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.

Data: the most valuable channel between brands and consumers, and how it’s being hijacked.

In the current retail landscape, reputation is everything. Surveys suggest that, while clothing sales are down a huge amount during COVID-19’s enforced cull on discretionary spending, the consumers who are shopping are aligning themselves with the brands and retailers who behave in a way they can respect.

In this sense, Amazon cannot catch a break – for reasons all of its own making. Over the last few weeks, these roundups have pointed to multiple instances of the retail giant having to be taken to task for not safeguarding the welfare of its employees during the pandemic, and it emerged this week that the company is seemingly using data to try and stamp out the potential for employee unionisation in its Whole Foods stores.

But believe it or not, this is not the worst thing Amazon has been accused of doing with data this week. In an expose published by the Wall Street Journal (a non-paywalled summary is available here) it was revealed that Amazon employees have been disregarding public policy and skimming data from third party brands sold through the Amazon marketplace, then using these insights to develop competing products.

This is one of those conspiracy theories that has long been whispered in retail circles – especially when Amazon started selling a private label wool trainer that looked suspiciously like an Allbirds shoe. The suggestion behind closed doors has been that brands who refused to sell on Amazon were taking that stance not just because they wanted to control their own direct to consumer channel – although this was clearly a factor – but because they feared they would be giving away sensitive data to a competitor that could easily undercut them on price and reach.

While this story has not been explicitly confirmed – and isn’t likely to be – The Interline is not surprised to hear it. The complex cloud of data points that originate from every flutter in consumer demand and behaviour is arguably retail’s most valuable currency, and like Pandora’s box, expecting a company that holds, aggregates, and analyses that information not to look at it themselves is denying a basic impulse.

That being said, this is still retail’s ultimate transgression. And where once this sort of hijacking would have been done in a single department store – where the owner’s private label would quietly introduce a very similar, but more keenly priced alternative to a concession brand – today it can be done on a global scale, in real-time.

For the sake of clarity, The Interline does not believe this kind of data-spying would apply to Amazon Web Services, on whose public cloud infrastructure several popular fashion and retail platforms (as well as most of the apps we use in our personal lives) are hosted. As damning a story as this is for Amazon’s marketplace arm, a similar accusation being levelled at AWS would be business-ending, as public cloud hosting is built on a guarantee of redundancy and security.

For any brand, though – whether they sell on Amazon or not – one thing is clear: customer data is an asset that should be jealously guarded.

Why? This is a topic The Interline intends to tackle in detail, but in essence the age of intuition is over. Realistically, it’s been over for some time. Buying, designing, and merchandising are all processes that need to be reactive, responsive, and insight-led if they are to keep pace with the market. Look for more coverage on the new era of market intelligence and informed decision-making very soon.

And for a prime example of where a brand appeared to go with its gut instead, and misread the market as a consequence, look no further than another news item from earlier this week.

In the search for new channels, fashion makes bigger strides into gaming.

Videogames are big business. Globally, gaming generated more than $150 billion in revenue last year, from an audience that falls predominantly in the 18-50 age bracket, and which has a far more even gender split than many people expect.

Far from being a solitary activity – The Interline team is young enough to include several gamers, but old enough to remember a time before they could be played online – videogaming is a communal, social affair – whether the game in question has a multiplayer element, or simply because an online community has been built around it.

The largest eSports competition to date attracted 60 million viewers (only 40 million fewer than this year’s Super Bowl) and during the global lockdown, a new kind of community has sprung up around Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a breezy, social, life-simulation game for the Nintendo Switch, which is currently topping charts.

Animal Crossing has always been quite an idiosyncratic game series – this is the fifth mainline entry in the franchise – and it has, until recently, flown under the radar. So why is it troubling the mainstays of the gaming world, and why should it matter to you?

The former question is easy to answer. The Nintendo Switch is itself a massive hit, finding its way into the hands of celebrities, influencers, businesspeople, children, and the entire cross-section of society thanks to its portability and charming software catalogue. Where previous handhelds like the Nintendo DS line and Sony’s PlayStation Vita would mainly be in the hands of kids and younger adults, commuters – when there was still commuting to be done – were as likely to see an executive holding a Switch as they were a schoolgirl designing a new level in Super Mario Maker.

The second is a little more complex, but the hard-hitting version is this: Net-A-Porter showcased the spring / summer collections of several Chinese designers in-game, and since that initiative earlier this month, other brands have continued to use Animal Crossing to reach the gold-dust Gen Z audience, with brands like Peacebird running competitions that allowed players to win real clothes.

Source: Acronym

But while this is a very current example of the market potential for consumer outreach and fashion promotion through videogames, it’s by no means new. Last year’s Death Stranding included collaborations with techwear brand Acronym and eyewear brand J.F. Rey – itself not a new trend for Japanese games, where Final Fantasy characters have appeared as digital models for luxury brands very recently.

The relationship between in-game “cosmetics” (visual accessories and skins for characters and items) and real-world “drops” is also striking: they have planned scarcity, brand collaboration and social media influence all in common. And as the Getty museum’s initiative to bring real-world art into Animal Crossing demonstrates, physical objects inherit virtual desirability almost automatically.

But while Animal Crossing represents the grassroots approach, videogames can also offer licensing and promotional opportunities on a grand scale. Just yesterday, rapper Travis Scott started a virtual tour and audiovisual spectacle inside Fortnite (arguably the game most widely-known among non-gamers) that reached, in one evening, 12 million people.

As of right now, neither Animal Crossing nor Fortnite offers the social commerce channel that Western brands badly need in the current crisis, but fashion would be foolish to ignore both the near and long-term opportunities videogames present.