A Click & Mortar De-Electronification

Everybody shops online these days. When it comes to clothing though, there are definite gaps in the way people shop in stores and the way they buy online. E-retail struggles with the basic needs of a customer – to try on clothes and see how they look and fit before purchasing. Many successful apparel retailers today are online-only clothing brands and while they are stealing valuable market share from brands with physical stores, they are still trying to bridge these very gaps.

Several e-retailers have adopted a try-at-home approach which gives them some savings on product returns. Increasingly however, retailers such as Amazon, Bonobos, Myntra, Lenskart and Zivame which started out with online-only sales are now realizing the need for physical stores and are investing in physical outlets for their products. Another trend seen in retail today is that customers often try on and select outfits in stores but go home and purchase them electronically in order to avail online discounts. This is the other side of the picture wherein customers are trying to close the divide between look and fit themselves while still making the more economical choice.

Mass customization of clothes that come from a production line couldn’t anytime soon, economically speaking, become a reality. It is a dimension saved for Bespoke and Made-To-Measure (MTM) clothing. For these services, it is immaterial whether a customer purchases online or in stores. However, for mass produced clothing, brands need a solution that delivers what their customers require without making them jump through hoops for it. Several brands have found that virtual dressing rooms effectively enable customers to find their look and fit without having to make a trip to an actual store. For online-only retailers, this technology is a veritable boon. 67% of customers who use a fitting room are likely to buy a brand’s products. Compared to the likelihood of purchase when browsing without trying – only 10% – the difference is huge. Anthropometric data gathered through virtual dressing rooms always delivers the right size and fit right for customers regardless of whether they are buying online or in-store. Short of touching garment fabrics, virtual reality can give customers everything else they need from a great shopping experience – clothing trials, loyalty benefits, and immersion in brand culture.

But do rapid technological advancements mean that physical stores need to suffer? Absolutely not. Customers are looking for shopping experiences that are memorable and satisfying, irrespective of online or physical locations. Several brands globally are experimenting with physical stores that focus not on selling but on delivering the brand experience. Their objective is to create and maintain brand loyalty, and their “experience” stores are a way of doing just that. So whether the focus is online or physical, the key lies in connecting every aspect of a brand-customer interaction seamlessly. With two billion people now carrying smartphones and using them to shop, it is imperative that retailers be able to deliver a connected shopping experience. The customer can then be conveniently in-store, electronically or physically, anywhere and anytime.

The collision of clicks and mortar makes it essential for brands to deliver a well-rounded customer experience, inclusive of narrative, uplifting experiences, and ease of use. Emerging brands like Away, Shinola and Everlane are using this approach to rapidly grow revenues and brand loyalty, and established global players like eBay and Amazon are using it to expand and integrally connect with their customer bases. Past performance is no indicator of future success in an age where technology is disrupting everything. Brand synergy is key and retailers who get it right stand to win the most, perhaps even unseating titans of the industry very soon. It’s time to rethink how to grow, holistically and connectedly, physically and electronically.

Embracing The Illogical In Shopping

Let’s talk about emotional intelligence. It’s pretty well established that a person’s emotional intelligence is a huge driver for what they achieve in their lives. In the eyes of many psychologists, it tops logical intelligence. But that’s not the emotional intelligence we’re referring to. We’re talking about emotional intelligence when it comes to machines. You’ve heard about artificial intelligence (AI). Now it’s time to explore algorithmic emotional intelligence.

First, why is this important? And second, what has it to do with shopping? Well, just ask yourself – when you’re out shopping, does it matter to you what the shopping environment is like or are you just in a hurry to buy your stuff and get out of the door? Is a luxurious, plush setting with exceptional customer service preferable to a warehouse stacked with bundles of clothes that you’re expected to pick from without help or direction? If you chose the former, you’re an emotional shopper. Just like almost everyone else. And you’re painfully aware of the gap between the shopper and the experience with e-commerce. E-commerce is flat, commerce is not. Shopping is rarely, if ever, based on cold, logical choices. Even when buying something as simple as a computer accessory online, one tends to look at user reviews. It’s not just about getting the best value for money, it’s about feeling good with the purchase too (see more on this here).

Let’s talk about laziness. And business. Because laziness is big, big business. Although retailers put great stress on customer experiences in-store, e-commerce makes it hard to recreate the same. Users can’t truly sense what a product is like when buying online. Sure, you can look at pictures, zooming in on those wonderful high resolution images. And you can even swivel them a full 360 degrees. Wow! But really, wow? Can that beautifully designed app make up for the experience of picking up a product in your own hands, turning it over, opening it and looking inside? Can a sleek, flat webpage convince you that a specific diamond studded bracelet is just right to add elegance to your significant-other’s bare wrist?

