Key Takeaways:

  • In today’s retail market, it’s crucial to test and validate products before release – incorporating time for adjustments and optimisations based on consumer feedback, and ensuring that the final product meets customer expectations.
  • By incorporating product testing into the product development cycle, brands can build confidence in their assortments and increase the chances of success in a competitive landscape. Whether it’s validating a concept, testing prototypes in the field, or trialing various marketing approaches, product testing provides valuable insights that enable brands to make informed decisions.
  • To navigate the challenges of the current retail climate, brands need a structured and solution-based approach to product testing. This includes having a centralised location for testing, an integrated product tester community, and data-backed confidence in the final product experience.

Surrounded by unpredictability, product creators of everything from high fashion to performance gear are looking for new ways to build confidence in what they bring to market. And with consumers being the ultimate arbiters of success, the mandate is strong for a structured, solution-based approach to product testing on tap. The Interline and MESH01 analyse how product creators and customer communities can collaborate to provide the certainty needed to turn every product into a potential hero.

Even at the best of times, retail is not kind to unoptimised products. For as long as there have been marketplaces, high streets, and malls, shoppers have been able to vote with their feet and their wallets. For millennia, consumers have taken their discretionary spending to the storefront that has assembled the right product mix, showcased it at the right time, and priced it correctly to both present value and pocket some profit.

The history of retail – from open markets at the nexus of historic trade routes to the automated warehouses that prop up the titans of eCommerce – has always been about finding ways to keep bottling that lightning. And the best retailers and direct-to-consumer brands are built on continually capturing the confidence that what they put on the shelves (physical or virtual) is going to be more compelling than the competition’s assortments.

But 2023 is hardly the best of times. Because of a pretty historic confluence of consumer, political, economic, and legislative forces, the tapestry of different variables that determine whether a product is right has been comprehensively rewoven. And the right fit for the market today, when you’re making urgent choices that will govern the success of one or more future products, may not be the right fit by the time those products actually reach shoppers – if indeed they really, quantifiably matched consumer’s desires in the first place.

If you’re reading The Interline, you’ve probably experienced at least some measure of the impact of that new market hostility in recent memory. Maybe you found yourself sat on historic volumes of excess inventory over the holidays. Perhaps you’ve wrestled with supply chain friction that’s slowly eroding your margins. You could have watched consumers migrate towards cheaper or better-performing alternatives. Or you could even have seen internal struggles to justify spending on R&D and new product innovation as a corollary cost-cutting measure.

The specifics will be unique to your business, but based on conversations that The Interline and testing solution provider MESH01 – our partner for this story – have had with brands and retailers in different markets, the sentiment is universal: a feeling of hesitance and uncertainty. The road to market just doesn’t feel as clearly-paved as it used to, and that’s making it harder for everyone to build confidence in their overall assortments, the individual products that make them up, and even their top-level brand directions.

For brands and retailers that primarily sense, rather than measure, consumer expectation, feedback, and feeling, that sense of hesitance is justified. Now is not the time to be speculating blindly about what to bring to market. Inflation may be falling, but consumers in the USA are still potentially staring down a $700 hole in their monthly budgets compared to 2021. In the UK, too, wage rises may be meeting inflation, but unemployment is rising. In the EU, growth forecasts are being reined in as the winds of economic downturn start to bite. And some American household names are acting early on these indicators, rearchitecting their business around striking an extremely careful balance between fashion and value.

And while all this might not guarantee that people will buy less, it does mean that consumers are set to become even more selective about what they buy, and more discerning and ruthless about what they return.

So, depending on the market segment you cater to – apparel, footwear, outdoor wear, running gear, workwear, golfing apparel and many more – consumers applying greater scrutiny to what they spend will require you to be equally selective about what you make.

Whether your consumers are judging your products based on their proximity to trend, their comfort, their wind resistance or moisture-wicking, their protection on the job site, or their performance on the course or the slopes, they are educated and passionate enough to know what attributes they want, and in what combination.

And this presents just as much of a challenge as it does an opportunity. Because you could wait until your products are released to determine whether your target market will buy them or exercise their ancient right to vote with their wallets. But allowing those consumers to instead drive and inform the direction of those products, while that direction can still be changed, could be the key to building the confidence and the certainty that everything you bring to market has the best possible chance of being a hero product.

How heroes are made

In the marketing lexicon, a hero product is the one you want to secure the biggest share of attention. It likely represents a new launch, the result of extensive research and development, or something timed to coincide with an explosion of consumer interest (see: this summer’s Barbie-mania).

But this is too narrow a definition for today. And for product creators and consumers, every product, across the entire assortment, has the potential to be a hero if it’s brought to market having already been validated and optimised as being exactly what shoppers want.

