High-tech high street

FASHION and technology may seem like odd bedfellows.

High-tech high street

Visualise them as a cyber-geek dating a glossy supermodel and you can get distracted by appearances, but on closer scrutiny this partnership has evolved into an enduring relationship.

Digital media has not only changed social interaction, it has changed modern patterns of consumption, particularly fashion consumption, dramatically. Shopping online has opened up a vista of global choice and consumers now search for satisfaction online, where traditional fashion seasons are subsumed by constantly evolving product.

E-commerce reached a tipping point in 2010 with 51% of adults shopping online. Current year on year growth is a staggering 20%. Now with the popularity of smart phones and tablets, mobile commerce will see consumers shopping wherever and whenever they want. Not surprisingly fashion brands and retailers are hungry for a share of this lucrative digital marketplace.

The accessibility and availability of fashion online has made traditional trends less influential: modern style is now a hybrid of fashion from various seasons mixed with vintage, high end and High Street sources. Irish fashion designer and blogger Eilis Boyle sells in her shop Bow in the Powerscourt Centre, Dublin, and online. “The internet has changed everything. It has made the world smaller, we are more connected and everything is more accessible… From a business point of view it has never been cheaper, and easier, to communicate globally.

“Finding your niche audience online is something anyone with some skills and dedication can achieve within a few seasons. Before the internet, it took years of word of mouth, showing in international trade shows and being featured in major publications to get similar global recognition. Now you can become an online success in a few months if you have a good brand and a proper communication plan.”

Bricks and mortar retailers are increasingly struggling to compete with their online counterparts, such as Net A Porter and ASOS, as thrifty consumers research product in store but then shop it online using sites such as www.farfetch.com to locate the best competitive price.

This practice, christened “showrooming”, has been one of the biggest challenges faced by traditional shops. Now your competitor isn’t defined by geography, they can be anywhere in the world as long as they have a website.

Once, when you didn’t want to court temptation, you stayed away from the shops, now with online retailers open 24/7 and just a click of a mouse away, it’s possible to shop anytime, anywhere and in private. If you don’t like it you have a legally enshrined seven-day window to change your mind and obtain a refund. On the downside, shopping online can be dangerously addictive and not being able to try garments on or benefit from advice about fit, proportions and alterations can lead to frustrating disappointment on delivery. What looks lovely online can be underwhelming in the hand.

Savvy retailers are also using social media to reach their consumers and keep them informed regarding new arrivals, seasonal trends and styling suggestions. Chatting online to your favourite fashion retailer endorses a sense of identity and resonates with consumers who sometimes receive indifferent service in person. Smart online retailers are very effective at creating a sense of belonging and rewarding loyalty.

Initiatives such as “shoppable” catwalk shows where there is a pre-order facility encourages consumer participation so retailers gain invaluable feedback and clients feel listened to and part of the brand “family”. As Eilis Boyle observes: “I think it’s great people have freedom of expression. Brands can finally interact and listen to customers to understand what it is they need. I’m very interested in knowing who buys the range and how I can give them a better product and service in the future.”

Brands can also present their own “story” or heritage through a distinct digital presence. In Burberry’s new flagship store on Regent St, London, shoppers are surrounded by cutting-edge developments including clothing tagged with RFID (radio frequency identification chip), mirrors that turn into screens relaying information about the item you are trying on and iPad accessorised assistants who have your purchase history on file.

Technology is constantly evolving: in the future we’ll see virtual avatars so we can visualise clothes on, smart clothing that will remember when you last wore it and 3D body scanners that will take precise body measurements.

With Ireland pitched as a centre for digital innovation department stores such as Arnotts and Brown Thomas are targeting the online marketplace and exploring how they can use the digital space to interact with their customers and maximise sales. E-tailers www.miinto.ie and www.thefashionshed.ie have allowed smaller independent retailers to access an online platform to sell their merchandise thereby giving boutiques a new sales channel with a nationwide reach.

Digital commerce is a vital channel for fashion brands — it will allow them to sell more to a wider audience and when you absorb that consumers who shop over multiple channels spend on average four times as much as those who don’t, you can appreciate its value in an increasingly tough market. There is no recession online.

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