Kantar Retail’s Anusha Couttigane looks at how Google’s experiments with technology have affected fashion retail, and considers what the future may bring.
Google is gearing up to launch its latest technology, Google Home, on 4 November. The voice-activated speaker lets you communicate with a virtual Google assistant in any room of your house. As with much of Google’s technology, the applications for fashion retailing may not be immediately clear - but Google Home could really transform the customer journey (more on this later or skip down).
Over the past 18 years we’ve seen Google develop lots of technologies that have impacted the retail sector. Some have been experimental (Google Glass), while others have been hugely successful (Google Shopping). And we have yet to truly measure the success of more recent innovations, such as Youtube’s shoppable videos.
Probably one of the most successful innovations from Google is the integration of its shopping comparison platform, which is now nearly 15 years old. Google Shopping (formerly Froogle) has made fashion shopping both extremely competitive and more global than ever, because it gives immediate transparency into what you would pay for the same or similar products around the world, never mind around your local area. This has made fashion consumer far more mindful of what’s out there and has certain increased competition.
Localisation technology has also really impacted on the success of marketing campaigns, especially in recent years because the fashion sector is so visual and fashion consumers are among the most digitally engaged. So Google has played a critical role using its geolocation tech, enabling retailers to target consumers in close proximity to stores and helping to drive footfall.
However, with ecommerce clearly representing the biggest shift in retail trends, Google wields immense power in saying who performs best when it comes to SEO (search engine optimisation), which can have a huge impact on online performance. While it’s true that it benefits strongly from advertising spend from larger retailers, Google has also played a role in democratising fashion, because smaller fashion retailers that are strong on SEO can compete for top result listings with big players who can simply pay to be there.
Google provides a selling space for small fashion players that wouldn’t otherwise exist
In the UK, given the high rates for commercial real estate, Google provides a selling space for small fashion players that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Without Google to provide a platform for those smaller players – whether pureplays or independents operating a “one brick, many clicks” model – many brands that have found fame online would never make it to market. This has elevated the status of independent/smaller brands in the mindset of the consumers. As much as fashion consumers have become increasingly savvy and trend-led as a restul of the information digested via Google, it has also made them appreciate the little man more.
Google is also crucial when we consider how content-driven the fashion world is. By being the centre point for everything from ecommerce destinations to fashion media to social media, Google is both the collaborative voice and the chairman of the conversation about fashion. And, by dictating when and where consumers and browsers see this content, Google has become the digital calling card for fashion, accelerating the decision-making over what’s hot and what’s not, and shifting the dictation of the rules of fashion from fashion media to a co-authored manifesto that accounts for the feedback of fashion consumers too. So now, not only do shoppers want to provide feedback on fashion ranges after the fact, they want to be part of the creative conversation that produces ranges in the first place.
With this in mind, we think there are three key areas of development that will characterise Google’s interaction with fashion retail in the future:
This is the manifestation of the shared economy we have already seen signs of across the consumer market. The ability to browse multiple retailers and consolidate orders into one shared basket, using one streamlined payment service in a single transaction is the ultimate shift in cutting out the middle man. We’ve already witnessed the increasing consumer appetite for seamless journeys and click-and-collect models. Consumers want to be able to shop for fashion with the same speed and convenience that Google provides when searching for it.
Google Express has only been piloted in a few areas – namely the US – to mixed reaction. What’s more, few of the stores shoppable with the service are fashion retailers. However, I think there’s an opportunity for this idea to be exported to the fashion sector. We already have thousands of fashion destinations online, with significant customer overlap between them – for example, Asos and Boohoo. We’re already seeing the latter showcase its products on Asos. When there is already a precedence for fashion etailers to share services and platforms, it suggests there is potential for multiple fashion retailers to buy into a shared service that increases convenience for its customers.
We have yet to see what impact Google’s answer to Amazon Echo will have, or indeed whether these devices will have much traction at all before the technology itself transcends the need for the hardware. The idea of integrated lifestyle technology is important when you consider the lifespan of a consumer’s data set. Picture this: A child born over the next couple of years may never know a life without technology like Google Home. So their data picture will be built in real time as they grow up. Were this to be integrated with, say, digital payment technology, Google could – hypothetically – build a data picture of everything in that child’s wardrobe from birth, from the number of T-shirts and jeans they own to the price they paid for them.
Google could – hypothetically – build a data picture of everything in that child’s wardrobe from birth
Now imagine that child as an adult consumer: Google has always known what style they buy, their average spend and their favourite shops. They knowthey have the habit of buying a new pair of Levi’s jeans every June and they tend to spend around £50 on them. Google also has, as we know, excellent geolocation technology. So the next time that consumer is in the vicinity of a Levi’s store, Google plants the seed of reminder – maybe via a push notification to their wearable device – that Levi’s is having a sale and is only a five-minute walk away from where they work. In response, that consumer goes merrily on their way to Levi’s to buy a pair of jeans.
Compared with the “big brother” fears expressed today, the consumer of tomorrow will never have known a world without shopping technology. On their way, they might get another push notification suggesting they stop by at H&M because it has just launched a new Conscious range of cotton T-shirts in red, blue and green (and Google knows from that this particular customer is ethically conscious, allergic to synthetic fibres and their favourite colour is red because the consumer has told their Google Home device, and their historical buying patterns reinforce these truths).
It might be very early days for Google Home, but this is the vision that could really transform the customer journey, from one that is led by demand and desire, to one that is driven by data. This may well mean shopper satisfaction levels rise because the relationship between shopper and store has stopped being one of informed guesswork on the part of the retailer, and become a voluntary two-way conversation.
Coming back to the B2B issue, the kind of data picture Google has the potential to build means it will become a far more important resource to retailers when it comes to buying and merchandising. The aggregated pictures of consumer data that Google will be able to build in the future will enable it to offer far more accurate forecasting tools to retailers. At the moment, we see retailers like Next trying to pre-empt demand by over-buying stock in advance to ensure availability for online orders. However, this means that more goes into the sale at discounted rates.
The data trends Google will be able to identify could help to prevent this and create efficiencies for retailers in a far more joined-up way. Once again, Google’s geolocation technology may also help to improve weather forecasts and mitigate that perennial woe of the fashion market: unseasonable weather. The increasing globalisation of fashion retailers could also increase Google’s role in predicting more niche areas of opportunity, such as expectations for retail tourism.
Anusha Couttigane is senior analyst at Kantar Retail