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Comment: Why humans trump robots in fashion retail

Victoria Nightingale

Unlike other retail sectors, the nature of fashion makes a robot takeover impossible, argues Victoria Nightingale, retail and consumer partner at executive search firm Bailey Montagu. 

With self-service checkouts having become an integral feature of modern supermarkets and consumers increasingly forgoing the high street in favour of online shopping, it is no secret that the retail industry is being increasingly disrupted by technology.

The tech-driven transformation of retail looks set to continue. The 2019 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, the largest technology leadership survey in the world, revealing that UK retail is set to lose more than half a million jobs to robots.

In contrast to supermarkets and electronic stores, however, fashion is one aspect of retail that is less predisposed to robots fully taking over the jobs of humans. Here are three reasons why:

It’s personal

Fashion is inherently personal: one person’s tastes can be entirely different to another’s. Therefore, a human element of retail is required in both trend and product decisions, as well as on the shop floor, where human assistants help consumers find products to match their individual tastes.

Shop assistant style adviser shutterstock 1053734909

The “traditional” way of buying fashion items – finding and touching a product, and trying it on before deciding whether or not to make the purchase – is void from online shopping.

It could be argued that the need to visit high street stores, have face-to-face interaction with shop assistants and experience the personal nature of shopping, means machines will never fully surpass the human element of shopping for fashion items.

Fashion design

Great fashion design comes from the inspiration, creativity and talent of fashion designers. Robots might be able to cut and sew fabric, and artificial intelligence algorithms might be able to predict style trends, but when it comes to designing clothing, the human touch is still irreplaceable.

Getting the right mix

The savviest of fashion retailers are getting the mix right between using innovative technology and maintaining traditional retail practices delivered by people.

For example, using clever AI algorithms can help retailers tailor product recommendations and create collections consumers want to buy. AI-powered tools can help fashion retailers manage inventory in a more streamlined and efficient manner.

Asos uses AI “Fit Assistant” technology, which involves a platform that goes through a database of item information and purchase histories, to find the right fit for a customer. H&M uses AI and data to analyse receipts, and keep popular items well stocked.

However, Primark is a well-known fashion store on the high street of virtually every city in the UK, yet it has no ecommerce operation. Is this evidence that customers still love the thrill of finding a great item on a shopping trip?

Zalando, the European ecommerce retailer, is astutely combining technology and tradition. The company was founded by start-up and technology-savvy individuals, who realised their systems and processes did not include a human element to decide trends. Subsequently, Zalando went on to hire people with diverse retail backgrounds (F&F, M&S, Hunkemoller, Matchesfashion and Adidas) into their product teams.

To fulfil the omnichannel demand, and to help streamline data and operations, the shrewdest of retailers are appointing those with technology skills to help create innovative products and systems, as well as those with the creativity, inspiration and personability to reach out to the “softer”, more human side of fashion.

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