Every week, The Interline rounds up the most vital and interesting talking points from across the fashion technology landscape. We provide our take on what matters, and why. This roundup is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.

With technology’s help, retail stores might need to adopt luxury levels of personal service to successfully reopen.

This week has been a fractious one when it comes to understanding precisely how retail is going to “reopen”. In the UK, where The Interline is based, government messaging around the state of our lockdown is muddled. And that’s putting it mildly. In the USA, where CDC guidelines are apparently being rejected in favour of devolved, state-level decision-making, precisely what type of businesses will be allowed to operate in the near future, and how, is going to vary depending on where you stand – geographically and politically.

In the void left by unclear government communication, it seems likely that the logistics of reopening physical stores safely and successfully are going to be largely left up to the retailers themselves to devise, monitor, and improve.

The need to bring people back through the doors is not, of course, a retail-only problem. In fact, the hospitality industry is in a worse position, because it has no digital channel to fall back on. Which is precisely why we have seen US restaurants pivoting – either for now or for a lot longer, depending on how things develop – to effectively become upscale grocery stores.

In fact, the hospitality industry was the source of a message that The Interline found particularly strong this week. Speaking to The New Yorker, celebrity chef Tom Coliccho said that “My concern isn’t actually getting open. My concern is, once you’re open, how do you last for a year?”.

Whether they want to or not, this is the kind of question that any brand or retailer with owned or rented premises (concessions in department stores will be largely spared the responsibility, which will fall to the owner of the floor space) should be asking themselves.

After all, reopening a store is relatively easy in the abstract. Bring the staff back from furlough, check the stock levels, spin the POS system back up, open the doors, and boom – you have an operational shop again.

But crucially, you’d also have a shop that nobody except the (hopefully) small contingent of confused COVID-19 deniers would set foot in, and you’d more than likely find yourself closing it again in short order. Instead, reopening is going to be a carefully planned, tightly controlled exercise in bridging the business’s need to sell with its responsibility to the health of its workers and customers.

Practically speaking, the current guidelines from bodies like the British Retail Consortium read like manuals for designing a hospital. Physical distance, disinfecting regimens, one-way systems, and regular audio announcements to observe guidelines.

None of these are exactly conducive to an enjoyable shopping experience. And that’s before we consider that the same guidelines encourage retailers to “remove promotions and features where customers are likely to congregate”. With dwell time and footfall count being two of the prime indicators that retailers have for optimising store planning, the idea of purposefully reducing footfall and discouraging dwell is not going to be an easy one to internalise. Especially for those retailers that rely on high volumes of sales.

But rather than see this as a threat, those retailers whose business models support a change (i.e. not those who sell lots of disposable clothing) should see it as an opportunity to borrow from the luxury playbook. Rather than redesigning stores as warrens through which lots of people can be funnelled as effectively as possible, store planning could focus on maximising the value of each individual shopper’s experience – reducing capacity but aiming to maximise the value of their engagement with each visitor.

In this endeavour, rapid iteration of store layouts, and the addition of new fixtures like plastic screens (not just for cashiers), and external people counters with predicted wait times for entry, will be vital. And as our ongoing 3D focus shows, the ability to quickly visualise new store layouts virtually could be a valuable tool for retailers who wish to not just reopen, but remain open until the indefinite point in time when social distancing becomes a distant memory.

The backlash against Amazon reaches the technology level – making it harder to ignore.

Like the plight of supply chain workers that we tried to summarise in last week’s special edition, the apparent neglect of Amazon’s warehouse workers has also flown under the radar in a lot of circles.

Until this week, that is, when a VP-level employee in Amazon’s Web Services division (which runs most of your favourite services) left the company with a public condemnation of its treatment of frontline workers who, they feel, have been neglected or outright intimidated during the pandemic.

This has two key implications for the fashion retail sector.

First, the delineation between Amazon’s retail business, which was rightly hauled over the coals for breaching marketplace rules for its private label product creation, and its AWS cloud services division might not be as clear-cut as it seemed. At least in terms of empathy – others at a senior level within Amazon have also left the company after hearing warehouse workers detail their fears – there is crossover there. And for companies already skeptical of just how separate AWS was from Amazon’s retail arm, this is fuel for the fire.

Second, no brand, retailer, or manufacturer who is considering relaxing their previous codes of conduct or compromising on sustainability targets as a shortcut to reclaiming business as usual can assume that whistleblowers will only come from a blue-collar background.

Beyond the prints and the collabs, technical innovation and performance materials could be the next wave for gloves, masks, and other PPE.

China remains at the forefront of demonstrating what a post-COVID-19 retail industry might look like, and while the situation isn’t as gloomy as perhaps it could have been, statistics published this week reveal that discretionary spending on categories like apparel is proving very slow to recover.

The same data demonstrates that spending on health remains high, and while consumers in China and elsewhere in South and South East Asia are likely to already own face masks as a result of prior outbreaks and the constant spectre of pollution, the same cannot be said for shoppers in the Western hemisphere, where spending on masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment will likely soon be on the rise.

Recently, demand for these categories of products is being frustrated by slow supply and replenishment. But with the initial, desperation-fuelled flurry ending, new masks are being introduced to the market daily – at price points that vary from the £10 mark for basic cloth masks, to £30 masks with water-repellent fabric that’s washable at high temperatures, to £300 technical masks from designer names. (Data source: Omnilytics)

And with scarcity out of the way, consumers are likely to look for two other elements of appeal in masks and other PPE: style and technical performance. The former of these has already made waves in streetwear and techwear circles, but the latter is, for now at least, a secondary consideration.

This could soon change, and The Interline fully expects to see collaborations with companies like HeiQ being elevated to the same status as previous performance partnerships with the likes of Gore-Tex and Vibram.

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