However, the current state of society requires the use of technology to allow everyday processes to be done remotely – or at a safe distance. As our reality stands, the Covid-19 crisis is far from over and social distancing remains a part of our new normal.
Even in China, where conditions have improved greatly, physical retail has only regained 30 to 40 per cent of its foot traffic post-lockdown, indicating bricks-and-mortar recovery is still a way off. This leaves retailers no option but to continue exploring tech solutions to overcome the gap between physical and digital retail.
Digitising the supply chain
One of the first functions to be directly impacted by the pandemic was the supply chain. Due to social distancing regulations, all manufacturing activities were quickly halted, disrupting the flow of goods sourced internationally.
In South Asia, the situation became increasingly dire when many fast fashion retailers started cancelling orders, resulting in a humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh as thousands of garment workers lost their main source of income.
Today, manufacturing has resumed but social distancing and travel restrictions pose new challenges for the product development process. Designers, unable to work in their studios for months, have shifted to using 3D software to produce realistic digital renderings of their designs.
These renders have been especially helpful in the sampling process, enhancing the accuracy of tech packs while reducing time and cost by up to 70 per cent. With less time required to produce samples, lead times can be halved, expediting speed-to-market for retailers.
This particular process was adopted by Levi’s during lockdown. Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss, said: “Leveraging this digital technology to hold the meeting virtually, we were able to engage everyone simultaneously and complete the process in one meeting, taking weeks out of our go-to-market cycle.”
As consumption was disrupted by Covid-19, historical sales data is no longer indicative of future performance, which makes forecasting future inventory cover and sales targets more difficult. Brands that have not gone through any previous events like this suddenly find themselves completely in the dark.
Merchandising through a crisis involves a hands-on approach that involves monitoring trade performance consistently so that new-in launches, restocks and markdowns can be deployed to align with market sentiments.
One of the major consequences of lockdown is the amount of overstock stuck in warehouses. Retailers that are more agile have been able to reallocate stock to other stores in less impacted areas or move it online. But as the crisis started spreading globally, e-commerce and online marketplaces became the only viable retail channels.
Data analytics provided brands with insights into identifying the right online channels to allocate their stock, going granular at SKU-level with the ability to monitor stock movement and spot bestsellers that need to enter a replenishment cycle immediately. This helped to improve sell-through and maximise profits on products that were in demand.
Navigating pandemic fashion trends
From “Zoom-worthy looks” to loungewear chic, pandemic-driven fashion trends continued to shift. Even in a time when consumerism is slow, emerging trends can still be a strong motivator.
When the stay-at-home order was first established, many brands such as Boohoo came out with work-from-home ranges to meet consumers’ new lifestyle needs. These ranges eventually became bestsellers, even spurring viral products trending across social media. However, as cities begin to reopen, this trend no longer carries the same hype as two months ago. To continue investing in this trend would be risky.
As consumer trends shift rapidly according to the evolving situation, planning for next season’s merchandise can be tricky. Trends forecasted previously may no longer stand in today’s climate, therefore brands must validate trend forecasts against current data to understand where demand truly lies.
Real-time fashion analytics have the ability to track and compare trends against product data to understand how a trend is performing in the market. Analytics can also detect early signals of a trend by revealing spikes in product demand, creating an opportunity to plan and design products early on to meet as the trend grows.
As a result, trend validation helps to minimise the probability of overstock. With more context and understanding behind a trend, merchandisers and buyers have more data to base their line sheets on and forecast the right quantity of units for a strong sell-through.
Integration with VR and AR
While bricks-and-mortar stores in many countries have reopened, strict social distancing regulations still prevent customers from freely interacting with the products on display. Among these rules include no physical try-ons in fitting rooms.
Augmented reality (AR) technology provides customers with the option to virtually try on outfits. This technology was recently adopted by ASOS, which launched “See My Fit”, an AR tool that allows customers to gauge how items will look in different sizes and on different body types.
Beyond the retail experience, fashion shows and other fashion events have also shifted online. London Fashion Week, a major event in the runway calendar, was the first fashion week to be executed entirely digitally, as brands like Charles Jeffrey, Loverboy, Bianca Saunders and Martine Rose presented their collections through fashion films, virtual exhibitions and zines.
Congolese brand Hanifah went viral after it presented its latest collection using animated 3D models of the designs. The Instagram video became a huge marketing success for the brand – the collection soon sold out and raked in more than 300,000 views.
Other designers like Marc Jacobs and Valentino took a more unusual route by releasing virtual collections in partnership with Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s latest game offering which debuted in March this year. Valentino’s virtual collection featured key looks from its spring/summer and pre-autumn releases and consequently, Omnilytics detected a 55 per cent uplift in sell-out rate from April to May for the dresses category.
Forging the future of fashion with tech
The integration of tech in these conventional retail processes shows us how speed-to-market can be faster but also profitable. The budgets saved from a leaner supply chain and accurate merchandising allow for resources to be spent in a more cost-effective manner. Reducing wastages and chances of overstock also help in fashion’s long-term mission towards sustainability.
In distribution, an omnichannel strategy should be viewed as a means of survival. In the past few months, we have seen long-established retailers meet their demise due to their inability to stay relevant in the ever-changing retail environment. As the pandemic continues, the World Health Organisation has announced the possibility of a second peak that may incur even stricter procedures or lockdowns. Therefore, digital integration in the entire value chain is a necessity to navigate the unpredictable future of retail. The long-term payoff of these digital solutions outweighs the initial investment.
The use of immersive tech like AR and VR in fashion has moved way beyond being a fad. We have seen how AR has been integrated as a marketing tool for social media and as the technology evolves, the practical function behind it will also improve user experiences for other platforms that require a bridge between a physical and digital touch.
Although the odds of bricks-and-mortar retail disappearing completely are thin, social distancing has certainly accelerated the need for retail to shift online. We are still a long way from a full retail recovery but digital spaces provide an opportunity to speed up the rebound process. With months’ worth of overstock, how retailers choose to handle this inventory will be a huge determining factor in their business continuity.
In this time when demand remains turbulent, there is no doubt that retailers with advanced online capabilities are better positioned than those without.
Sufiana Sharuddin is a published fashion writer. She currently covers a variety of topics within the industry including merchandising, technology, trends and current affairs for data platform Omnilytics.
This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of Inside Retail Magazine. To receive a print copy, click here.