For the consumer community, a hero product doesn’t even have to be something innovative. It can be something that’s right on-trend. Something with an unexpected level of quality for the price. Something better-fitting. Something more durable, or more breathable.

For product creators and the brands they work for, a hero product is one that stands the best possible chance of selling through at full price and not being returned after taking a long and tortuous route to market. It’s a product that’s perfectly-calibrated for a target market. It’s a product that meets heightened sustainability and ESG targets. It’s part of a collection that represents their values and heritage, at the same time as pushing the company to new levels. It’s products that all but market themselves. It’s products that make the right margin.

These metrics have all always been important, but today external factors have reduced the market’s willingness to accept compromises on both sides. Consumers can’t afford to buy – or keep – ill-fitting, poorly-performing, low-quality products, and brands, as a consequence, can’t afford to keep making them.

So no matter the market segment, or the primary metric by which a product will be judged, the universal need to make exceptional products is translating into a strong mandate for a codified, turnkey way to turn consumer sentiment into complete confidence in every product a brand brings to market.

This is something that MESH01 has identified as the key yardstick for success among its enterprise customers, because pre-market confidence in products provides brands with the knowledge that they can put the full weight of their creative, commercial and promotional teams – and their partners’ manufacturing capacity – behind those products. And in the reverse case, where a product is identified as not meeting the market’s expectations, organisations can shift those vital resources to where they can find more certainty and less risk.

Testing matters

As long as there have been selling channels, product creators have asked themselves whether what they’re making and using to populate those channels is what people actually want to buy. This may be a more acute and more urgent question today, but the key point of interrogation remains the same. Am I creating the right thing? Will this deliver an exceptional, memorable product experience?

But for a long time, businesses have needed to settle for abstracted, distant and incomplete answers to that question, or for surveys and opinion collection on small and self-selected sample sizes. After the advent of social media and other digital channels, a lot of planning and forecasting processes started to blend scraped trend and engagement data with intuition, but still a significant amount of products reach the market based on educated guesswork, not confidence in their success.

A much better and more appropriate approach, especially in the current retail climate, is to test the fit between a product and its target market before the key commitment is made – whether that means validating a concept prior to sampling, testing a third-stage prototype out in the field, or trialling different approaches to attribute-driven marketing to find the one that resonates.

But because of how modern fashion supply chains and in-house processes are set up, though, that kind of market testing has proven difficult to do reactively – to fit into the short windows of time that different steps in the product lifecycle, many of which run concurrently and need to be reconciled later, permit.

Brand-managed testing panels also have their own long setup times (which increase depending on the specificity of the target demographic) while brands have extremely narrow windows to gather and act on the data those panels generate. It’s little use, for example, to learn that your new concept is missing a key feature, or is not being offered in what could be the most popular colourway, if you can’t act on those insights before the product goes into production.

And even for organisations that have ready access to consumer testing panels (or that can spin them up quickly enough to factor their conclusions into their pre-production processes) the databases and systems used to coordinate them, and to manage surveys for complex assortments across multiple categories, are typically unstructured and too inefficient for product creation. And, crucially, these panels are forced to occur at a set point in the product lifecycle – an approach that might make sense for one product category, but not another.

In MESH01’s experience, it is by no means unusual for a brand to use more than ten different homegrown systems, spreadsheets, databases, mail distribution lists and other tools to manage unstructured product testing. And those loose ecosystems are often maintained by small teams or individuals who coordinate product testing alongside other responsibilities, meaning that they tend to be disconnected from key enterprise systems.

This approach, which provides some market insight but struggles to translate that into institutional confidence, stands in stark contrast to the need for every product to stand the best chance of becoming a hero. That demands a more formalised approach, a more agile structure, and a combination of software and service that can provide:

  • A single, centralised location for product testing that’s integrated to the rest of the enterprise technology ecosystem, allowing testing results to be rolled back into design, development, and ongoing prototyping, and sampling.
  • A large, integrated product tester community, on tap, that can quickly be segmented into discrete or overlapping micro-audiences on a granular level.
  • A single source of data-backed confidence in product experience that can inform merchandising and marketing.
  • The ability to manage testing in a flexible way, at different stages of the product lifecycle, from concept validation, to performance and field testing, and into downstream communications and engagement.

This was the remit that MESH01 took on board in building its testing solutions, which household names like Nike, The North Face, Lululemon, Target, Athleta, Carhartt and many more now use to build product-level confidence when, and where, it provides the most value for them. From street style to mountain-face grip, and from comfort to performance on-piste, many of the world’s biggest and most-recognisable brands have achieved profound results by transforming the way they test – not just as a safeguard against difficult market conditions, but as one of the primary engines for establishing certainty.

image courtesy of mesh01

But the real key, for brands like yours, is not just how those big names approach market testing with the help of technology, but who within those organisations is able to influence it and extract value from it.

