Fashion and Technology are converging, but so far it has been an uneasy partnership. This was clear at Decoded New York in November when Simon Collins, Dean of Fashion at Parsons New School, said to a tech-heavy crowd, “Fashion will embrace tech when tech becomes something worthy of embracing.”
Yet consumers are ready for well-designed products that make life easier and more fun. The challenge is a fundamental lack of respect and understanding by both industries for the importance of what the other has to bring to the table. Fashion will not sacrifice form for function and largely feels that Tech companies do not get the importance of fashion. Tech companies are frustrated by the Fashion industry’s insistence on putting form ahead of function and appear confused by how to navigate the world of fashion. Both sides seem to be struggling to develop Fashion Tech products that have unique utility and are aesthetically appealing. But technology is poised to disrupt the fashion industry as consumers demand more utility, greater personalization, and more digitized in-store experiences.
Wearables are overhyped, yet I still believe consumers are looking for devices that do something new and are attractive. There is waning consumer interest in wearable devices that do just one thing or that can be replaced by smartphone apps. Thus I predict a major shake out coming in one-function wrist devices – especially as more sophisticated and unique products emerge. Market watchers seem too preoccupied with battery life; the need to charge a product more than once a day will not sideline adoption of an otherwise great new device. The fashion world insists it will not embrace an ugly product. And everyone is worried about going head-to-head with Apple. But mobile wallet adoption will increase consumer interest in wearables. Biometric apparel will as well because it offers new functionality and brands like Ralph Lauren and UnderArmour are already investing. Problem-solving tech such as USB chargers in Ralph Lauren’s new Ricky bag are also interesting trends. Fashion brands need to decide when to lend fashion expertise to wearables in a way that enhances the design of a tech product and when to use tech to enhance the utility of existing fashion products. Both have relevance.
Brands are using technology to analyze large amounts of data to make tactical decisions. The first application of data for fashion retailers was the development of predictive models for markdowns, inventory, and product adjacencies. Now brands at the forefront are developing ways to customize customer interactions. While some worry that Big Data is becoming Big Brother, the reality is personalization drives conversion and consumers are coming to expect customized communication. Brands can and should build customer profiles to track purchase history and predict purchase intent as a way to strengthen relationship marketing and customer engagement. This is easier to do online than in stores. However, very few fashion brands are using the data collected online with only a small minority using customized landing pages or tactics to recapture customers that have abandoned baskets. This should be the low-hanging fruit. Fashion retailers are now connecting data collected online to customize the shopping experience in stores. When shoppers opt in to receive push notifications at point of sale (or even if they do not), unique user IDs can be connected with browsing history and customers that are currently in physical stores. This data arms retailers with information to drive conversion. Department stores are leading in the use of data, but we are still in early days with very few fashion retailers actually using the data at their fingertips. The next chapter in data will come from collecting more customer-specific data at point of sale.
The connected store trend is rapidly gaining steam. Contemporary brand Rebecca Minkoff made headlines recently with the launch of a super-connected store. Westfield Labs is working on digitally connected walls as a tool for engagement. Nordstrom and Bloomingdales are developing digitally-connected dressing rooms to improve service and help collect customer feedback. Kate Spade has used digital displays to enhance the shopping experience. The digitization of stores is not a gimmick. Consumers are seeking out information in-store already via their own mobile devices. The ability to access product information, styling tips, or even competitive pricing information gives consumers more buying confidence and increases conversion. Additionally, fashion brands can collect information about preferences and use that information to strengthen marketing and improve product offerings.
There are practical applications of technology that fashion companies should be exploring today. A few companies are out in front and many others are sitting on the sidelines wondering how to play. The core question should be – does adding technology improve the customer experience or the fashion / utility of the product? If so, it’s a conversation worth having.