Home Featured A Changing Breed: Digital Platforms in the Retail Ecosystem

A Changing Breed: Digital Platforms in the Retail Ecosystem


In today’s exclusive, WhichPLM’s Founder & CEO shares his vision on the not-too-distant future of Fashion Technology. Mark’s career has spanned constant technology innovation and, he believes, the future is contingent on collaboration between all parties …even if that means the competition.

Brands and retailers have to rethink their digital business models, as competition from digital platform natives continue to attack and erode the profitability of traditional business models. In turn, these changes are making B2B technology vendors rethink their own solutions and how these can be made compatible with new, emerging platform-ecosystems that are being developed by the brands and retailers themselves.

Already we are starting to see the emergence of new digital platforms coming from traditional PLM vendors that are reinventing their solution stacks to support brands and retailers who simply don’t have the capabilities to develop software platforms in-house. We are also seeing new businesses that have developed modules that you would typically associate with PLM solutions.

So, what is a digital platform-ecosystem? In simple terms, a platform is an open architecture with rules of governance designed to facilitate interactions between multiple solution providers, modules, and data sets coming from inside and outside the traditional RFA (retail, footwear and apparel) technology stack. Unlike traditional models that operate in the fashion value-chain, new open architecture platform-ecosystems will allow third party technology providers to participate on a single platform through new applications that can be plugged into the platform-ecosystem, sharing data seamlessly between all systems that use the inputs and outputs of the various technologies to support and drive product workflows. These frictionless data interactions will not only become the new sources of value as we streamline and improve speed and efficiency, but they will help to remove redundancy at every point of the process. Each positive interaction – whether between a person, a system, or data coming from a variety of app-solutions and connected IoT devices will not only deliver, speed and accuracy, but will also enable all parties to visualise the entire end-to-end value-chain, culminating in real-time transparency.

Over the last few decades, we have experienced radical change in experimentation in the growth of digitization that, in turn, has helped to create a more interconnected world. We have experienced PDM (product data management) morphing into CPM (collaborative product management) and then PLM (product lifecycle) management. We have seen the dramatic evolution of PLM expanding its usefulness beyond the headquarters and into the supply-chain, which at first started with the sharing of a simple PDF (portable document file) containing product specifications. More recently we’ve seen PLM becoming part of a broader platform-ecosystem that allows product suppliers to share and use the PLM software to collaborate in near-time.

Digital platforms continue to expand across industries and business sectors the world over, dramatically redesigning traditional business models. Goliaths include companies like Amazon, Alibaba, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn that we all know and use for both business and pleasure. They come in a variety of types – some are data-driven whilst others are both data- and product-driven suppliers.

Some are newcomers that are leveraging platform technologies to disrupt traditional business models, whilst others are giants of the new digital economy. As already stated, several are traditional PLM vendors that are redesigning and reinventing new ecosystem strategies – strategies that go way beyond their own solution offerings and that support partner technologies to enable seamless data connectivity, and of course greater value for the many working across a single shared platform-ecosystem.

It’s exciting to see these new platforms that begin with data being fed from consumer interactions in near-time, rather than relying on trend data which is often days, weeks or even months behind. And several vendors that I’ve spoken to recently as part of my research have discussed their visions going all the way back to the consumer and to a product’s end of life!

Over the last decade I’ve written countless articles on fashion use cases linked to the subjects of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. But the reality is that, until these new digital platform-ecosystems are utilised across the end-to-end value-chain, then AI and ML benefits will be extremely difficult and limited as part of the big picture. Today AI & ML is limited to what is happening in the e-commerce world.

Changing the Retail Landscape Forever

We’ve all experienced the dramatic growth of these platform founders compared to their traditional retail and brand competitors. It’s obvious that the advantages of digital platforms have dramatically changed the retail landscape forever. The fact is that the traditional retail supply-chain model can no longer compete with the speed and scale that these new digital platforms can bring to bear, in being able to deliver products cheaper and more efficiently to market. And added to this, these platforms have the advantage of real-time or, at the very least near-time, data on consumer preferences, amongst other data feeds!