The new product creators

And the answer to that question is: almost anyone. Unlike more rigid and less coordinated testing strategies, implementing a testing solution on the scale of MESH01 is not primarily an exercise in deploying software, but in supporting and empowering your product creator community.

Consider the typical product lifecycle, and the number of gates and gatekeepers it touches. From creative design to material development, technical design to downstream wholesale and marketing teams, creating a hero product is a collaborative effort, with all those different disciplines pulling together in the same direction.

Unlike legacy product testing, which has tended to remain in a narrow set of hands, success in today’s retail market is likely to depend instead on providing each of those audiences with the same degree of confidence that what they’re collaborating to create is what the market actually wants and needs.

image courtesy of mesh01

In practice, this means giving a broad cohort of new audiences access to the capabilities of a modern, agile, product testing platform like MESH01 – whether that access is direct, or whether it takes the form of surfacing insights from that platform to help ensure that each of these personas is able to tap into the same confidence that has been built from customer feedback.

So whether the right stage to test is early – during range building or development – or late, as a tool for optimising the finer points of how a product is positioned, the value will stem from being able to use a platform like MESH01 to capture the voice of your customer (not a generic consumer) at a moment where your creators have the flexibility to act on their input.

Creating new possibilities from confidence

At a time when circumstances are stacked against brands and retailers, there is, then, a significant return on investment to be gained from rethinking product testing at both the process and the solution level. But where the value of that newfound confidence is best measured is going to be as unique to each brand as their approach to product creation often is.

As we’ve already suggested, as a starting point, ask yourself: at which point in a typical product lifecycle would my brand and my teams benefit the most from direct, timely, feedback from the customer community? At which stage would that product testing input create the most positive impact on product outcomes?

The possibility space is vast. The answer, for your brand, might be soliciting the input of a granular cohort of consumers who recommend improving the waterproof treatment applied to a material you intend to use across a collection of rucksacks and running caps. Or it might be a chance to optimise the way you describe the graphics on a casual summer shirt through your direct to consumer and wholesale channels and partnerships.

But an equally important question buds from that one: what could you build, and what might you change, if you had data-backed confidence at the product level? What choices would you make about diversifying your main assortment? Would you consolidate a collection around top performers? Would you change size grading? Rebalance colourways?

And looking further down the line, how much of your product mix should be evergreen and how much should be new? What shape does that newness really need to take? Does the market want new functionality? New materials? New silhouettes? Do your customers want you to expand into new sports and new lifestyle categories? Do they expect your next collection to meet new performance or sustainability targets?

For industry segments that thrive on R&D and innovation – especially footwear and performance wear, where engineering and tooling are big up-front investments that must be amortised across multiple different products over time – brands have, again, needed to settle for narrow answers to these questions. And as a consequence, innovation in some or all of these areas might have stalled. But by removing the guesswork from the equation, every category can start to de-risk innovation and increase the chances that the core inventions – and the individual products that incorporate them – are as well-calibrated as they can be for the real demands of real customers.

And for industries that are increasingly – and rightly – being held to account for their environmental footprint and the volume of waste they generate in different global markets, fashion and consumer products have an even stronger drive to incorporate consumer product testing into the product lifecycles. Every product made without that input will, after all, have a higher chance of winding up being discounted or disposed of, and every R&D, design, development and production cycle that consumes finite, non-renewable resources should be directed towards final products that have the strongest chance of success.

image courtesy of mesh01

In times of crisis, many industries – retail, footwear, and apparel among them – shift into a protection mode, prioritising cost reductions and maximising efficiency. But this shift is often counterproductive, not least when it leads to further separation between brand and consumer, and when it pushes an industry further towards forecasting and intuition. In practice, that move – while it might save some money – is likely to lead to an increase in waste, markdowns, and a loss of market position because brands become less able to react to fast-changing market conditions, and because they lose the ability to incorporate the customer voice into their products’ journeys to market.

Instead, a more pragmatic way to react to unfavourable market conditions is to provide the full spectrum of product creators with the ability to infuse their products with the voice of their specific customers in a systematised way – using a solution that centralises information and action, but distributes and democratises the tools for gathering that data.

And this drive is something that MESH01 has positioned itself ahead of, with the ability to integrate with the tools and environments that the full spectrum of modern product creators already uses – from PLM to 3D simulation and eCommerce platforms. Because these are the places that product creators are, right now, making the choices that could turn your next collection of products into heroes, ready to meet a hostile market head-on, armed with the confidence that can only come from flexible, structured, product testing.

About MESH01: Best-in-class testing solutions for every phase of product creation. Purpose-built platform technology, relevant and reliable product testers and trusted expertise for every stage of your product development cycle. Generate actionable insights efficiently throughout the product lifecycle and create winning products.