn/Winter 2013 collection allowed customers the ability to order what they see on the catwalk straight from their mobile devices with a novel twist – customization using the brand’s proprietary technology.

And the delivery jet-setters of the fashion world? They’re the ones offering super-fast delivery for those in need of an almost-instant fashion-fix. Oasis, is claiming a fashion miracle by offering 90 minute delivery to certain towns and cities in the UK.

Advances in technology can seem daunting, but in fashion (and truly, all industries) they’re an opportunity to better serve customers’ needs. In the end, the success of digital initiatives depends on how well they do just that.

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