This article was originally published in our PLM Report 2023 – the definitive instalment in fashion’s longest-running dedicated PLM market analysis. To read other opinion pieces, exclusive editorials, and detailed profiles and interviews with key vendors, download the full PLM Report 2023 completely free of charge and ungated.

Key Takeaways:

  • Fashion companies must build data foundations that allow them to react quickly in an unpredictable economic climate. But product development is dynamic, and sharing data from dynamic engines in static spreadsheets is not capitalising on IT investments.
  • Retailers must harness the staggering amount of data they generate to build insights to maintain their competitive advantages in both actionable transparency and time/cost-saving efficiencies.
  • Democratizing data promotes accountability, transparency, and the much-needed context for informed decision-making. Join the mission to democratize product data and give your cross-functional teams real-time access to product data to make better-informed decisions around design, production, marketing, and sales.

The fashion industry is a complex and data-rich ecosystem. From the initial concept to the final product, many steps are involved, and each step generates valuable information. We live in the past, present, and future daily. We juggle the current and future data sets and reconcile the previous ones to gain insights to keep the cycle going. Like most businesses, the industry backs into technology to get more with less by maximizing resources, time, and money to manage the multitude of moving pieces that is today’s business reality.

During our 20+ years in the fashion industry, we have seen many retail companies make significant IT investments in PLM, PDM, MP&A, CRM, ERP, PIM, and DAM systems — to keep pace with digital transformation, AI, and business intelligence resources — they mistakenly view these as discrete, individual investments which are simply reinforcing existing siloed workstreams.

Why invest in all this technology for product development, merchandising, samples management, content management, etc. but share data from these dynamic engines in static spreadsheets? Product development is dynamic. So, how is sharing stale spreadsheets capitalizing on the IT investment? The product development end-to-end workflow is not linear. It is fluid, and there is considerable overlap in various teams’ need to be kept up-to-the-minute with product changes. Otherwise, the consumer engagement strategies are often out-of-date with the wrong product, dropped styles, and offering no visibility into inventory levels and business liabilities. We know how costly – in terms of both time and money – these issues are for data management teams, who spend hours cutting and pasting stale data sets from across the organization.

Amongst the many changes in today’s business environment there is a new and very important stakeholder – the ‘data scientist’ – who fashion companies need to embrace. Don’t be fooled by the title, they are highly creative individuals who are as passionate about fashion as we are. As for us, we love technology and fashion and consider ourselves process geeks with a strong sense of style. Regardless of labels, we are firm believers in the value of sharing transparent, easily understandable, and actionable data.

According to Jonathan Cornelissen, author of The Democratzation of Data Science in Harvard Business Review, “Intelligent people find new uses for data science every day. Still, despite the explosion of interest in the data collected by just about every sector of American business – from financial companies . . . and the government – many organizations continue to relegate data-science knowledge to a small number of employees.” He stresses that this practice is a mistake, and we agree. Share it. Use it! Let’s stop the spreadsheet madness. “These days every industry is drenched in data, and the organizations that succeed are those that most quickly make sense of their data in order to adapt to what’s coming. The best way to enable fast discovery and deeper insights is to disperse data science expertise across an organization.”

Retailers face challenges harnessing the staggering amount of data they generate to build insights. According to IDC (International Data Corporation), “By 2026, retail will be one of the top 5 industries in data generation — exceeding banking, manufacturing, and healthcare.” So, the time to act is NOW to understand how to manage, harness, and democratize data. And here is why.

The IDC foresees more retailers recognizing the need for data automation and integration to maintain competitive advantage. Further, they note that innovative companies already see data as a product that cross-functional teams can manage in order to drive revenue and improve customer engagement.

We know that identifying key business drivers for content creation requires enormous effort and coordination. Yet, we often see the all-too-common example of stale data generating costly delays and budget overruns as the wrong product is photographed for customer engagement campaigns. Teams work without critical insights and strive to create content based on outdated information and hearsay. Worse, trends change, and products are often dropped last minute. When changes are not caught in time, the consumer sees creative assets featuring products that have been dropped or are unavailable because they are still sitting in the factory or on a boat idling off the port of Long Beach, CA.

