Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

Big bets are being placed on both extremes – online and off – as uncertainty continues to dominate fashion.

The new year is upon us, and it’s safe to say that this is not how anyone would have chosen 2021 to begin. As of this week, all four UK nations are under lockdown for at least six weeks, with all education and non-essential retail closed – suggesting that whatever rebound of physical stores this year holds, it’s unlikely to start until well into the first quarter.

The impact this continuation – and potentially worsening – of last year’s trends will have on retail in 2021 is going to be hard to overstate. Figures released for the UK today show that even the pre-Christmas holiday period, when brick and mortar stores were permitted to open, saw footfall down 40% year-on-year. This creates, as British Retail Consortium Chief Executive, Helen Dickinson, puts it, a situation where some “stores will be unable to trade their way back to recovery”.

And this is, unfortunately, not a retail-wide trend that the fashion segment is swimming upstream against. Other figures released today support the conclusion that discretionary spending, such as home furnishings and fashion, have been hit just as hard as other sectors. If not more so.

But this does not mean that brands are abandoning their physical presences. Indeed, the organisations that have been able to weather the first two UK lockdowns (and their equivalents in Europe, the USA, and Asia) are looking like perhaps being those that will benefit the most from a possible resurgence in high street trade that could begin once COVID vaccines become more widely available. As an example, Alexander McQueen has continued with a strategy of broadening its multinational retail presence, and it is by no means alone.

These are, to be clear, educated bets with an uncertain return. While there is every reason to believe that COVID will be largely defeated – at least in the US, Europe, UK and Asia – by the end of 2021, or that it will at least become a seasonal nuisance rather than a world-stopping crisis within the same timeframe, there is no guarantee that this will translate into a return of retail footfall to pre-COVID rates. And there is perhaps equal reason to suspect that the role of retail real estate as a whole may be changing more quickly than anyone could have predicted pre-pandemic.

And equally large bets are also being placed on the opposite side of the scale: online-native retailer ASOS today announced further expansion with an additional £90 million fulfilment and distribution centre to be built in England, and the considerable rise in the share prices of eCommerce leaders Amazon, Shopify, and etsy have been well-documented in these roundups in previous weeks.

It may seem odd to be talking about certainty at a time when uncertainty is arguably at its peak, but if anything has emerged from a holiday pause that has, at least in The Interline’s home country, only lead to darker skies, it’s that fashion retail tomorrow will not look much like the retail of yesterday – in its channel weighting, in its approach to every from assortment planning to manufacturing, or in the tools it uses to remain agile, profitable, and to engage shoppers who, like the brands and retailers that cater to them, have undergone rapid digitisation in the last twelve months.

image copyright niantic / the pokemon company / gucci / the north face

And how brands and retailers choose to sell is just one of several areas where different businesses are staking very different claims to the future. In the same week that Gucci and The North Face announced that they would make some new, game-specific styles available in Pokemon Go, Bottega Veneta abruptly closed all of its social media channels, presumably with a view to recapturing its heritage and shoring up its sense of scarcity and luxury by making the brand less accessible, rather than more.

These kinds of radically different strategies are likely to characterise much of what we see in 2021, as fashion retail strives to reassert its identity, and consumers begin to re-emerge from restrictions. Critically, though, neither approach, online or off, will be able to disregard the constant pull of digitisation and digital transformation. From 3D design to smart manufacturing, and from real-time supply chain management to virtual fashion and the circular economy, whatever strategy brands and retailers adopt, their backend systems will need to be migrated from manual to smart, automated alternatives.

Luckily, each of these – and more – are subjects that The Interline will be covering in 2021. Our full editorial calendar, and new articles from both existing contributors and brand-new voices will be published next week as our 2021 content begins in earnest.

For now, though, The Interline wishes its readers a safe start to a year that is unlikely to resemble any other.

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