Coming back to emotional intelligence and why it’s important. Emotional intelligence comes into play when buying can be tailored to suit your mood, your preferences, and your personality. You’re shopping for yoga pants, but you’re sitting in front of your screen. Are you really feeling that yoga studio, that downward dog, those deep inhales and exhales? You’re buying a cycling helmet, but are you really feeling like you’re one of the amazing athletes in the Tour de France? You’re considering buying that shiny disco jacket that will rock the dance floor. But where’s the dance floor? All you’ve got is a page, bland and characterless. With price discounts because, of course, online shopping.

And lo behold, here comes the answer to your woes – Virtual Reality. Because with a simple headset, you’re inside that yoga studio choosing your pants. You’re in the Tour de France, sporting that helmet you’ve just been checking out. You’re like John Travolta on the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever, boogeying it up in your blingy jacket. You’re immersed in a different world – one where you know that what you’re buying is exactly what you wanted. Because that’s the way it should be. And because you’re worth it.

Immersed inside moving images, music and video, prompted by algorithms that sense exactly the right kind of things to show you, VR has the power to influence emotional upheavals. It brings a spectrum of emotions to the fore as part of the Virtual Experience, defined as “the psychological and emotional state that consumers undergo while interacting with products in a 3-D environment”. Without the way our emotional responses register people and things around us, we cannot exactly tell what we want. A virtual experience is vivid, involving active and affective psychological states occurring in an individual. Such emotional states influence our perceptions of brands, product quality, and most importantly, our decision making. With VR, the sights and sounds surround you and draw you in emotionally, connecting with the inner You at a subconscious level.

There’s much more you could do – shop with a friend, change clothes virtually in different locales, purchase instantly and in real time. Buy things that impeccably placed product placements indicate that you want – stuff that you hadn’t even realized you needed until that very moment. But you need them now, oh yes. Also, why depend on slow, laborious emails, or unsatisfyingly connect to chatbox Mike who “is here to answer all your queries in a timely and friendly manner”? Instead, summon your personal virtual customer service executive who’ll stand by your side and give you her undivided attention (see our article explaining Enhanced Assistance).

Eye tracking technology is making rapid headway, allowing you to shop without once disconnecting from the virtual environment. Simply flick your gaze to a shopping cart symbol unobtrusively tucked away at the edges of your vision and your purchase is made. Then just wait for the email confirming your order and the delivery date. Virtual Reality is changing the way we shop. And it’s not just about the exciting new technology. And it’s not just about the ease of using smartphones to do it. It’s about something much deeper, more primal, and far more emotional. It’s about the way we feel. And that’s something that e-commerce alone can never do. So, welcome to v-commerce.

Bricks to Clicks and Back Again

When you need to buy something, what’s your first thought – walk into a store, or buy online? Research shows that most people don’t fit neatly into either of these categories. There are more factors at play – factors that affect how people shop, and which make the case for integrated solutions in fashion retail. Is VR the holy grail of shopping? Will it make brick-and-mortar stores obsolete?

The answer is not a simple yes or no.  Research on the globally rapid adoption of online shopping reveals surprising results. Most people still prefer to shop in-store rather than buying online, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom that online shopping is the be-all and end-all of fashion retail. A staggering 76% of shoppers still prefer to shop for apparel in brick and mortar stores. But consumer behavior has changed. Combining convenience with experience is the new way forward, says a recent study by InReality. It revealed that 75% of shoppers use their mobile phones in stores to boost their shopping experiences. Herein lies a massive, untapped opportunity. Research has already shown that consumers are open to buying just about anything online, provided that the right experience is delivered. VR/AR is the next step in delivering such in-store experiences to customers at home or, well, in stores.

Although still in its infancy, 55% of consumers believe that VR e-commerce will impact their buying decisions. 62% are interested in trying VR shopping. Nearly a quarter plan to buy a VR device in the coming year. Many consumers now do their research in-store, not online, and a quarter are using their mobiles to make purchases while inside physical stores. Traditional retailers need to bring virtual experiences into stores to capitalize on this market. A third of consumers say that they would shop more with retailers that offer a VR experience, and a quarter say that VR would encourage them to purchase more online.

The attraction of virtual fitting rooms can’t be denied. They enable customers to try and buy, without once ever physically trying things on. They save time, boost engagement, and enhance brand image. The desirability to consumers is clear, but retailers also benefit tremendously. Using virtual mirrors and VR/AR in store, brands can stock less inventory while gathering data on consumer behavior – what works and what just doesn’t. For e-retailers, these benefits are even more pronounced, resulting in far fewer product returns and much better inventory management. But neither of these approaches independently deliver the perfect shopping experience. The need is for hybrid models that combine the ease of online purchases with the reality of physical experiences. More and more physical stores are establishing online presences, and now e-retailers are venturing into brick and mortar. When it comes to such hybrid retail models, Virtual Reality not only holds the most promise, but also the most excitement.

