Ever since its outbreak, the global retail fraternity has been betting on technology as the antidote for fashion retail’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. As lockdown restrictions begin to be eased around the world and retailers limp back to resume business in a new world, true to the word, a renewed enthusiasm towards technology for safety concerns, frictionless services and experiential shopping experiences has been witnessed.
From exploiting social media for communication, mining data to gauge consumer behavior and relying Product Data Management applications to utilising cutting edge Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies to enhance the customer experience and brands across the spectrum are investing on enabling technologies to help them cope with the new normal.
Utilising Social Media to The Hilt
Molly Robbins, VP, Global Licensing, USPA Global Licensing Corp, has recently revealed how US Polo is relying on various channels to focus on communicating – both internal and with its partners and consumers. “At this point of time, keeping the communication alive is crucial to help everyone re-prioritize spend and chalk out areas that will prove to be fast turners when the market gains the momentum back. We have ramped up our global digital transformation with a strong focus on social media,” she said in the NIFTA webinar – Brands: The Evolving Opportunities.
Apart from being used as a medium of communication, brand across the world are also leveraging on social media to give consumers a virtual feel of real life shopping. Walmart’s e-commerce-driven apparel subsidiary Bonobos is utilising social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to give consumers a virtual window shopping experience. The brand has morphed its social media accounts into virtually mirror its physical stores, showing off styles and various outfits online, then directing people to buy them on the web.
While Facebook and Instagram has been the forerunners in driving social media sales and communication, the crisis has also impelled fashion brands and retailers to explore cross-platform messaging and Voice over IP service providers to reach out to their potential audience. Footwear major Bata is betting on WhatsApp to allow consumers to shop from homes via chat with neighbourhood stores of the company.
“We have introduced ‘Shopping on Whatsapp’ feature through our Bata Club and Bata website. The Whatsapp channel allows consumer to look at our portfolio, have a video chat with the store manager from a store close to their house and get products home delivered for trial and purchase on a very short turnaround time,” Sandeep Kataria, CEO, Bata India said.
Bata India Ltd. has recently reported its consolidated net profit at Rs 38.40 crore for the fourth quarter ending March 2020.
Reinforcing E-Commerce Capabilities
One of the most significant changes that the retail world has registered during this pandemic is the huge shift to e-commerce. Today, online isn’t an option but a necessity for retail brands to survive in the coming days. An increasing no of brands, which were not following an Omnichannel route earlier are making a beeline for establishing their online platforms. Even the most prosperous of brick-and-mortar stores have been forced to experiment with digital channels in wake of the crisis.
But, while we all know how the COVID-19 pandemic has impelled e-commerce into the spotlight, very few of us are aware that it was a saving grace for fashion brands and retailers in many parts of the word even during the lockdown.
Converse, which operates 3,000 plus mono-brand stores in Asia had to shut stores right before one of the most commercial moments – the Chinese New Year in February. But the brand survived the catastrophe only because of its robust e-commerce capabilities.
“There was zero traffic and demand. But the good thing is that, at least in China, the infrastructure with supply chain is sound, so you could still leverage the digital channel to deliver products. That’s where we also started taking stock of future demands, handling inventory situations and forecasting KPIs for the unknown. The digital channel has been our saving grace and for all retailers who had used it well. Now the market in China has resumed once again – we could see the consumers emerge slowly and is demand picking up,” said Gautham Rao, Sr. Director, Buying and Planning, Converse Asia.
Consumer oriented brands like Bestseller went a step even further to reinforce their digital capabilities and ensure faster decision making and smoother business execution post the pandemic.
Bestseller India, which operates 4 brands, across its website, app, 6+ online marketplaces, 300+ branded stores and 1,000+ multi-brand stores has focused efforts to centralize its operations. In line with it, Bestseller has signed up with Unicommerce in a bid to streamline its operations by ensuring unified visibility of e-commerce operations and inventory across marketplaces and it’s e-commerce website and app. The platform has been seamlessly integrated with Bestseller’s ERP solution, automating the entire fulfillment process. This has been a big step towards ensuring great customer experience by enabling faster deliveries and seamless online shopping experience.
Contactless Retail Gains Traction
With consumer sentiments still cautious, safety and hygiene protocols are at the top retail’s recovery blueprint. In line with it, contactless shopping, touchless retail, etc., are gaining preference among consumers, who desperately want to crowded stores and long queues now. A slew of brands and retailers have taken this opportunity to increase focus on digital catalogues in order to ease out the selection process for the customers.
“At Liberty, we have a digital catalogue in store in order to ease out the selection process for the customers and accordingly we deliver,” said Anupam Bansal, Executive Director Retail, Liberty Shoes.
Bestseller has started working towards a ‘Phygital’ retail model which incorporates various retail technology concepts like VR, AR and AI to ensure a seamless brand experience for consumers.
“Concepts like virtual catalogs, AI enabled Smart Mirrors and Omnichannel retail ensure a smooth shopping experience for our consumers. While AI-enabled smart mirrors offer contactless trials of products for consumers which will assist in a safer brand experience in the post pandemic era; virtual catalogs allow contactless scanning and selection of the product range, and depending on the availability the product can be delivered or picked up from the most convenient store by the consumer,” stated Vineet Gautam, CEO, Bestseller India.
The End of Trial Rooms?
Possibly the most pressing concern for fashion retail at this moment is the possibility of re-utilising what has been the biggest advantage of physical retail stores — apparel trial rooms. While most brands and retailers have decided to keep trial rooms off limits or sequester clothes that have been tried on in a fitting room, smart retailers have been banking on new age technology to sanitize apparel.
A few reports on the internet document how fashion retailers in Philippines’ SM Mall of Asia are leveraging on ultraviolet technology to disinfect garments used in trial rooms before putting them back on display. While the veracity of the information is yet to be ascertained, at least from our side, one cannot disapprove the possibility of using ultraviolet light to sanitize clothes that has been tried on in fitting rooms.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent concerns of hygiene and safety has provided great impetus to the use ultraviolet light for sanitization of high traffic public spaces like malls and retail stores. It has been proven to be extremely effective on Coronavirus family and experts have been vocal about how UV light could become a key piece in helping the entire world get back to normal.
After being used in airports, hospitals and operation theaters since decades, UV-C (ultraviolet light with wavelengths between 200 – 280 nm) has recently made its foray into retail. A Philippines based UV-C solution provider, UV Care has successfully installed escalator handrail sterilizers in some of the biggest malls of the country including Robinsons Mall, SM Mega Mall, Ayala Mall, etc. Escalator Handrail Sterilizers provide continuous UV-C light sterilization on escalator handrails, powered by a self-generating internal motor.