Held on 14-16 January in New York, National Retail Federation’s NRF18: Retail’s Big Show is one of the world’s biggest retail technology trade shows. Here are the key takeaways for fashion retailers from this year’s event.
Visual and social technology
Visual search and the development of “see now, buy now” fashion shows were central themes for big-name fashion retailers. Tommy Hilfiger’s London Fashion Week catwalk show in September 2017 was immediately shoppable using the TommyNow Snap app, created by US tech firm Slyce, which uses image recognition to enable attendees to find the clothes they are looking at. For those not at the show itself, the clothes were also available in stores.
Hilfiger said in an on-stage interview at NRF that the collection sold out almost immediately: “It was a risk, but the risk paid off. We received 2.5 billion impressions on social media and a 900% increase in website traffic.”
He added that the brand is keen to keep attracting younger millennial (people born since 1980) and Generation Z (born since 1996) shoppers, and that these shoppers want immediate gratification: “We find younger consumers are sharing everything they’re purchasing with their friends, and they’re continually shopping.
“See now, buy now is the new way of retailing. If you’re waiting for consumers to come to your stores, you may be waiting a very long time.”
Software company IBM, meanwhile, is working with Yoox Net-a-Porter on using the images in its vast product catalogue, as well as its lookbooks and catwalk images, to experiment with and create services such as the ability to find and buy clothes that look similar to products found on celebrities’ Instagram accounts.
Section 1, visual and social, outdoor voices
Instagram has become a primary source of inspiration for fashion consumers and the social network’s chief operating officer Marne Levine said that getting people to purchase on the network is a big focus for 2018. US activewear brand Outdoor Voices has used the network as a core part of its expansion strategy – founder Tyler Haney said its approach is shifting as the business grows: “Local micro-influencers seem to drive more engagement than celebrities with millions of followers.”
Convenience and speed
Convenience has been growing in importance for several years, and that was evident throughout NRF. Spencer Fung, chief executive at supply chain company Li & Fung, said digitising the supply chain is a crucial next step for retail: “Consumers are moving 10 times faster than the [brands] servicing them. In the supply chain, the whole circle takes 40 to 50 weeks from concept to stores. But every minute consumers are influenced by something new on their mobile.”
Lee McCabe, vice-president of North America at Alibaba Group, said the pursuit of convenience has driven much of the Chinese etail giant’s tech investment over the past couple of years: “We are rethinking every part of retail. No matter what we are selling, we are thinking how can this be made more convenient.”
McCabe added that chatbots deal with the majority of customer enquiries at Alibaba and have the ability to recognise if the person they are speaking to is becoming frustrated – if this happens, they will pass the customer on to human assistants. The drive for convenience has also led to investment in virtual fitting rooms, which enable online customers to see clothes on an avatar resembling them, as well as cloud-based “endless aisle” technology that enables store staff to access inventory elsewhere in the business, if something has sold out in a store.
Craig Summers, UK managing director at software provider Manhattan Associates, said retailers are increasingly focusing on the post-sale customer experience, with the returns process and post-transaction communication just as important as the buying experience.
US online retailer Brandless claims to manufacture products that are of similar quality to well-known brands, but without the premium price. It sells every product for $3. Founder Tina Sharkey said it’s about “democratising access to the best stuff”, adding: “Newer retailers are building systems that eliminate a lot of the inefficiency that’s been built up in traditional retail.”
JC Penney chief executive Marvin Ellison is one of the few CEOs at a big-name retailer who has achieved close to gender parity at the top of the organisation – three of his seven-strong leadership team are female. He said: “Seventy-two percent of my customers are female, and it was important for me to have strong female executives. My challenge to them is to go back and do the same thing. Go out and reflect the environment we are in.”
IBM teamed up with Tommy Hilfiger and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) on the Reimagine Retail project. It used AI tools to identify upcoming trends on colour, patterns and silhouettes – one project, designed by FIT student Grace McCarty, was a plaid jacket made with colour-changing fibres that respond to the wearer’s voice and social media feeds.