In the last few years there’s been a lot of noise about the success of online fashion brands, from the rise – until recently – of ASOS to the Boohoo group. So perhaps it’s surprising to learn that in 2017 the total fashion spend in the UK online was just 24%. By 2025, according to McKinsey, online sales for luxury brands are likely to plateau. In addition, a recent report by First Insight in America found that while 54% of respondents spent more than $50 when shopping online, the figure rises to 71% when it comes to shopping in physical stores.

The fact is that, when it comes to fashion, while many of us like shopping online, we also often want to try things on before we commit to buying. Then there’s the whole tangible experience of going to a store, choosing items and making some impulse purchases along the way. It can also be sociable; people like to go shopping with friends or family, combining it with lunch or drinks and turning it into a leisure experience. But, of course, it’s complicated. According to a recent report by BRP & Windstream Enterprise, shopping experiences are influenced by digital in 75% of cases. The truth is today’s consumers want great experiences in all channels. The way to provide them is through digital transformation and smart use of data, and fashion retailers need to hit the mark both online and in-store.

In the last few years, young shoppers have been tempted away from Top Shop and New Look to the likes of Missguided and the Boohoo group, including Boohoo itself, PrettyLittleThing and NastyGal. These new players were quick to capitalise on social media and the capital of Instagram and Snapchat influencers and celebrities popular with their young customers, in a way that wasn’t being fully addressed by the traditional stores. And though they started off solely online, they’re now beginning to branch out into physical stores – though not entirely without problems along the way.

Missguided opened in Westfield Stratford to great fanfare, with an award-winning, Instagrammable store, eye-catching, posing mannequins and cheeky signs to encourage customers to download the app as well as direct them to product. The store closed within three years (high operating costs were to blame) but a new store at Bluewater continues to evolve the brand, showcasing customer-generated content alongside brand campaigns on its huge digital screens and with the striking design elements that drew so much attention in the original store. Boohoo has apparently taken a lease out on a showroom and event space just off Oxford Street – very close to Top Shop’s flagship store – and is apparently ‘planning a high-spec finish, which will change with the seasonality of their campaign and brands’. These businesses have an advantage in that because they started out online-only, they’ve been able to make full use of huge quantities of customer data from the get-go. Now the established bricks-and-mortar stores are having to play catch-up.

One thing is clear, whether they’re after low-cost fast fashion, or high-end luxury, what all shoppers have in common is that they’re looking for distinctive product and distinctive experiences in both digital and physical retail channels. Those brands that can cater to them, quickly act on fashion and consumer trends, and making smart use of data to provide seamless and ultra-personalised experiences whether online or in-store are the ones who are likely to successfully navigate the choppy economic waters ahead.

In 2017 the world’s leading online luxury fashion platform Farfetch launched their ‘Store of the Future’, It’s a technology suite aiming to capture consumer interactions with their brand partners and using that data to personalise and enrich the customer experience. Brands can pick which elements they want to use and build new services on top of the platform. Farfetch say it will solve customer pain points like ‘why doesn’t the retail staff know my previous purchases’ or ‘why am I not given the same treatment when visiting a brand’s store in New York or Shanghai’ for their high-end customers seeking luxury fashion and accessories. At the launch, Farfetch commented ‘We knew luxury companies need to manage their full branding and visual identity, plus there is a Farfetch customer base that can benefit from our global marketplace of boutiques, brands and curators via physical retail locations. Using shared frameworks, kits, components and SDKs for our native app product suite, we can enrich the customer experience across channels to facilitate a seamless experience at luxury brick-and-mortar stores of all kinds.’ In short, it’s a way of bringing all the advantages of the digital revolution to the physical stores of their partners, with data shared between Perhaps this is where digital truly comes of age, becoming not just a gimmick to attract short-lived attention, but an infrastructure that transforms the experience from the inside out.

Meanwhile Gucci are taking a different approach to customer service, hoping to boost smartphone shopping through a new call centre outside Florence. The idea is to give online customers ‘a direct connection to the Gucci community that is seamless, always accessible, personalised experiences’ according to Gucci’s chairman Marco Bizzarri. These Gucci customer service assistants are happy to chat in detail about products, and can help customers via live chat, phone or email. By connecting the dots between the online and physical experience, the customer has access to the kind of personalised service they have in store, and the company is more aware of them moving between the two. There are plans to expand with new call centres in New York, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore by 2020.

Many brands are currently trying out new strategies in both physical and online channels. Nike’s ‘Speed Shop’ in New York enables customers to reserve trainers online to try on in-store, while Ralph Lauren boasts interactive fitting room mirrors, Amazon is patenting a blended-reality mirror to ‘try on’ clothes, and Zara is introducing self-service checkouts. Mr Porter creates thoughtful not-just-fashion editorial content for the modern man online, while Oasis have nailed omnichannel as well as integrating customer-created content in a photo gallery you can shop from. There are so many different ways to approach improving the customer experience that it’s enough to make any fashion brand CEO’s head spin. But one thing is certain. Engaging with customers by offering them the seamless, personalised and distinctive experiences that digital transformation can provide is crucial for future success. In this hugely competitive and oversaturated market, only those prepared to act decisively and use digital to enhance all their channels, including the physical stores, will find themselves still in fashion in a few years’ time

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