In fashion, products have long digital lives. Concepts are experimented with in digital sketches, inspired by trends that are digitally gathered. Critical choices are made based on digital prototypes and samples. Collaboration between technical development and sourcing happens in digital solutions. And digital, on-demand manufacturing is bridging one of the last remaining analogue steps in what’s otherwise becoming a fully digital, end-to-end design, development, and production process.

This digitalisation was, of course, taking place before the pandemic, but it’s assumed a greater level of importance over the last two years. Not just because it provides a greater degree of visibility into – and control over – the products we make, but because it unlocks the ability for brands and their partners to build new experiences and connections from a single common building block: a digital asset that represents a physical end product to a sufficient degree of precision that facilitates both creative and commercial decision-making.

And as we have seen recently, the apparel and footwear industries have begun to push the boundaries of just how much additional value those digital assets can have when smart solutions are architected around them. They can be taken into marketing, as enhanced replacements for product photography; they can be sold in their own right as digital goods; and they can be used to simulate fit and performance before a single stitch is sewn.

One digital asset: many possibilities.

Not all of those possibilities have been universally achieved just yet, but over the course of COVID a realisation has dawned on the industry: the more products are created digitally, and imbued with digital identities that transcend the different stages of their lifecycles, the more of these opportunities are unlocked – whether they are experiences we’ve already identified, or ones that are currently unforeseen.

Connected products provide a foundation from which new and unforeseen fashion retail experiences can be built.

Another inevitable conclusion flows from this: the brands that have the most complete archives of digital assets, and the broadest stable of digital methods, will be the ones that are able to not only transform the way they work today, but also react the fastest to new challenges and new opportunities. And the reverse is also true: the brands that haven’t already begun to create those digital building blocks will be the ones that fall behind.

But even the most comprehensive digital lifecycles currently have an endpoint – one that begins right when the consumer journey starts.

Despite investing heavily in digitising product design, development, and manufacturing, the fashion industry has settled for losing all that control and visibility once a product makes its way into a retail channel and moves on to the consumer. Around – and certainly past – the point of transaction, what happens to a product, and the relationship the consumer has to it, is information that vanishes over a non-digital horizon.

That horizon is fashion’s next big target for digitisation. Not only as a way to tap into a huge reservoir of shopper engagement and consumer data that’s currently invisible, but also as the industry’s next digital building block – a way to create completely new experiences and forge entirely new channels that dramatically extend the digital lifecycle of products.

Creating object-level identities.

Just like the digital assets that are transforming existing product creation and manufacturing processes – and laying the groundwork for the future – extending the life of physical products past the point of sale will require brands to create individual digital objects. Not collections of objects at the SKU or shipment level, but digital identities that go right down to the individual garment or shoe.

This approach – which has a close analogue in object-oriented design in software – will allow for completely new solutions to be architected on top of the core principle that every garment has a unique digital identity that can be read from and written for to create new experiences for people who interact with, buy, and own those products.

Discover how Adidas makes use of connected products to deliver a transformative consumer experience.

Interestingly, the mechanics of adding object-level identifiers to individual products are not new. Discreet NFC tags can be embedded into some products, and QR codes can be attached to swing tags or packaging, and both of these allow for a specific item to be identified and interacted with. The real innovation lies in what experiences those interactions generate: what happens when someone browsing a brick-and-mortar store taps an NFC-enabled product with their smartphone, or opens their camera app to scan a QR code.

Those experiences are where Blue Bite, a company that also produces the mechanical components of connected products, has focused its efforts – connecting brands with consumers by transforming those connected products into platforms. The Blue Bite ecosystem allows brands to build personalised, interactive mobile experiences that consumers can open, without installing an app, to unlock a new, highly-scalable channel for engagement alongside a treasure trove of insights for the brand.

Why retail needs connected products.

Retailers and direct-to-consumer brands have long wanted to push the digital lifecycle past the point of sale, and to gather data and open channels of ongoing engagement with products as they are used. But the approach the industry has taken so far has been a patchwork of different methods and channels – workarounds for the fact that products stop being digital entities once they’re sold, and the connection the brand has worked to forge with the consumers who buy them is then lost.

And the same problem also exists around the point of sale. The in-store experiences that brands want to deliver are evolving, and consumers’ expectations for retail service and connection are higher than ever. Without item-level identity and visibility, those experiences and those expectations can only be addressed in a generalised way, which may have been an acceptable compromise in the past, but circumstances have changed to place greater emphasis on personal connections that maximise the potential of every visit to a physical store.

The Interline has spoken with numerous brands and retailers over the past year, and while footfall to brick-and-mortar locations is down, many of them are opening more retail stores regardless. Why? Because average basket values are higher than they have ever been. The volume of visitors may have decreased, but the profit that each guest generates has increased.

This, by extension, suggests that, when people are more immersed in the brand experience, and more engaged with the product after touching and interacting with it, they feel more comfortable making a purchase.

While physical retail has always excelled at creating that immersion, there is a clear opportunity to go further – using product-level identities and the interactions they enable to empower consumers to make informed decisions, and to drive an even higher level of performance from physical stores.

Today, finding out more about a product than in-store positioning and promotion can passively communicate is a proactive choice: a consumer must actively set out to investigate that product through different channels. If, instead, that product has a unique digital identity that the consumer can tap into, that act of discovery becomes immediate and unique stories can be instantly told, at the point at which a decision is being made – whether those stories relate to the material composition of a sneaker, or the hustle of the athlete who wears it.

But the same item-level identity also opens doors for the retailer themselves – not just for inventory management, but as a way to arm retail associates with information about the design, function, and journey of a product and to allow them to better communicate with, and sell to, customers.

