Updated: Jan 21, 2020
by Anna Salewski, Founder & CEO at SCROBLE S.A.
It all began with a question: “Why do I need to spend hours, even days to find the clothes I want?” Am I so demanding, or do I simply have no access to information that would help me make a fast and educated shopping decision?
Well, the journey to find a satisfactory answer took a while — five years to be precise. I spent three years researching and finalizing my own conclusions, which became the backbone for SCROBLE — a fundamentally disruptive innovation and eco-system in #FashionRetailTech through which I am fulfilling a vision; the vision of reinventing the brick-and-mortar retail experience while merging the offline & online shopping environments. My method of developing SCROBLE relied mostly on my natural curiosity and analytical consolidation of information whilst questioning everything, which helped me to come up with a new and very “own” solution.
That’s why I decided to write a series of articles: in order to describe my non-academic findings more broadly, document the conclusions and enable everyone to understand the path that led me to breakthrough innovation; a solution based on a business model different from the existing ones, which has the ability to change almost every shopper’s life.
Let’s start questioning it all
How did I start looking for solutions to a pain point? It was not only by asking “why can I not find the clothes I want”. I was also at a loss for words regarding what I can describe as an utterly weird situation: why do we have to enter a store, find ourselves exposed to hundreds of articles and still be unable to find what we want? It can be due to time restrictions or the simple fact that we don’t know what we are looking for. Yet we spend our valuable time, running from one store to the other, hoping to find what we want: the item that corresponds to a cerebral image hard to put into words. Come on, we are almost ready to colonize Mars, but cannot find a solution for that? And then we keep wondering why we end up with tons of unsold stock. It's (not) funny. Well, okay one after the other.
We have an overall and global consumption in fashion with about 80% still running over offline retail — figures for 2019 showing that e-commerce still represents only 15% of US retail sales as the strongest fashion market worldwide. Validating this statement, 98% of Z-Gen young consumers confirmed, according to the NRF Survey, that they consume in a store “some or most of the time”. While the numbers of consumers may change and fluctuate, we must accept that the importance of brick-and-mortar is tremendous. It’s the only place where physical garment meets physical consumer and it remains the first venue of fashion consumption. Can we improve the fashion system without entirely improving brick-and-mortar? In my opinion, that’s not possible.
Now, let’s focus on the flow of certain facts regarding the brick-and-mortar business today. Many brands with offline-retail presence struggle to survive nowadays. As most recently reported by BoF, declining high-street traffic is one of the reasons for the bankruptcies of big fashion houses already taking place, as well as dramatically decreasing sales at Macy’s, Tapestry and J.C. Penney among others. According to FORBES, more than 50 of the UK’s largest retailers claim to have changed taxation due to stagnation of sales and high street traffic. The amount of empty retail units is at a four year high at 10.3%.
Overall, the situation is not a new one — it has been going on some time and it is known as the Retail Apocalypse. If it is an apocalypse or not, it’s a matter of interpretation. In the end, there will always be brands doing well and others that don’t. What we cannot disregard is the fact that the entire industry is trying to re-define itself and perceives this as a time of change. The wind of change is blowing for offline retail, and it has nothing to do with interior design or making a shop more welcoming. Fashion brands are trying to find new ways to entice customers as a means to increase sales and profitability, while under a pressure from increasing demands for transparency and higher marketing and production costs. Ineffective strategies, especially in the brick-and-mortar business, will start to become visible and drive many more brands into bankruptcy in the future. Already in 2018, McKinsey predicted that “for fashion players, 2019 will be a year of awakening” and hopefully it is.
What’s wrong with consumers' behavior?
Admittedly, there should be a reason for declining sales in brick-and-mortar; changing consumer behavior is one of them. Understanding and defining these changes is crucial to pin down so as to find a solution.
I have summed up some of the main changes in consumer behavior below:
1. Real needs and sense of “clothes” for consumers is changing.
2. New behavioral patterns — occasional, lunchtime or vacation shopping rather than all-day shopping. People are trying to use their time more efficiently.
