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Lack of Innovation in Retailing Leads to Meager Victories

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A rather nicely shaped clothing display stand featuring an integrated touchscreen - this, according to London's recent 100% Design exhibition, is the retail of tomorrow.

Unfortunately, while displaying a capsule collection and encouraging the consumer to look at the wider range online right there and then is a neat idea, it has already been rolled out on a large scale by the likes of Marks & Spencer. In fact, the stand was offered by Samsung Chemical, responsible for moulding the curvy display stands from a plastic more usually seen on countertops. It may be an interesting new way to use plastic, but dubbing it the 'Retail of Tomorrow' was definitely overstating the case.

Zahah Hadid displays front and back compressed and sized.jpg

Overbilled?:"Samsung Chemical Europe in collaboration with Zaha Hadid Architects, Samsung Semiconductor, Inox Communication, EG Electronics,Scheschy Furniture Solutions, Heidi.com Swiss Fresh Fashion, City and State of Neuchatel (Switzerland) has created a vision for Retail of Tomorrow. The concept uses the very latest design and technology to create an enhanced shopping experience".

Is the retail of tomorrow the same as the retail of today?

This does point to a wider issue, however. If this exhibit can be billed, however naively, as the ‘Retail of Tomorrow’, then there is clearly a dearth of innovation within the industry. In a Q&A session later on at the event, this frustration was echoed by Craig Smith, Brand Communication Director at UK apparel specialist Ted Baker. He commented on the lack of innovation within fashion retail, and the sameness - on an international scale - of today's shopping environments - the same stores in the same mall locations with the same layout.

What is amazing about this is that we are in an era of unprecedented social and technological development, with new possibilities appearing by the day, and the consumer group most likely to tap into these new possibilities is the same consumer group that fashion chains rely on. Alongside this, we have industry consolidation with a network of increasingly powerful global fashion chains able to draw upon the finances and breadth of operations required to introduce groundbreaking innovations on a global scale - so, why the sameness?

Fashion chains were slow to embrace multi-channel retail

Fashion retail's track record of embracing technological change is patchy. The apparel specialists channel was one of the slowest to fully adopt online retail, with leading chains such as H&M, Zara and Gap (outside the US) only making the leap in late 2010. Another leading chain, Primark, is still to launch a transactional website. Although it became clear that going online was becoming an essential survival tactic in order to stop consumers defecting to rival brands, question marks over whether online sales would strengthen overall turnover or simply cannibalise store operations, added to the extra logistical challenges for apparel retailers because of a high rate of product returns and rapid stock turnover, meant that many chains viewed a move online with reluctance.

Social networking offers challenges as well as opportunities

Social networking is a vast resource which is being used effectively by brands across the spectrum, from Burberry to New Look, but knowing which sites to target and how to approach them - not to mention how to measure the returns on all the time and money invested - is another question that retailers are wrestling with. Early disappointments, such as American Apparel's virtual store in the Second Life alternative universe, which was later virtually shuttered when Second Life lost its cachet, demonstrated the pitfalls of investing in the new digital world.

So, not only is this a channel grappling with a host of new elements in a new environment, but it is doing so against the backdrop of a difficult economic landscape which allows little room for error. Perhaps there is some justification for fashion retailers to look for so long before leaping, but it means that opportunities to make enormous improvements in the business model are going begging.

The untapped potential of body scanning

Take body scanning. There are a number of systems that have been rolled out on a small scale which allow consumers to get an accurate scan of their body measurements which could then tell them more precisely which products will fit and flatter them. Me-Ality can build an accurate scan even when the subject remains fully clothed, while Bodymetrics has partnered Microsoft's Kinect gaming system to make it possible to do scans at home - from the consumer's point of view, scanning is becoming easier and easier. Unfortunately, availability is so patchy that no system has achieved the sort of widespread presence that would push the entire industry into making it available in their stores or on their websites.

If that did become the case, think of the impact. Helping consumers choose clothes more accurately online would minimise multi-size ordering, and their consequent returns, with all the overstock implications and logistics costs that that involves. Stores would feel the impact too, with accurate body measurements making it easier to pick the right sizes to take into the changing room, minimising queues and increasing the chances of finding the right product. In time, visiting a measurement booth for an update could become a routine part of a shopping trip.

Body scanning could pay a data mining dividend

And, of course, no retailer would want to sign up to using a scanning system without a reciprocal agreement to receive the wealth of consumer data that a system would produce. Surely the long- term savings that would result from knowing the sizes and body shapes of the consumer base in such detail would offset the cost of introducing the system? There is of course the risk that consumers with less common body shapes might find their options limited, but one retailer's non-core customer is another's niche opportunity, so, by the same token, some previously
underserved consumers could find more clothes on offer, quite literally tailored to their needs.

Fashion retail still looking for a leader to drive development

In order to achieve critical mass, a scanning system would most likely need to be adopted by a selection of the major players, such as Gap, H&M or Wal-Mart. A further step would be to make the system open-source - a brave move, but one that would encourage other innovators to use the same platform rather than launching a rival one.

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