Having a mobile app is no longer enough – enhanced technology is making all the difference. This is where VR/AR steps in to neatly fill the gaps, delivering seamless experiences with convenience. As time goes on, consumers will gravitate towards complete brand experiences, regardless of physical or virtual location. Tick the right boxes and one gets happy shoppers, happy retailers.

The Virtual Lap of Luxury

‘An estimated 40 percent of luxury brands still don’t sell online,’ says a recent report from Bain Consultants in a Bloomberg Businessweek article.

Luxury retail – two words that together evoke images of high fashion, top models strutting on runways, sports cars and Italian marble. No pretenders to the business of high chic, luxury brands have understandably been late entrants to e-commerce and technologically enabled retail. Until now, there has always been the dogma of providing sensory stimulation through sight, touch and in-person experiences. There are exceptions to the rule, though. Burberry and Estee Lauder are, by now, veritable natives of the digital fashion world, and luxury megabrand Chanel has just ventured into e-commerce. But what about the others? With many tech savvy millennials now being prominent customers, elite labels are rethinking their cautious approach to online retailing. Dozens of luxury fashion brands are beginning to dip their toes into the waters of online sales, and v-commerce is their game changer.

V-commerce is a term describing the usage of virtual and augmented reality to enhance e-commerce. Customers are lapping it up and thirsting for more. Over a quarter of e-commerce shoppers have purchased a luxury item online in the past year. That’s rapid growth from 10% in 2015 and a measly 6% in 2014. One-third of those consumers were millennials in the age group of 18 to 25. Compare that to only 6% of purchasers who were 61 and older, and it’s clear where consumer desires are headed. To top it, 38% of all luxury e-commerce shoppers have indicated a desire to use VR to purchase luxury products. In a market that boasts 70% profit margins, that’s huge untapped potential for luxury brands.

VR is still considered an expensive indulgence by many so it’s not surprising that luxury shoppers have been found far more likely to use VR devices than the average customer. Two out of every five, to be precise. They’ve also rated the technology more likely to impact their purchase decisions. 2% of those that have bought luxury items online in the past year already own VR devices, and a whopping 28% intend to buy one this year.

But gimmicks are not going to cut it for these high-fashion brands. While AR/VR alone may boost sales in the short term, they need to strategically tie into overall brand experiences in the longer term. VR and AR are poised to become integral parts of such experiences – easing customers’ apprehensions about size and fit, and stimulating their imaginations with unique ways to test new products, see how they’re made, and engage virtually in memorable experiences like fashion shows. The greatest potential of virtual reality for luxury brands, though, is to increase business from those who don’t have the time, opportunity, or inclination, to visit a real world store.

We’ve written about how it all began and some of the major emerging trends that brands are adopting to improve how they interact with their customers. Such strategies are of paramount importance for luxury brands, and if used holistically, are capable of wooing new customers and delighting existing ones – effectively creating repeat purchase cycles that add tremendous value to both retailers and their customers.

The Fashion Retail Runway

The world of fashion and apparel retail is barreling towards change at a blistering pace. Disruptors in the industry range from wearables to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Virtual & Augmented Reality. There has never been a better time to be a consumer, and never a more trying time for companies to venture into the rapidly burgeoning world of fashion technology. Although there are products emerging every day that are trying to change the way we shop, most don’t understand what shoppers really want out of their shopping. Women don’t shop the way men do. Furniture buyers have completely different requirements than do apparel purchasers. So the big question is – how do we really shop today?

There are lots of reports available on the net. Some agree on what people want to buy and how. Others have viewpoints ranging from mundane, cautious predictions to wildly creative and highly improbable ideas. Despite the plethora of websites out there that are trying to sell old stuff in new packages, there are a few that are going above and beyond. True disruptors, to say the least. But for people to talk about a brand, they need to have memorable experiences worth sharing. So what are the underlying, fundamental shifts that are really redefining the fashion retail landscape, and won’t fizzle out like the housing and food tech bubbles?

One of the emerging trends in fashion today is pay-as-you-go retail. We’ve seen this business model with cell-service providers and e-wallets, but now for the first time fashion brands are adopting it. There are big bets being placed on shoppers who want to wear something different every day and don’t mind paying for single-use apparel. 15% of Americans and 17% of UK shoppers have indicated keen interest in renting apparel from their favorite stores. Unsurprisingly, millennials top this cut at 35% in USA and a whopping 46% in the UK expressing a desire to rent clothing.