3. Decision-making process is segmented and open to influence. Customers are exposed to more streams of information and show up to the store as educated users.
4. People are becoming more creative through social media and are not willing to compromise for less.
5. Environmental and conscience-related factors are also part of the decision-making process nowadays
Being able to understand how these changes influence purchase decisions will allow also to decipher current developments i.e. why the number of customers visiting a high-street shop and leave without making a purchase is increasing. In other words, the gap between customer needs and expectations and what brick-and-mortar is able to deliver is widening. In my point of view what is behind decreasing sales is not city shops’ traffic, but a fast decreasing conversion rate, which simply reflects a need for change. Our fashion shopping habits have become outdated and don’t correspond to the needs of the contemporary consumer. The conversion between visits/sales in brick-and-mortar will continue to go down.
So can we reduce all problems of brick-and-mortar down to the existence of e-commerce itself? Or do we use e-commerce because it helps us to achieve our goals in a more efficient way than we could ever expect from offline retail? The natural assumption is that we’re seeing the end of retail as we know it, because everyone is going to use e-commerce, and yet, statistics fail to support this theory as they reflect a difficulty to maintain the growth of online shopping when it comes to fashion. And again, why? If e-commerce provides the answer to all consumer demands, that would for sure have killed the offline experience once everybody had experienced online shopping.
While fashion brands and retailers struggle to survive, customers still need to compromise between the online and offline experience for fashion shopping. The customer finds himself in front of a store full of hundreds of styles, unable to find the right one, while elsewhere this exact garment is part of unsold stock. At the end of the day, the unsold stock is partly a technological disability to understand, inspire, convince and deliver goods to nomadic clients. Why specifically them? Because nomadic clients have unpredictable consumer behavior and are not loyal to a few fashion brands only.
Now, what is the real meaning of digitalization in fashion and how is digitalization addressing such issues? Let’s quickly scan this brave new world without claiming that this list is exhaustive. We will also avoid naming startups/products from the many successful out there, for fear of favoritism. The purpose is just to identify the most obvious directions towards which technology is helping fashion evolve under the prism of #fashiontech and how the latter is leading the way to solve existing issues.
The customer needs to be inspired and stay informed
It all started with fashion blogs, which are not even a thing anymore, but they certainly started as inspiration portals. Then came Pinterest, Lookbook and many more; they elegantly took handmade mood boards to another level. Pinning and collecting your favourite photos on your own digital mood board has never been easier, and you can even make it public for the world to see or follow. Now we are immersed on shoppable Instagram posts or any platform where you can follow fashionistas, influencers or just other fashion-curious individuals. Admittedly these changes create a new element, whereby social media content and shopping are converging — the fact that many online players are focusing more and more on the ‘discover fashion’ segment and implementing new technologies into it, hoping to inspire and shape customers’ wishes is here to prove it.
Customers want the advantages of both Online and Offline Space
Connecting brick-and-mortar stores with online shops is a trend fashion players are catching up with. More and more offline retailers are seeking to take advantage of the momentum that their online counterparts have gained over the years. Offering an omnichannel or cross-channel experience is what is in vogue these days; i.e. blending different distribution and promotional channels in order to better market fashion — whilst better serving customers at the same time.
Online-to-offline commerce, or O2O, is a different method that starts online and tries to lure the online customer into the shop. It’s great for everyone’s sake, both customer and physical retailer alike. Other examples are where the customer gets an enhanced shopping experience in stores reimagined for the digital age: smart fitting rooms, digital mirrors, and personalized suggestions are at his or her disposal, whilst the retailer ensures more traffic in his store, but also offers the possibility to order online.
Futuristic-like shopping is very close to entertainment or “merchant-tainment”, as it was rightly referred to. There’s even more to this: some merchants are trying to give the customer multiple options: try in the shop and request home delivery, buy from interactive screens in the entrance of the physical shop even when closed, put an item you’ve tried in the shop in your online cart to buy later or choose from a wider selection of products available on a virtual shelf.
