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The 2018 digital game changers

Digital change and technological evolution have led much of the change in fashion retail in recent years, and 2018 will be no exception. Drapers explores the most important digital trends in fashion.

The most significant digital trends may not be brand new – artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and voice interfaces have been developing for years – but the effects on retail are expanding rapidly.

Artificial intelligence

AI is a well-known technology that will continue to have an impact, says Shop Direct chief information officer Andy Wolfe: “Consumers won’t always see it, but it’ll be there more than ever over the next year. AI will help even more retailers personalise their marketing at scale, while intelligent customer service agents and chatbots should continue to develop – the visible signs of AI’s progress. Over time, these innovations will grow to handle more complex customer queries.”

The growth of AI is contributing to a wider shift around data and personalisation.

“AI will start to creep into areas where jobs have been quite difficult, such as analytics, personalised marketing and making sense of large amounts of data,” says Peter Ellen, founder of analytics provider Big Data for Humans.

AI will start to creep into areas where jobs have been quite difficult, like analytics, personalised marketing

Peter Ellen, Big Data for Humans

AI is starting to move retailers beyond Amazon-style recommendations based on past purchases, he adds, towards marketing messages that resonate more with each consumer.

This is symptomatic of a more general change in digital strategies. Retailers are concentrating on boosting the loyalty and retention of existing customers, rather than casting their net wide for new ones, which is expensive and not always effective.

Sergio Fregoni, R&D solutions manager at Yoox Net-a-Porter Group (YNAP), confirms AI is a key focus this year. He says the etailer is using it to develop search services and to understand what is trending on social media: “AI has the ability to super-charge the customer experience. Over the past 12 months, we have developed several neural networks that are trained to recognise images. Using this capability, we can analyse length, pattern and design of products to refine our software so that customers are served the most relevant search results.

“In research and development we are exploring using these images to understand trends, and what is gaining momentum on Instagram.”

AI will start its march into the hearts of retail businesses, beyond its customer service application, and is likely to be among the most influential technologies in the coming year.


Digital teams

Another area of focus for digital leaders is the structure and culture of their teams  – the logic is that it is impossible to take advantage of new technology if the necessary internal resources or processes are not in place.

Sean McKee, director of ecommerce and customer experience at Schuh, says: “We have a really strong focus on the quality of people we have and the jobs we are providing for them.”

The footwear retailer has introduced a training programme for its digital and tech teams that gives pay rises to those who upskill. The structure of the training is customisable for each person, depending on what they choose or need to learn.

At Shop Direct, Wolfe says the focus has been on developing ways of working across different parts of the business that make it quicker and easier for technology-led change to be introduced.

“We’ve been extending agile ways of working across our retail team and we expect to see even more great results [this] year,” he says. “It means [we have] teams of people from a range of disciplines and levels focusing on individual parts of the customer journey – like the checkout stage, for example. They use a test-and-learn approach: trying out new ideas quickly, gathering evidence and improving them at pace. It means we quickly solve customer problems that matter.”


Voice search

Echo look, app

Amazon Echo Look

On the consumer-facing side, voice interfaces are likely to start impacting the way people shop as the software powering connected speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home continues to improve, understanding more of what people say and responding more effectively. This holds significant potential for fashion retailers, which have the opportunity to provide daily, hyper-personalised advice on a scale not achievable before.

Devices across the electronics industry are gaining the ability to see, hear and understand. The Amazon Echo Look, for instance, has a built-in camera, as well as speakers, allowing a consumer to use it to take pictures and speak to it in a conversational way about what they should wear that day.

Digital assistants that provide sartorial advice may not reach maturity in 2018, but they are on the horizon.

Voice looks like a no-brainer for us

Sean Mckee, Schuh

Emotion-tracking software is also becoming more sensitive, meaning these devices will soon be able to respond appropriately if they detect someone’s annoyance or excitement.

Wolfe says: “It’ll be interesting to see if voice changes how customers engage with brands. Some of our teams explored a voice-based assistant in a recent hackathon, and it’s this type of innovation we’ll watch closely in 2018.”

McKee says: “We’re really excited about the possibilities of voice and what it can be used for – it’s very much on our to-do list. The ecosystem surrounding it is still developing, but it’s about taking away the friction in the shopping process and voice looks like a no-brainer for us.”


Augmented engagement

Augmented reality, meanwhile, is at an early but important point of evolution. After the huge success of AR smartphone game Pokémon Go in 2016, retailers are exploring how this high level of engagement might be transferred to the brand-to-consumer relationship.

In the Future 100 2018 report, trends forecaster JWT Intelligence points to Japanese footwear brand Onitsuka Tiger, which in July 2017 partnered with fashion label Anrealage to create the world’s first AR sneaker. When scanned with the Anrealage app, the sneakers’ logo appearsin 3D.

Anrealage onitsuka tigers augmented reality sneakers moriyama mirai 2

Onitsuka Tiger x Anrealage

For New York Fashion Week, creative technology studio Superbright created an AR catwalk that displayed custom graphics and additional information when viewed through an app. The growing examples of AR in fashion show it is not just a game, but a real opportunity to improve interaction between brands and consumers.


More tech trends

Other technologies to watch in 2018 include facial recognition – it is already being used as a payment method in China – and the growth of robotic manufacturing, in which sports brands Nike, Adidas and Puma are all investing.

Adidas 2 cmyk

Adidas Speedfactory

The Adidas Speedfactory is an automated service that can produce small batch designs for specific markets, reducing the production cycle from months to a single day. This does not just cut production costs – it makes it possible for consumers to be involved in the design process, and means personalised products can be created in a short timescale.

Finally, digital payment continues to be an area of innovation – different providers such as Apple, PayPal and WeChat vie for dominance, and super-fast, seamless payment has become a core part of the current surge in experience-based shopping. Led by Amazon Go and other hands-free stores, it will become necessary for retailers looking to make their store experience stand out.

From store experience to marketing and team structure, digital innovations will affect large swathes of the retail sector this year as their impact continues to expand beyond the online channel.


Technologies on the horizon

Artifical intelligence: This will spread from customer service into other parts of retail, making large datasets easier to handle and shining a spotlight on the customers worth targeting

Voice: This will continue its journey to becoming the main interface for online interaction

Augmented reality: The impact on the customer experience is becoming more visible

Digital assistants: 2018 will see further steps taken towards in-home digital personal stylists

Facial recognition: Big in China, but consumers are more wary in the UK – retailers should nonetheless watch its development

Robotic manufacturing: Robots are widely used in warehouses – the next step is hyper-personalised items at created at short notice, at scale

Payments: Customer expectations around payments continue to evolve quickly, with hands-free, contactless stores set to become the norm

Readers' comments (1)

  • Voice will NOT be a digital ‘game changer’ for fashion in 2018. Customisation will have gimmick appeal. AI is no silver bullet. Expect many examples of AI backfiring in 2018.

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