Physical shopping was on the rebound this summer, but for holiday 2021 and beyond, uncertainty remains the dominant force in fashion retail.
At the global macro level, different countries are relaxing or looking to reimpose movement restrictions as successive waves of the pandemic ripple across the planet. And some of the largest consumption markets are weighing the benefits and drawbacks of vaccine passports that could disrupt things even further.
That variability also exists at the micro level. What is working for retailers in LA may not work for their counterparts in Chicago, and similar regional differences can be found from city to city in almost every country.
The root causes for the complex, unequal state of fashion retail’s recovery are both society-wide and sector-specific. From state to state, mask mandates and capacity limitations on physical premises vary wildly, but at the same time the availability of stock is being universally affected by bottlenecks in international logistics, and shortages in raw materials that affect everyone. And while eCommerce’s share of sales has fallen, a winter surge in COVID transmission could quickly see that ground reclaimed.
And that’s before we begin to consider the dramatically different expectations and desires that accompany the experience of shopping for different product categories, different market segments – from basic loungewear to luxury – and different brands.
It remains, in essence, almost as hard today to predict where the customer will be, and when, as it was in the earliest days of the pandemic. While vaccination programmes have bought personal security and sense of optimism, they have not translated into commercial stability just yet.
All of which means that the circumstances of each physical shopping experience, for every brand and every customer, are going to remain both unique and uniquely important. Where once a brand might have been able to rely on thousands of people walking through the doors of their flagship stores every week, that footfall figure has been dramatically curtailed by COVID, and it’s currently difficult to predict how long it can trend upwards for again.
In that context, and against the background of a channel mix that has tilted heavily towards eCommerce over the last eighteen months, the importance of every in-person shopper interaction is at an all-time high. And to reflect that importance, brands and retailers – particularly those at the upper end of the market, and in luxury – now need to deliver retail experiences that are frictionless, memorable, organic and, vitally, original.
This has created both singular challenges and unprecedented opportunities for brands as the world finds its footing in the fabled “new normal”. The challenge of finding the right tools and techniques to engage customers in physical spaces, but in a way that transcends physical space. The opportunity to turn people tentative re-entries into physical shopping from fleeting, fluctuating forays into long-term patterns of predictable loyalty. And across both, the overriding objective for the future of fashion retail is to create an everlasting customer journey that’s both digital and distinctive.
This is also the environment that fashion technology now needs to fit into. And as a result, the objectives of technology initiatives are changing to reflect the clearer vision the industry now has for pandemic and post-pandemic retail.
In the past, retail technology was used to enrich or add convenience to the shopping experiences of a steady stream of passing trade and a reliable cohort of repeat customers. Today, in-store technology’s job is to create entirely new experiences for a much more focused audience – one that has seen the retail landscape shift beneath them in record time. To meet, and exceed, their expectations for physical retail, technology now needs to serve as the entrypoint for unique experiences that only in-store shopping can provide – experiences that then feed into the brand’s own digital ecosystem, and that then foster deeper brand and customer relationships.
This transition is, in turn, reshaping the way that fashion thinks about the deployment of technology in service of different digital transformation objectives. While invisible, backend technologies that tackle the thorny, universal problems of technical development, sourcing, and distribution have moved towards multi-tenant, one-size-fits-all models, it’s now becoming clear that, post-pandemic, the technologies that shoppers interact with in-store should not be considered commodities in the same way.
Instead, direct-to-consumer brands are turning to technology to deliver truly bespoke experiences that will stand out in a reshaped retail landscape where competition for attention will be fierce, and where sensitivity is needed to blend physical and digital engagement. And this will be especially true for luxury brands and celebrated designers, who have historically found it difficult to accurately convey their work digitally, but who now also face the same struggle to entice shoppers back into physical premises that is affecting the rest of the retail market.
“We have always struggled with online sales, because our clothing really needs to be tried on – not only for fit, but to know how the piece looks and feels on the body,” explains London-based fashion designed Maria Grachvogel. Taking those digital barriers into account, Grachvogel had historically prioritised the physical shopping experience for her luxury clientele, but in a stroke of fortuitous pre-pandemic planning, she and her team piloted a new in-store digital experience. “The level of detail they see in-person is what my client expects to see digitally,” Grachvogel adds, “and the objective is therefore to replicate the luxury experience as closely as possible”.
The in-store experience Grachvogel implemented was targeted at transforming the fitting room by bringing physical and digital together – something that was originally conceived as a way to improve in-store shopping for her discerning shoppers, but something that now distinguishes those same stores by offering an experience that can’t be found elsewhere.
Taking this project as inspiration, and reflecting on the market conditions that have come to characterise post-COVID retail, the fitting room is a logical target for a new approach to fashion technology – one that both delivers a bespoke experience that eCommerce cannot match, but one that blurs the boundaries between physical and digital.
For many (perhaps most) shoppers, trying on a garment is an intensely personal experience. It’s also one that has not changed in decades, and one that has been profoundly affected by COVID, as shoppers continue to seek contactless channels. By both definitions, anything that can be done to personalise and enhance the fitting room experience will be memorable for the customer.
For the brand, this stage in the customer relationship is where the deepest connections are forged: shoppers who are given a unique personal shopping experience at the point of trying on garments are likely to become long-term brand devotees who will engage with the retailer both online and offline. And as the retail landscape adjusts to prioritise smaller numbers of closer interactions with shoppers, investments in maximising both the brand and customer values of these intimate interactions should sit high on retailer’s priority lists.
