Drapers brought together a selection of retailers and experts to hear their thoughts on the growing role of technology in the fashion business.
Increasingly tech-savvy consumers are demanding new ways to shop, and retailers need to meet this demand in order to remain successful.
This was the theme that came through when Drapers hosted a discussion forum on October 18 at the Soho Hotel in London for fashion retailers and industry experts to explore the growing use of technology in fashion retail.
We wanted to find out what technologies retailers are, or have been introducing, why they’ve decided to do it, what the challenges have been, how they expect these investments to benefit their businesses and how they expect further developments to change the fashion retail landscape.
Overwhelmingly, the participants painted a similar picture for retailers, regardless of size, when it came to the challenges of adopting new technologies. Those present agreed it is becoming more important for retailers to invest in consumer-facing technologies.
Catching consumers on-the-go via their smartphones will become more and more important. Lingerie retailer Agent Provocateur launched its mobile-optimised site in October. At the time of the roundtable it had received 13,000 visits. The representatives from the brand said launching the site had been difficult because they had to launch while continuing to trade, but that its hand had been forced by a shift in the market towards competitors offering mobile-enabled websites and a desire to improve its customer experience.
The brand had previously targeted mobile customers via an iPhone app, but has now decided to focus on a mobile website to reach a wider audience of smartphone users.
Kate Walmsley, head of ecommerce at high street chain Topshop, said it is planning mobile-optimised sites because it is already making sales on its normal site from customers using mobile phones. She said: “People are putting up with our existing site experience on the mobile internet, and making their purchases there already. So it’s recognising that channel shift is going to happen. Whether it’s incremental or not I think will be interesting.”
Walmsley said the added incentive to the Arcadia Group is that building a mobile-optimised website requires a smaller investment than changing the infrastructure in its stores.
Helen Slaven, vice-president of retail at systems provider Torex, said some of the retailers with whom the firm is working have seen like-for-like sales shoot up after introducing tablets to allow web sales on the shop floor. It can be seen as a “quick fix” to boost sales.
Richard Willis, retail solutions director at Torex, echoed this, saying it can be done without significant capital investment. He said: “You can try it very quickly, you get some instant feedback on it and then you can develop that proposition in other stores.”
Before offering customers new ways to shop, one must consider how this will be supported by the technology and business processes that are in place in all areas of the business. For instance, if a customer comes to your shop and tries something on, then orders it later on in the day from their mobile phone, they expect you to still have it in stock. Similarly, click-and-collect can require changes to the way retailers work.
Everyone agreed that retailers need to have a single-stock pool to maximise the possibility of fulfilling customer expectations. Slaven explained: “If you’re really going to offer complete democracy to the consumer and allow them to make the decision for themselves where they are going to shop, you have to have that virtualised stock.”
One of the main problems is the accuracy of the stock information held by retailers. James Stafford, market development manager for Europe at Avery Dennison said: “We know how bad stock accuracy is at store level. It’s common to find that 15% of the stock you think you have either isn’t on display or not in the store at all. RFID scanning not only gives you accurate stock figures, it can also tell you whether that stock is on the sales floor or hidden away in some corner of the stock room.”
He explained that this problem has become more acute as the need for accuracy required by multichannel retailing increases. In a traditional store you can only sell what you have in stock, but when you are selling online, or offering click-and-collect, you are selling a promise that the stock actually exists in the real world.
More fashion retailers use technology to track stock through their supply chains, and within their stores, thereby providing better information on the stock’s location. Stafford said item-level RFID tagging, as used by Marks & Spencer for clothing, allows highly accurate stock checking at a speed of 20,000 items every hour. This allows staff to spend more time with customers and less on inventory management.
However, the investment required to gain a single view of stock can be substantial and forces many to shy away from doing it. Peter Mila, ecommerce and logistics director at shirt retailer Thomas Pink, echoed this, but said its own investment in its click-and-collect systems had paid off. “I think had we known that it would be that well received, we probably would have paid earlier, or pushed suppliers earlier to get on board,” he said.
“We certainly see that if we don’t have [a product] in the store and the customer comes in, we can guarantee that we can have it in store the next day, have it in another store the next day, have it at their house the next day; they’ll still buy it.”
The panel agreed that retailers also need to capture a single view of their customers, which would enable them to target consumers and maximise sales. Slaven said: “They want to capture users individually and want to know what channels they prefer shopping. I’m hoping that will start to evolve and become more sophisticated, and almost tap into you individually, because that’s what you want as a shopper.”
Reliance on information
Vitaly Yakovlev, IT director at formalwear retailer A Suit That Fits, said the customer information it holds allows the company to predict when it is the right time to make a follow-up call to check a customer is happy with their purchase, or secure a further sale. “Our customer calling team makes our customers happy,” he said.
Retailers are facing a cultural shift where many of the best customer contacts are kept in a little black book rather than in the computer system, and where staff are reluctant to provide stock to the customers of other stores, which could adversely affect their own sales figures.
However, in contrast, Walmsley said Topshop’s staff are requesting new technologies for their stores so they are able to better serve customers. The retailer’s website provides a stock visibility function, highlighting how customers conduct online research before making store visits. Walmsley said: “We want to push people to stores and tell them what’s available in those stores so they are not disappointed.”
The panel predicted the next 12 months will see retailers investing in technologies to manage stock, price and customer information, while refining their mobile-enabled website offer and ensuring all of the channels are joined up to provide a seamless shopping experience.
Stafford pointed out that initiatives must have support at senior levels of the business. He said: “I think it’s about working as a team to create a tailored solution that meets customers’ needs and delivers a clear return on investment for the retail business.”
Yakovlev concluded: “The big thing will be to make the shopping process easier and more simple. The company with the most effective process will win the customer.”
Vitaly Yakovlev - IT director, A Suit That Fits
Mighel Critten - Product development manager, A Suit That Fits
Hanh Do - Operations manager, Agent Provocateur
Katrina Dancer - Ecommerce training manager, Agent Provocateur
James Stafford - Market development manager Europe, Avery Dennison
Pete Moylan - RFID development manager, Europe, Avery Dennison
Peter Mila - IT, ecommerce and logistics director, Thomas Pink
Kate Walmsley - Head of ecommerce, Topshop
Helen Slaven - Vice- president of retail, Torex
Richard Willis - Retail solutions director, Torex