Drapers explores the technologies that are going from experimental to essential for fashion retailers.
Little more than a decade ago, Facebook access was restricted to a chosen few; iPhones were cutting edge; and fast internet access was far from universal. Now, modern life would be unimaginable without these technologies. The same can be said of the retail industry: tech that was once experimental is becoming ever more important, as its usage spreads wider.
Aware of the need to offer seamless, memorable customer experiences, retailers are embracing new tools in the race to stay ahead. An increasing number of high street names, including Oasis, John Lewis and Topshop, are making the most of technology previously considered futuristic – and in so doing, they’re moving it into the mainstream.
Here, Drapers looks at the technologies that are now emerging on the high street.
A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, and this rings true for today’s Instagram-obsessed young consumers. Visual search is becoming an increasingly important tool in the retailer’s arsenal, helping shoppers to find a similar version of that must-have item they’ve seen worn by an influencer, friend, or in a magazine. Urban Outfitters and shopping-centre owner Hammerson have both incorporated the function into their mobile apps.
Ecommerce giant Asos has also launched visual search, which went live on its iOS app in August. Customers can tap a camera icon within the search function and choose to either take a picture or upload one from their photo library. They are then presented with a selection of similar styles. Asos hopes the service will help customers on mobile devices to navigate the etailer’s vast product offering (5,000 new items are added weekly and, at the time of writing, an Asos search for “black dress” alone yielded 3,319 results).
“Searching for fashion online isn’t always easy because it can be hard for customers to express what they’re seeing in words,” explains Asos digital product director Andy Berks. “Visual is a more natural process.”
He adds that Asos is quick to put new tech in front of its customers, as a means of finding out what does and does not work.
“We’d rather build functions and get them out in front of customers, to do more and learn faster, rather than spending ages building something perfect that may or may not meet customers’ needs,” he says.
Sienne Veit, director of online product at John Lewis, which has a visual search function on its iPad app, agrees: “If customers are searching for product using filters or going through the navigation, they might not see all of the items available or the term they are searching might not be in the product description. Image search works fantastically at helping customers find similar products.”
Both Topshop and Oasis have looked to virtual reality, or VR, for an injection of retail theatre during the summer months. Topshop used a blend of real-life experience and VR to create a “waterslide” in its flagship Oxford Street store at the end of May. Customers sat on a giant inflatable at the mouth of a slide built in the store, but donned a VR headset to embark on a journey across London’s streets.
Oasis took shoppers on a virtual safari in selected stores last month to promote its collaboration with London Zoo owner ZSL. Shoppers could sit in a jeep and wear a VR headset to get up close with lions, zebras and other animals; they could then take home a photo of the experience.
“VR used to be something you might see at a tech show or among people who were really immersed in technology,” says Ben Davies, digital projects and innovation manager at Oasis. “But now tech companies are really focused on getting customers interested in VR; Samsung has done a huge campaign around its headset.”
Head of digital at Oasis, Helena Theakstone, adds that the experience helped to drive footfall, but stresses the importance of involving store staff in the planning and execution.
“We had to work very closely with our store teams, who were very keen,” she says. “It needed to be straightforward for them to use and understand, because they wanted to champion the experience and be involved. That can be tricky when it is technology that is still foreign to many people.”
Louis Deane, CEO of Visr Vr, which partnered with Oasis on the project, adds: “It has taken time for retailers to figure out how to use VR best, but as the technology has matured, many of the health and safety concerns, like motion sickness, have ebbed away. The big concerns retailers come to us with now are around return on investment and scalability.”
Artificial intelligence remains an area of experimentation for the tech industry as a whole. Even sector leader Facebook has yet to master it, having hit the headlines last month after two of its chatbots developed their own method of communication that was unhelpful for communicating with humans and had to be shut down. But AI is increasingly finding its place in retailers’ everyday operations.
In June, Missguided introduced chatbots into its customer service systems and the bots can help to handle simple questions relating to orders; Shop Direct integrated conversational technology on Very’s mobile app at the end of last year; and French brand La Redoute has also said its in-house team is exploring the potential for using chatbots.
Over at Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP), a virtual personal stylist is in development, which will be able to recommend products for specific occasions based on the weather, location of the event and preferences, as well as styling options.
Retailers are also using AI to determine how market factors are affecting customers, sales and stock, explains Natalie Lamb, European vice-president of AI specialist IBM Watson Customer Engagement, which has worked with YNAP.
“Retailers in all sectors are turning to technology to improve customer service,” she says. ”I work across Europe and the UK is relatively far ahead in the battle to stay ahead of some of the challenges. But whether you’re in fashion, product and services, or grocery, you’re trying to provide an enhanced level of service. AI can combine with human intelligence to try to predict patterns that may be affecting consumers.”