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What does 'digital transformation' mean for fashion retailers?

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The industry is full of “experts” telling fashion retailers that they need to undergo “digital transformation” – almost every presentation from sales people, or even within your own business, tells you that you need to do this. Yet few of these presentations describe what it is you should do, let alone what it actually means.

I suspect that many of the presenters simply do not know what this buzz phrase means and how it might apply to you. Like “omnichannel” and “putting the customer at the heart of your business”, “digital transformation” is a term that can mean almost anything, yet adds little value.

So let us investigate what it might mean. “Transformation” is defined as “an act, process, or instance of transforming or being transformed” – in all probability representing a wholesale change to the foundational components of your business. “Digital” refers to the use of technology to connect processes and people together, within the business and to its customers.

Applying these definitions to a fashion business, one can easily see that a lot of this has already started, not so much in a transformational sense than by a small series of steps over time – for example, by launching a website that provides product availability, or equipping sales staff with hand-held devices that enable fast and accurate access to product content, stock and price information.

However, for this to be truly transformational, these activities should be at the core of what is happening – the start of a process, rather than an additional layer on top of existing processes that have evolved to cope with today’s retailing, usually not very effectively.

In most fashion businesses, the question “How do I get to there?” often prompts the response, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.” In this context, transformation is more likely to take the form of a series of steps that evolve the business to a more digital way of thinking, and can over time be considered to have transformed the business.

So, if you as fashion retailer want to digitally transform your business, I would advise you to start by considering what level of digital transformation your customers have been through. This will differ across sectors and age groups, but it is likely that they will be a long way ahead of you. Their dialogue with your brand and the fashion community – their peers, friends and colleagues – will already be largely digital, using smartphones, social media and messaging. When they see something for sale, they will assume that it is universally available, at the touch of a screen, in the same way that voicing or reading an opinion on Twitter is. This is what the community expects and wants from you.

As a business, you need to understand that you have been invited into the community. You need to be at its heart, understand its aspirations and align your processes alongside them. You need to be in a place where dialogue about your brand is understood and acted upon, much like you would if it related to you as an individual.

Further, where content is published, it needs to be universally relevant to the community, and consistent across the touchpoints.

Finally, to truly be part of the community, you have to support its aspirations, which today are not to simply buy a garment from you, but instead to support a desire to go to a party, go on a holiday, attend a wedding, or involve some other lifestyle event. To do this, you need to respond at the speed that this event takes place, and be an enabler for it, rather than simply a vendor of garments.

So putting yourself at the heart of this community, supporting its aspirations, using technology to drive content, efficiency and availability would, in my opinion, be a large part of the journey to digital transformation.

Robin Coles is product and technology lead at HSO

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