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Six months of COVID in the West show just how much digitisation can still be done.

In normal circumstances, half a year can pass without much in the way of meaningful change. In 2020, the world has been transformed in the same span of time. And most of us were caught unaware.

In mid-to-late February, it became apparent that the virus that causes COVID-19 was not going to remain confined to China. The first cluster of cases in Italy were revealed on the 21st, and within less than three weeks the entire country was placed into quarantine.

Since then the rest of Europe, the United States, and almost the entire world has wrestled with the initial wave of a global pandemic that’s likely to be one of the defining events of our time. More than 750,000 have died, and today’s tally stands at close to 21 million infected worldwide, with a quarter of a million new cases being added every day. All those figures are likely far below the truth, and there is no sign that the upward trend is reversing – quite the opposite in fact. New surges are being seen throughout Europe, in The Interline‘s home country, England (where our remote offices are now under a new set of restrictions), and in a large number of states in the US, where daily deaths are firmly on the rise.

Throughout all this, lockdowns of varying degrees of strictness have changed – perhaps forever – the way we interact socially, the way we work, the security we feel, and how and where we shop. The idea of going out for dinner, or of stopping to browse the racks at a brick and mortar store on a lunch break, has turned from a routine occurrence to something unthinkable. In the United States, consumer confidence has now slumped to its lowest level in months, and close to 75% of Americans say they are not engaging in a normal amount of “out of home” activity.

And it goes without saying that the impact this has had on the high street is profound – with even China, which has done an arguably better job of controlling the pandemic than many Western nations, exhibiting a fall in retail sales at a time when many analysts were predicting recovery.

And at the same time, hard stops on international travel and trade – many of which are being renewed as pre-approved, quarantine-free “corridors” between nations break down – have left multiple industries in tatters.

In the nearly six months since The Interline launched – a coincidental date, but one nobody is likely to forget – the risk inherent in overseas sourcing concentrated in particular regions also coalesced from being a vague threat to being many companies’ primary concern. Close to all companies – across industries – contacted for a recent survey reported wanting to take measures to boost the resilience of their supply chains, and 60% of them by diversifying the regions they source from. But more than half are yet to take steps.

For manufacturing at least, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Real-time data demonstrate that fashion retail as a whole has been able to keep introducing new styles at a similar pace to this time in 2019 (after an initial slump-and-spike pattern in April and May), suggested supply chains are no longer constrained to the same degree they were.

But at the same time, discounting is up, with a larger percentage of assortments being marked down than the same calendar week in 2019, after several weeks of similar performance.

Perhaps hardest hit are physical trade shows and events – almost all of which, outside China, have been postponed or cancelled since March. From materials shows to fashion weeks, and from thought leadership events to industry gatherings, the future looks bleak for anything that requires people to physically gather in one place.

In March, as the first wave of movement restrictions hit Europe, we published a piece titled “In A Locked-Down World, Fashion Needs To Finish Its Digital Transformation“. It makes for sobering reading today, since a lot of what felt like worst-case scenarios at the time have come to pass – not least of which was a global recession, with consumer confidence not returning until September at the earliest. With just three weeks to go, a massive turnaround in many areas is going to be needed to avert that outcome.

But if six months feels like a lifetime on the world stage, in the offices and remote workplaces of brands and retailers, the time will have flown by in a flurry of survival planning, risk mitigation, and accelerated digital transformation. And on that last point so much is still to be done, meaning that the theme of that March article still holds true.

While adoption of digital design, 3D, and 3D-adjacent tools is at an all-time high, most brands, retailers, and manufacturers do not yet have a complete (or even partial) 3D workflow.

While, as we’ve established, the appetite to mitigate risk in manufacturing is there, most fashion businesses have only been able to make iterative steps towards the longer-term vision of on-demand production.

And while digital materials are an essential component of digital product creation – a high entry on most apparel companies’ wishlists – a range of different technical and commercial barriers still stand in the way of making that wish come true.

These are just the first three technology topics that The Interline has covered, and already it should be clear that managing large-scale digitial transformation in a world dominated by COVID (and preparing for another disruption on this scale, which we hope will not arrive in our lifetimes) will not be a quick-fix.

As we enter the autumn / winter portion of our editorial calendar, with special deep-dives on sustainability, blockchain, eCommerce, and machine learning, The Interline is reluctant to make any predictions about how the next six months will develop. On the one hand, the economic outlook is grim; on the other, there is more opportunity than ever for brands, retailers, and manufacturers to take charge of their own outcomes through smart, considered investments in technology.

Whatever happens, The Interline will continue with its mission to help turn theory into practice in the areas that matter the most to our readers. Look for important announcements about our plans to inform, educate, and involve soon.

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