The shift toward an infinite data-driven platform model will enable retailers and brands to compete on a more level footing. New digital platform-ecosystems will help retailers and brands to connect to consumers and onto the digital needle point; in simple terms, tomorrow’s digital platforms will connect the entire digital value-chain, incorporating all of your traditional solution systems, modules and processes fuelled by a seamless set of data inputs and outputs. These new networks will allow brands and retailers to operate outside of their traditional models and will enable real-time data-driven value-chains to become the new reality, effectively orchestrating value creation by connecting third-party solutions and data sets.

In the not-too-distant future, products created using these new platform-ecosystems will become more important than the products that are designed by traditional teams. The platform value will increase as we learn from the data insights and intelligence gathered from an efficient data models that will be continuously tweaked to maximise the value for all partners that exist on the platform-ecosystem. Consumers themselves will become the new designers as we feed off their digital inputs, which will become dynamic trend data for new design teams.

Over time these new digital ecosystems will enable new processes that will provide extraordinary value not only for consumers but also for the environment; they will offer new abilities around virtualisation, they will help deliver on-demand ordering, and the same platforms will help to bring forward new digital hardware and software to support digital printing and dyeing. Beyond these examples they will provide real-time transparency for everybody involved in the value-chain, as they support sustainable labour practices and other related manufacturing values. Like it or not, governments and regulatory bodies from the public sector will be able to measure and interact with what’s really happening – especially as it may relate to environmental issues and impact reporting.

As we embrace these emerging digital platforms, no longer will we be able to allow solutions to operate as stand-alone models. In the future these new platform-ecosystems will enable deep data-driven collaboration that will compliment, adjust and support the data inputs and outputs of the combined digital value-chain, essentially leveraging the end-to-end digital ecosystem, all the way from concept-to-consumer.

Education and resourcing are going to be critical to the success of platform strategies. It’s clear that tomorrow’s strategies will require new skillsets and visionaries that can see beyond our existing technology models. Future visionaries will need to see data as the new fuel, driving the ecosystems of tomorrow. They will need to consider multiple variables including outside influences like environment, governments, transparency, and regulatory compliance and how their competition may affect their ecosystem strategies.

What to Expect from these Digital Platforms

The truth is, when these new digital platforms reach widespread adoption, no longer will PLM be the main data backbone of any organisation. Yes, it will continue to be one of the main systems providing data inputs and will utilise outputs from other systems, but the new digital platforms will be solution-agnostic. These platforms will be designed to allow solutions to be connected seamlessly, sharing data between technology parties. An example might be e-commerce data coming from around the globe that is filtered, cleansed and then shared with designers that, in turn, will design new products that are on trend. The same data will be used to plan the demand curve, size curves and 3D design will be used not only to develop virtual twins but also to allow development teams to obtain material and component usage that, again, will be used to virtually plan material purchases. Staying on the subject of planning, I would envisage the planning of product demand, material demand, and manufacturing demand to become a truly connected application. I could sit here and share another twenty or so technology use cases for these future ecosystems, but I’ll leave that to your own imagination.

Finally, I will leave the technology vendors and visionaries with the following message: be careful to design your future platform-ecosystems to allow openness and interoperability – even if this means working together with the competition. Brands, retailers, manufacturers and everyone involved in creating value will need to work together to share data and, if technology vendors attempt to block this level of collaboration by designing closed platforms, then unfortunately alternative platforms will be sought…!

Mark Harrop Mark Harrop is the founder and Managing Director of WhichPLM. During a career that has spanned more than four decades, Mark has worked tirelessly to further the cause of PLM – providing the unbiased, expert advice that has enabled some of the world’s best known retailers, brands and manufacturers achieve efficiency savings across their entire supply chain through informed technology investments.