And when those interactions are monitored, quantified, and analysed by using detailed dashboards and analytics like the ones Blue Bite has built on top of its connected product platform, the data horizon rapidly opens up. With no additional effort, the brand or retailer can quickly generate a picture of how browsing shoppers are interacting with particular products, how many of those prospective buyers go on to make a purchase, and a wide spectrum of other critical retail KPIs.

Crucially, that same level of insight can become available no matter where the product is stocked. Today retailers are able to perform limited proxies for this kind of analysis through their wholly-owned channels, but the life of a non-connected product becomes completely invisible if that product is sold in a department store, a pop-up concession, or even a secondary or circular marketplace. If that product is imbued with an item-level identity, the distinction between those channels all but ceases to matter.

Transcend current channels. Create new ones.

Today, ownership is framed as one-off, transactional event. A purchaser buys a product and, unless that product is returned, that journey between brand and consumer comes to an end.

The relatively simple act of adding a digital identity to that product has the potential to completely redefine the ownership journey. Consider the possibilities for immersive brand experiences that become available after a predefined period of ownership – from guidance on how to care for the product, to suggestions for new (and potentially subsidised) adventures the owner could embark on wearing it. In place of purchase receipts and arms-length loyal programmes, connected product can become an enduring link between the brand that created a product and the consumer that owns it, allowing the brand to experiment with new ways of maximising the lifetime value of that relationship.

And these post-sale activations and experiences can also benefit, using the Blue Bite platform, from the same KPI dashboards and measurement tools as pre-sale stories – breaking down the disconnect between the digital life of a product when it resides in the brand or retailer’s ecosystem, and its lifecycle once it belongs to the consumer. And that first-party information, without needing to be filtered through an intermediary, can be integrated directly into the brand’s CRM solution to build out a far more comprehensive picture of customer loyalty – one that stretches way past the point of sale.

But engagement and experiences are only part of the picture. With the building block that is object-level digital identity, products are also capable of becoming sales channels in their own right.

Rather than pushing new products to existing customers through Instagram or email – where they can follow or unsubscribe – item-level interactions provide you with the opportunity to capture consumers when they have the product in-hand. Consider a scenario where an owner who has extracted a lot of wear out of a particular garment, and who might now be ready for a new style (or even a repair service), is provided a promotion that’s personalised, timely, interactive, and that appears exactly when it’s needed.

In a market where consumers are increasingly looking to buy less – either through necessity or by choice – the ability to target a tailored offer to someone at the right time, sensitively, through an entirely new channel is already pulling far ahead of indirect channels, with an engagement rate of 15% compared to a traditional 0.3%.

At the same time, a product that has a digital identity can also communicate the journey it has taken to reach the retail store or the consumer’s wardrobe. And implicit in this are the possibilities of genuinely quantifiable authenticity (solving the luxury industry’s significant counterfeiting problem) and traceability of product origins and provenance.

The impact this could have on sustainability is significant: as well as providing greater confidence that a product adheres to the standards its label bears, product experiences can also become a conduit for fostering more sustainable behaviours – encouraging consumers to return, re-use, recycle or resell items that have passed their expected lifespan. Or, for brands that are aiming for greater circularity within their own store and service ecosystems, knowing the identity and post-sale journey of every individual product would allow the consumer to be notified of repair services at appropriate intervals.

“Creating connected garments [fuelled by Blue Bite] empowers us to deliver the story of every garment directly to the consumer,” says fashion designer Pablo Erroz, who we spoke to in researching this feature, and who makes use of the Blue Bite ecosystem to add a digital identity to their products. “This contributes to the goal of ‘buy less, but better’ and allows us to make a true sustainability impact.”

Discover how Pablo Erroz makes use of item-level connected products to take radical action on sustainability.

That objective of “buying less” is also one that the industry is currently wrestling with in an arms-length fashion. Retailers today are hesitant to commit to the secondary market because of the risk that leading social commerce third parties – like Depop and Poshmark – will dominate that space, creating the same lack of post-sale visibility that currently exists in the first-hand market, where products are sold through marketplaces and retailers.

Here, again, item-level identity could provide a solution: a way to take ownership of the circular economy without necessarily having to own the channels themselves. As a digitally connected product moves from one owner to another, no matter the platform used to make the exchange, the door remains open for the brand to track the product journey, and to engage a completely new class of consumer that it previously had no access to.

These new consumers can also be targeted with focused, interactive experiences at the point the product changes hands and beyond, carefully curated and timed based on logic and contextual triggers to achieve maximum engagement.

Start with the object; architect the future.

Predicting what the future has in store for fashion and retail is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. Uncertainty still dominates the headlines, and novel opportunities emerge so quickly that only the best-prepared can capitalise on them.

From a technology perspective, no brand can build solutions to problems it does not yet have, or create ways to seize new possibilities nobody can see. But that difficult context is precisely why an object-oriented retail strategy is likely to be the right approach, because it allows any brand or retailer to start creating the building blocks it’s going to need to respond to whatever comes around the corner.

Fashion cannot know, today, what journey its products are going to embark on tomorrow. But by taking a bottom-up approach – connecting digital information with physical products – the industry can prepare for any eventuality at the same time as creating uncommonly compelling experiences across the entire product lifecycle, right here, right now.

For more inspiration on the possibilities that connected products and an object-oriented retail strategy offer, check out the following case studies from leading brands:

About our partner:  Blue Bite connects digital information to physical things. Our patented platform empowers creators to build dynamic digital experiences and channel them through physical items using technologies like NFC, QR and geofencing. Because physical things are made smarter, users can access valuable content with just a tap or scan of a smartphone.