Have you ever gone into a store, asked about a product, and been told to buy it elsewhere? We have. During a holiday trip in Europe, we spent time shopping. A giant billboard showcased a jacket we wanted to try on. We went directly to the sales associate and said that we wanted to purchase the jacket featured in the image outside the store. The salesperson told us that men’s products were not sold in that store and directed us to a department store across the square. So off we went, only to be disappointed to find that, while men’s underwear was on sale, the jacket was MIA.

Moral of the story: The image and placement did their job; they got us into the store. But the customer experience went downhill from there, not only was the jacket not available, no effort was made to help locate one – either online or at another location. We left feeling frustrated. The sales associate should have been able to quickly look up the creative asset, see what product was featured, and then provide direction. If they had asked us where we lived, we could have ordered the product online and had it waiting for us when we got home.

For many years, other industries have embraced technology to restructure excessively laborious work processes, which proved effective in improving everyday operations. However, the pandemic raised the stakes and taught us that agility and technology are essential. For retail and fashion, digital transformation initiatives stress the urgency to implement strategies to optimize data and contextualize the information for competitive advantages.

Fashion brands tout their “embrace of digital transformation,” but their technology investments are almost exclusively externally focused (e.g., e-commerce platforms, social media, and interactive retail experiences). While these efforts are essential, brands must think more broadly and invest in technology to motivate and engage employees and empower them to develop, produce, and market the most innovative and inspiring products.

There is a real need for a data solution that can contextualize product data by capturing a style’s metadata, samples, content strategies, creative assets, in-market execution, and performance in one place accessible to all the relevant departments. Many systems manage this end-to-end product life cycle, but it is challenging to put that volume of data created in context, as a product goes on its journey from concept to archive. This is why we evangelize democratizing product/style data so teams can easily “follow the style” and effectively manage departmental, executive, and consumer expectations.

We strongly advise unlocking workflow silos and turning them on their side to create a pipeline where information can flow from department to department. This seamless flow of information is critically important in complex, creative-driven organizations because so much is riding on each step of the design-market-archive process. Companies are investing in aggregation tools to create data hubs for business intelligence, but they need to take it one step further. They need to share beyond the VP level and provide contextualized data for all business workflows.

The lack of tools and resources is the true culprit of data staying locked in silos and not being used to its full potential. Providing teams with the tools they need to do their jobs correctly promotes accountability, transparency, and the much-needed context for informed decision-making. By democratizing data, groups can let systems do the work, allowing the time/ space for the talent to identify trends, perform analysis, and grow their skillsets within the company. Upskilling and reskilling your current workforce is commonly regarded as a great way to retain talent and improve employee satisfaction, ultimately providing a competitive advantage.

As a final note, an issue that doesn’t get enough attention when brands talk about their investments in “technology”, is the impact of technology on employees. We see a serious pipeline issue if brands continue to expect employees to operate in an analog world of siloed departments, juggling massive spreadsheet outputs from multiple disjointed data sources. When putting together a cohesive story based on the available data becomes too much of a burden, employees will burn out. It can be detrimental to the company culture when team members feel like they are not only not set up for success but expressly set up to fail. The result is high employee turnover and a critical loss of institutional knowledge.

In closing, our view is that the competitive advantages of data aggregation and integration fall into two broad areas: actionable transparency and time/cost-saving efficiencies. On the first point, we know that all modern companies claim to be “data-driven”; however, many leaders in the C-suite (executive, financial, marketing, merchandising, and operations) we speak with feel overwhelmed by the amount of data in their organization. Most of these leaders tell us they don’t feel better informed or more in control because of the data— in fact, they feel the opposite. They are desperate for a simple way to turn all that data into usable and actionable information.

We urge you to join our mission to democratize product data and give your cross-functional teams real-time access to product data to make better-informed decisions around design, production, marketing, and sales. We know f rom experience that teams working with dynamic and normalized aggregation platforms are more engaged and feel valued in their roles because they spend more time thinking and less time searching, validating, and wrestling spreadsheets. As we noted earlier, the time to act is NOW to manage your data and harness it to its fullest potential.

This article was written exclusively for The Interline by Michael R. Robinson (Co-Founder & Principal), Sophia M. Schillace (Senior Manager), Camilla Poli (Marketing Consultant), and Trina Foster (Advisor & Investor), of Manner Solutions.