It will be crucial, though, for that fitting room experience to stand out, and to allow the brand to tailor the technology to reflect the in-store experience they wish to create. A customer who experiences the same fitting room experience between two different locations, and two different brands, will not find it as memorable as if they had encountered something unique to one particular flagship.
This problem of differentiation is one that the technology industry has typically tried to solve through limited configuration, but with so many retailers now implementing the same strategies to quickly accommodate post-pandemic reality, the limits of configuration are likely to become apparent – making it obvious that shopping in one brand’s locations will be much like shopping in another’s, and removing much of the drive towards physical sales that the retail industry needs to re-establish itself.
It is also a problem that Modern Mirror, a New York City-headquartered fashion technology company, set out to address with the bespoke hardware, software, and experience that make up its Avant-Garde Fitting System (or AFS).
For the shopper, the AFS manifests itself as a complete transformation of the in-store fitting room in a way that’s tailored for every brand and every space. It allows visitors to virtually try-on a complete range of meticulously-rendered garments – more inventory than can ever be held on-site – using an interactive, personalised avatar that precisely reflects them, and delivering a shopping experience that’s not just enhanced by technology, but enabled by it.
“The level of detail and luxury that Modern Mirror are working towards is light years ahead of the competition,” says Maria Grachvogel. “The experience when the client comes in for her initial ‘imaging’. The fact that the image represents the client completely, not only in measurements, but also with fine detail, hair, movements, and poses – as if it were an actual mirror. Modern Mirror are really pushing the boundaries and thinking about the customer experience holistically.”
For designers and brand owners like Grachvogel, the AFS is a compelling package, bundling a fully unique customer experience in completely bespoke brand-appropriate dressing. Behind that experience, though, sits a raft of custom technology supported by process and cultural change.
For capturing the customer’s measurements and characteristics, Modern Mirror’s fitting rooms incorporate a high-performance 360-degree body and motion capture hardware – which the company advertises as boasting sub-millimetre precision and millisecond capture times. But as the label suggests, virtual fitting of entire collections requires both 3D bodies and 3D garments to clothe them in, and it’s here that the question of how to deliver outstanding physical retail experiences shifts from front-end practicalities to back-end processes.
When it comes to generating 3D garments at scale, to the finite degree of accuracy and performance that new retail experiences like these will demand, those back-end processes are where many brands digital transformation strategies have stalled. 3D has been deployed in mostly disconnected ways within fashion, and despite the demand for more styles than ever to be created digitally or digitised after the face, the industry has struggled to connect its 3D initiatives in a way that serves both in-house and customer-facing objectives with a shared asset pool.
And for a luxury brand, whose customers are not accustomed to compromise, a virtual fitting experience will require 3D assets that capture all the characteristics of the real garment – from high resolution textures to accurate drape, movement, and other physical and aesthetic behaviours.
So does the promise of a standout digital fitting room – a way to turn a physical retail location into a bona fide destination – fall at the same hurdle? If it relied solely on technology bought off the rack it might. But this is another area that Modern Mirror is seeking to address.
Modern Mirror employs fashion industry veterans across design and patternmaking as well as in technology development and deployment, which allows the company to offer service layer: uplifting existing flat designs into 3D without relying on post-manufacturing photogrammetry, which would not cater to the requirements of a digital fitting room where the garment needs to respond accurately to motion. The company’s in-house team has even successfully recreated garments in 3D for which the original patterns reside in the supply chain.
As retail’s uneven rebound from the pandemic continues, this combination of fashion expertise and bespoke technology could prove to be a model that the industry chooses to follow. Not only would the approach that Modern Mirror has taken deliver unique retail experiences at a time when customers need a reason to return to stores, but it could also unlock the possibilities of shared online and in-store access to the fabled “infinite aisle” of online shopping in a way that accommodates the curated experience that brands want their customers to have. What starts as the virtual try-on of a single garment in-store, with the support of a brand associate, can then become a bespoke runway show online – staged for just a single customer – with only their avatar populating the catwalk.
Whether we are talking about future-ready fitting rooms or any other in-store technology, the common requirement will be for every entrypoint to lead towards the same everlasting customer journey. Today, as the world reckons with post-pandemic life, those entrypoints are as vital as they are ever going to be, which places huge emphasis on the need for the technology they use (and the backend systems and processes that support them) to be flexible enough to fit into pop-up stores, and open enough to be easily integrated into sales, inventory management, and even future design and development systems and workflows.
But for this cohesive vision to be realised, brands and retailers that are investing in futureproofing and differentiating their retail strategies will need to find the right technology and service partner – one that blends fashion expertise with the right tools to create retail experiences that simply can’t be bought off the rack.
About our partner: Modern Mirror is a fashion technology business creating seamless, intelligent virtual fit experiences for the luxury fashion industry servicing not only consumers, but also designers, manufacturers and retailers. Modern Mirror provides a high-touch customer experience while providing support throughout your organisation with deployment, implementation, training, and bespoke services that integrate with your design team’s production processes and workflow. Its Avant-Garde Fitting System immerses customers in your brand’s identity, bringing clients, garments, and environments to life in 3D.