The new bundle of futuristic #fashiontech applications are trying to enhance our imagination and to replace trying the garment in the fitting room with the help of Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in order to help this particular customer save time with the introduction of new “pre-trying” or fitting processes. Such solutions include Virtual Artists for makeup and smart mirrors or, better, a virtual fitting room that allows customers to dress their reflection and look at it from every angle. Other solutions include the use of AI and picture recognition to find online similar articles to the one we’ve liked but cannot identify — services of great help for those experiencing the paradox of choice.
Customer in control of his garments and wardrobe
Being more in control of the clothes and styles within your wardrobe is another challenge technology has addressed recently. Until now, you had to hire a personal stylist to optimize your wardrobe. Now, you have a better option: uploading our wardrobe online. Integrated AI can create new looks and new combinations based on your clothes — it can also help you pack for your travels in a smarter way than laying outfits across your bed.
Customer-centered design is another episode within fashiontech: now at a fraction of the cost of the made-to-measure dress or pair of shoes, customers can have a product which gives them the perfect fit. Or customers can have a pair of shoes that they have co-created together with their favorite brand. Colour, shape, texture, details and of course size can all be chosen among predefined options or measurement predicting algorithms and the customer is enjoying increased control within the co-design process.
Making an impact: Sustainable-friendly solutions
Adding new words to the fashion dictionary, words like “sustainability”, comes with a new set of solutions. The initially customer-incited transparency and tracking backward is proposing various solutions i.e. scannable barcodes that tell you how sourcing the materials of a garment affects the planet and how it can stay in the loop to be re-used — aiming to bring circularity where there was none.
Renting your clothes instead of buying is another recent innovation that would not have been there if not for technology: quite a few startups are successfully bringing this new model of sharing economy into fashion and, trends show that it’s here to stay. Luxury items are entering the sustainability fashion game as well: now buying with reselling in mind is in vogue, and numbers show that the resale market will surpass the fast fashion market in a few years time.
A pressing need to save time — Retail, only different
While e-commerce itself is the only option when flexibility/zero opening-hours restrictions are essential, whether it saves time or not is questionable. We still need to find the perfect garment among a vast offer of items, order it, try it on and hope it fits us well — in the opposite case we will need to invest even more time to return it and repeat the process. AI-powered tools can speed up the process of finding and purchasing an item. Other solutions such as payment systems are also revolutionizing the fashion and consumer goods space: pay cash or by card is still available, but you can also choose among smarter methods. Mobile apps or clothes tags and QR codes can allow you to skip the queue and head home with your purchases while the payment has been processed automatically.
Why are there still so many problems in fashion?
Looking at different areas of innovation in fashion destined to satisfy consumer needs, we cannot disregard that most processes revolve around transformation in an online environment whilst offline retail is not as digitalized. There are still numerous customer needs that make him leave the store without purchasing i.e. the need for market research or the need to sleep over it — there are many factors within the offline environment that are the cause behind the unsold stock, lost sales, closing down of stores and other fundamental problems.
Despite new technologies, the industry is facing its greatest economic and reputational crisis. Do entertaining and gaming products and Apps with or without AI and AR mismatch with core customer desires and expectations?
Is it that service and technology providers are focusing on solving specific problems for one of their target customers (fashion industry or users) instead of creating solutions to cover them all? Or maybe it’s simply a loss of focus that results in disregarding simple, fundamental but still unsolved pain points? Is it really a technological gap that we need to close or is it simply a lack of honest reflection and understanding of the needs of our customers? Or maybe a combination of both? It could also be that the fashion industry lacks the willingness to collaborate and participate in a unifying multi-service and omnichannel product. What exactly lies behind this missed opportunity to have the optimal conversion at the brick-and-mortar, after all?
Let’s dive deeper into this exciting topic in the next article.
Photos by Simon Launay, Christian Fregnan, Mostafa Meraji on Unsplash