Another trend warranting closer attention is lifestyle loyalty. Nike launched a vending machine in New York where consumers can trade sweat points from their Nike Fuelbands for merchandise. Lifestyle retail is the next step for brands to boost loyalty with their customers and keep them coming back for more, while at the same time rewarding them for improving their entire lifestyles. Big brands are placing bigger bets on becoming integral parts of their customers’ lives with this approach. Although the concept is neither new nor novel, technology is now enabling brands to connect with their shoppers like never before. Another trend similar to lifestyle-loyalty is classroom retail. Fashion brands encourage consumers to purchase from them with a range of value-added offerings that educate and improve the lives of their customers. Their approach to this is by imparting creative skills, personal style education, and behavioral tweaks to create happier, better informed, loyal customers.

The inside-out retail approach dabbles in the realm of the experiential, overloading consumers’ senses with visual, auditory, tactile and even olfactory stimuli. It has long been known that appealing to more senses positively impacts purchase behavior. Technology is an enabler in this space, allowing consumers to really ‘feel’ a brand’s personality.

Finally, the dragon slayer of the fashion retailing world – Enhanced Assistance – is here to change the way fashion retail works forevermore. Enhanced assistance is a loose term being used to describe a combination of Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Using these technologies, reality and fantasy blend together seamlessly to create virtual shopping experiences that are far preferable to the traditional physical approach. The hard data agrees – only 39% of US shoppers and 36% of UK shoppers prefer human to virtual assistance when browsing in a store. VR and AR fitting rooms are already seeing rapid adoption, with demonstrated benefits to both consumers and retailers. With this tech, shoppers get recommendations, styling guides, social sharing and, most importantly, an in-store experience from the comfort of their homes. All while using only their smartphones and any of the simple, ubiquitous VR viewers available today. Retailers are boosting sales, and seeing fewer stock-outs, less disappointed customers, and far fewer product returns. We’ve already covered how it all began in a previous post which you can read here.

A new frontier for fashion is beginning – frontier-less retail – and these are only a few of the many, many emerging trends. It’s an exciting time. This is how we shop now. What’s going to be next?

The Birth of VR Fashion

Buzz about virtual reality is everywhere these days and various business ‘gurus’ have called 2016 ‘The year of Virtual Reality’. However, VR in the fashion industry has been slow to take off. In healthcare, education, architecture and interior design, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are already gaining great popularity. So when is fashion getting its start?

The short answer is – now!

The Oculus Rift got the ball rolling and now VR headset manufacturers are popping up everywhere. The Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR are the leading lot of high-end VR headsets and these products will cost a cool several hundred dollars apiece once available. For the everyman, though, smartphone manufacturers have started providing low cost VR viewers with their products, and the Google Cardboard VR viewer has become almost ubiquitous in the tech fraternity. Slowly, VR is seeping into the lives of the average person, opening up fantastic opportunities in various industries including fashion. Even though VR technology is still evolving and is yet to be perfected, in the past year alone several fashion giants have turned to VR to grab eyeballs and wow their customers.

In 2014, Topshop filmed its fall ’14 runway show in 3D and offered the VR experience to the public. Also in 2014, Elle magazine captured its cover shoot in VR, making it available for Android smartphones and viewable using Google Cardboard. American shoe brand Converse created an app in early 2015 to let its customers view a video of their shoes in virtual action and 7 For All Mankind, a denim brand, showcased its 2015 spring collection in VR. Luxury fashion house Dior released a VR headset of their own centered around make-up and the preparations of models before runway shows. Rebecca Minkoff released a video as well as customized Cardboard viewers to entertain and invite their customers to their 2016 shows. The Cardboard viewers sold out on their website within hours. Celebrities haven’t been shy of virtual reality either. Drew Barrymore’s cover shoot for InStyle magazine was released as a 3D video which made waves. The magazine distributed VR headsets to several of its subscribers specially to enjoy the viewing experience. In late 2015, Tommy Hilfiger brought VR to several of its flagship stores across the US.

So far, fashion brands have ventured into using VR to showcase their fashion shows and selected products using 3D video. More and more brands are venturing into the use of VR for marketing and promotion. But where is VR for fashion headed in 2016? Well, this year marks the advent of VR dressing rooms and shopping experiences that will redefine the way brands interact with their customers and vice-versa. This is the year when in-store engagement is boosted by the use of VR and AR technology, and customers who shop online can try-and-buy using virtual models of themselves. VR in fashion is poised to change shopping from mere transactions to journeys that leave delighted customers with stories to share, all the while building brands’ stories within the immersive environments.

It has never been done before and the possibilities are boundless, the enthusiasm is infectious, and the timing is just right. 2016 is just the beginning for VR fashion.