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Switching on

Technology’s growing importance to the fashion retail industry is clear, judging by the results of Drapers’ latest survey.

IT experts aren’t renowned for their fashion sense, but Drapers’ research shows that such people are increasingly in demand by fashion retailers wanting to be more tech-savvy. 

Results from our September/October survey of fashion retailers that we ran on have clearly indicated that, though the adoption of technology can be difficult, especially for smaller retailers with limited resources, it is no longer optional.

With a good mix of retailers from multiples, indies, etailers and department stores taking part, the results back up the anecdotal evidence we collected at our Technology in Fashion roundtable. Fashion retailers of all sizes have surprisingly similar pressures and desires when it comes to adopting technology to support their businesses.

Nearly three quarters of the 165 people surveyed have a positive attitude towards technology within their business. In particular, 22% believe it allows them to differentiate themselves from competitors with their customer proposition.

And when we asked about the importance of technology to the whole fashion retail industry, the results were even more striking. Asked to choose between one of five statements, only 6% said technology is becoming less important to the industry. Some 21% were quite positive, saying it’s more important as it plays a part in dealing with the pressures on the sector. But the majority – 69% – were very positive, saying it’s crucial to optimising profitability and meeting customer expectations.

If traditionally the role that technology has played in fashion retail has largely been a back-office one – finance, merchandising or supply chain systems – then the internet and multichannel retailing trend means this is no longer the case. More and more of the

technology being deployed directly touches the customer, whether it is independent retailers launching a website, or high street chains deploying iPads in their stores.

Fashion retailers are starting to appreciate that technology is not just a cost, it can actually help them win more sales, better manage their margins and develop better relationships with their customers.

Customer versus colleague

We asked about the different kinds of technologies the respondents thought their colleagues would like to see their company adopt, and also which technology-supported channels and services they felt their customers are demanding.

Some of the results are strikingly similar for the two questions, suggesting a good understanding of what’s important for businesses to invest in. Mobile-optimised websites came out top for both colleagues and customers, slightly ahead of mobile apps. Intuitively, this result seems representative of what is taking place in the market at the moment. A year ago, many fashion retailers were launching iPhone apps, now many more are investing in mobile websites in order to cater to as wide a pool of consumers with smartphones as possible.

Also of interest is the answers relating to in-store content and web kiosks. Our respondents were much more positive about wanting to provide access to content from their websites to customers when they come into store than they were about the need to invest in web kiosks for stores.

If kiosks aren’t going to be the device that customers use to access content, then what is? There is some evidence of a trend toward using tablet computers such as iPads, and it’s also possible that retailers think kiosks aren’t necessary if customers can access content in-store on their smartphones. There’s certainly interest in offering free WiFi in stores to allow customers to do this, and 25% of respondents think customers want free WiFi in stores. John Lewis has just announced plans to provide exactly this service.

Some 38% think customers want click-and-collect, but only 25% think their colleagues want it. This highlights the fact that creating such a service would require significant changes to IT systems, and also significant cultural and process changes for colleagues working in stores.

Advanced systems that allow merchandisers to analyse their pricing, markdown or stock allocation decisions were also mentioned by 30% as being something they thought colleagues would like. Adoption of such systems has been slower by UK fashion businesses compared with the US, but with margins under such pressure, and so much discounting taking place in the market, it makes sense that retailers want systems that can help them regain control of their margins.

Smart choices

Perhaps the other most noticeable trend is who is making technology purchasing decisions. As the systems retailers are investing in change, so too does responsibility for purchases. Fewer and fewer fashion retailers are talking about IT projects, and increasingly they are talking about business projects that are supported by new technology.

When asked who makes the technology purchase decisions, only a quarter of respondents said the IT department . Almost as many said the heads of departments who will be using them. This tends to be true, especially for ecommerce and merchandising systems. But, notably, 68% said their board of directors or company owners were involved in these decisions. There’s much anecdotal evidence to support this trend, and it should be seen as very positive that these decisions are being taken seriously by a wider range of people within the fashion retail sector.

After all, once technology touches more parts of the business, and especially once technology starts touching your customers, everyone in the business needs to understand the results it can deliver. 

Click here to download the full version of Drapers’ free Technology in Fashion report


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