Crowdsourcing technology is giving smaller brands an edge when it comes to producing what their customers really want.
Last week yogawear brand Catalyst Activewear launched Open Studio, a Tinder-style platform that allows customers to vote on which styles, colours and patterns they prefer, before the new season collection goes into production. The 3D-visualisation platform also enables Catalyst to collect feedback on a large scale.
In launching Open Studio, Catalyst has joined the swelling ranks of smaller businesses and buyers that are exploring how crowdsourced data can help them predict what will sell ahead of time, to help to reduce stock overhang. And the learning could have wider implications for the fashion industry.
Catalyst, which raised £60,000 following a Crowdcube campaign last year, has won a grant from government agency Innovate UK. The funding will be used to develop the platform, including the addition of avatars. It is also exploring the possibility of eventually opening the platform up to other brands and retailers, providing them with data on the clothing people want, in the quantities and the sizes required.
“We believe [crowdsourcing] technology has not been leveraged enough in fashion to understand what customers are really looking for,” Catalyst co-founder Daniel Roy told Drapers. “Instead it’s used to support marketing and pushing products that have already been made. Nobody asks you a single question before they make the clothes you are wearing.”
Catalyst is not the only company to give its customers a say in product design. Petite womenswear brand Jeetly’s “In or Out” initiative allows customers to vote on which sample they prefer and to suggest changes, such as adding sleeves. The version that wins the most votes goes into production. It has proved so popular that, following its first round of external funding, Jeetly is investing in upgrading the technology and its website. Version two is due to launch in mid-April.
“My aim is to change the way women shop,” says founder Jess Jeetly. “Retailers don’t talk to their customers – I know that from being a shopper myself.”
This method, which Jeetly calls “conversational commerce”, is not just a way to build customer loyalty – it also enables the company to make low-risk decisions to produce small batches of product to a ready-made audience. Jeetly did not disclose its conversion rates.
One drawback for brands using customer input on their designs is the time it takes to produce and deliver the product. Jeetly customers must wait four weeks after the vote to receive their orders. Catalyst’s customers have until 15 February to vote on the spring 17 collection, but must wait until April for delivery.
Roy argues that eight weeks from design to delivery is “not bad” for a small, independent brand. But he adds that the Innovate UK funding will be partly used to conduct a feasibility study, which will include a focus on how to accelerate the process. He hopes to eventually be able to connect the 3D visualisations directly to cutting machines, reducing the production time from eight weeks to around two.
Jeetly echoes Roy’s point: “Given that traditionally fashion week would present products six months before they are available to buy, four weeks is a much shorter timescale.”
She explains that customers are prepared to wait for product they know has been ethically produced “as they are more wary of fast fashion linked to sweat shops by mass media”. “They also see it as a privilege to have their voice heard and influence production; they feel part of the brand,” she adds.
“If we were able to produce in the UK at a good margin, we could bring this lead time down to 10 days. However UK prices are still too high for us to consider this.”
For larger brands and retailers, who compete to offer shorter and shorter delivery times, buyer expertise is still essential. Research and audience insight firm SoundOut crowdsources opinions on everything from songs to homeware, using the data to predict trends and popular products.
CEO David Courtier-Dutton insists it is “not a buyer replacement – we’re a buyer tool”: “You may have a new trend coming through that the retailer is aware of but the customer isn’t. In that case all we’re saying to the retailer is: test your five interpretations of that trend. None will be highly rated because the customer doesn’t know the trend yet, but the buyers can overlay their knowledge on the results.”
SoundOut originated in the music industry, predicting chart hits from its opinion crowdsourcing site, Slicethepie. The company now works with retailers, using machine learning to predict the appeal and price expectation for existing and hypothetical products.
“The only way to survive [tough trading conditions on the high street] is to get smarter,” says Courtier-Dutton. “The days of looking at rails of samples will be gone in five to 10 years.”
With the autonomy of the designer and the buyer decentralised in this kind of model, it may seem like this technology heralds the end of creativity, but Daniel Roy thinks otherwise: “Everyone on the high street is producing designs that are not particularly creative because margins are low and rents are high, so they don’t want to run the risk. By doing this we can bring creativity. I can produce something totally crazy and find out whether it will sell.”
Open Studio at a glance
- Uses 3D visualisation technology to crowdsource opnions on garments before production
- Customers can vote for/against a garment, and can buy them ahead of time
- There is currently an eight-week wait for delivery once the vote closes and the clothes go into production
- Government funding from Innovate UK will be used to explore ways to accelerate the process