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The Impact of AI on Small, Independent Businesses

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In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, shares her thoughts on potential use of fit technology when it comes to small, independent retailers.

Big fashion has an abysmal ecological record, being one of the world’s largest polluters, second only to the oil industry. There are a diverse mix of problems, including environmental pollution, use of resources, waste and carbon release that need to be addressed, if fashion’s sustainability is to be achieved. One action that is likely to make a significant improvement across a wide range of these issues would be to diminish the number of product returns from the bourgeoning e-commerce sector.

Long before the pandemic, there was an exponential growth in e-commerce fashion, but COVID-19 has turbocharged this trend and, in the subsequent half-decade, sales figures in this sector are likely to continue to swell significantly. According to Statista, the global online fashion market was worth $533 billion in 2018 and is predicted to grow to $872 billion by 2023. And this expansion has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in product returns: McKinsey Returns Management Survey, conducted just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, noted a 25 percent return rate for apparel on e-commerce channels. With as much as an estimated 10% of fashion returns ending up in landfill, garments being sent back are a huge source of unsustainability.

One of the most common reasons cited by customers for a failed sale is a “fit problem”: items are either an incorrect size or the wrong shape for the disappointed purchaser. Arguably, this situation is hardly surprising when it occurs with apparel purchased “sight unseen”, without consumers having the opportunity to try for fit first, and, commonly, little online assistance with sizing decisions offered by brands to consumers.   Legacy methods, such as “sizing tables” on websites (grids of statistics to explain to users the measurements of clothing sizes), have widely been found woefully insufficient, and the race is now on to provide an AI solution for remotely fitting a customer for apparel.

Much of the intelligent technology that is presently being developed is based on the idea of “scanning” in some form or another, although the leading methods are likely to involve apps that allow the consumer’s own smartphone to analyse photographs (taken at various angles), to give an estimation of their size and body shape (not body scanning as such). Technology capable of matching a consumer with clothing sized with a high degree of accuracy, presented to them with realistic 3D imaging (a “virtual fitting room”), is in train to be an industry-wide norm some time within the next decade.

These fit tools are often being developed with “big fashion” in mind, due to the conditions that prevail at the beginning of most new major technological advances. It is the large companies that have the resources to fund significant developments, and it is those corporations that are targeted as the most lucrative clients for tech start-ups selling their services in this space. They also have greater reach into the population and will be influential in setting the norms of future consumer behaviour. However, there is no doubt that effective fit technology will prove a real deal-changer to the entire fashion industry, to companies, large, medium and small. As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all ships”.

So an altogether different group of retailers – independent fashion companies – are likely to be significant beneficiaries of sizing technology, once it has been rolled out to the general marketplace in an accessible form. Many independent fashion companies employ a small staff who run either a single premises or a modest chain of shops, and rely on a loyal (often local) customer base who regularly visit their bricks-and-mortar boutiques. Arguably, this sector of fashion is disproportionately important: here (as with small online-only start-ups) we see the cutting-edge fashion that rises from the street or from new designers that provide the fresh ideas that filter up through the whole industry. Some small firms plough their modest furrow, little changing for a lifetime, enjoying their own unique take on apparel design (which, in itself, provides much-appreciated diversity to the sector), but others are start-ups that are, in fact, the embryonic stage of much larger concerns. These will go further and may provide the innovative, creative, individual and supple concepts that are the first to identify the zeitgeist and show stylistic and business innovation. They can be the rootstock from which new big corporations spring, and their CEOs may well be the entrepreneurs that will one day re-think the shape of fashion.

Businesses such as these are often clustered with likeminded others in a locale recognised for its independent retailer offer, where customers choose to visit in-person to indulge in the unique shopping experiences that can only be gained from “up close and personal” interaction with their fashion product of choice. This is shopping as an “experience”: a leisure pursuit, and a source of “retail therapy”. It is not the type of retail that is seen to be in need of fit technology at present: consumers are able to accurately ascertain the fit of a garment for themselves, prior to purchase. The relationship between the collection of apparel, the consumer and the fitting room can be an enjoyable and productive one in this environment, with the retailer guiding the client through the store’s fashion offer, providing the service of stylist and image consultant.

However, these are challenging times and few can afford, in the post-COVID era, to ignore any potential conduit for trade, such as e-commerce (which, during lockdown, many small store owners have had more than enough time and incentive to familiarise themselves with). A significant number of these businesses, therefore, now involve an online offer, often relying on platforms such as Shopify and Etsy, with many also building their own online shops.

However, the rules of e-commerce do not offer a level playing field between “big fashion” and tiny independents. If the returns problem is a huge, profit-draining nuisance for corporations, they can be an existential threat for their smaller cousins. The difficulties associated with incorrect sales are particularly onerous for a “one-man (or woman)” operation. Take the financial arena, for example. The fees to process sales and refunds are disproportionately greater for a small company who cannot obtain the financial deals that corporations enjoy. Each sale (and refund) will make up a higher percentage of the overall takings for the week in which they are performed, and complications involving sales tax can add to administrative costs. When a large quantity of stock is returned at the same time (say, the post-Christmas period), the finances of the company itself might be affected in an unpredictable way.

Then there is the issue of stock holding. The typical independent boutique does not carry a huge inventory, nor does it always have the opportunity for instant replenishment. When an online sale is performed, the garment is then unavailable to any other customer (often at a prime selling time in the season), whilst it is sent out to what is effectively a remote changing room, situated in another consumer’s residence! Later, were the garment to be returned, it will need to be inspected and processed before it is replaced into stock – the consumers who would have bought it during its period of absence being long gone. In a worse-case scenario, the apparel is damaged, or even lost in transit, and each individual piece makes up a greater fraction of the overall inventory. Claims, insurance, handling, preparing and rectifying minor issues with clothing caused by the transit processes all take up valuable time in a staff of far fewer people. This is not even to address the disproportionate expense of packaging and carriage charges, which, again without the economies of scale, are far more onerous for a micro company.

Yet the chances for a return due to fit problems may actually be greater for a small firm that has a niche sizing or grading system, or, unlike a large corporation, a mixed collection of diversely tailored items from different suppliers, the fit of which is unknown to the average person doing their online shopping. For these boutiques, the “e-commerce return problem” gets real extremely quickly, and it is likely this is a sector that will see a huge jump in opportunities when they are offered truly effective fit solutions. This in itself may be enough to cause a significant power shift in the fashion industry.

But it is not just the avoidance of disadvantage that correctly understanding the fit of customers will facilitate for the independent bricks-and-mortar operator. A thoroughgoing knowledge of the size and shape of those interested in shopping with them can prove invaluable to a retailer, both concerning general statistical information (vital from an inventory purchasing point of view), and from an individually-targeted customer service point of view, were a detailed fit profile of a person to be available for reference during in-store interaction.

Regardless of whether the innovative small retailer is operating online or in-store, it is likely that they will wish to play to their strengths, such as customer service, specialised product knowledge, individuality and innovation, whilst using new technology to gain commercial advantage, the difference between the online and bricks-and-mortar shopping experiences thus becoming blurred. Daniel Macaulay, co-founder of start-up FoamLife, says “ bricks-and-mortar stores [are] using more technology, such as payment apps to try to replicate the ease of buying online, and online stores using technology such as shop bots to try to replicate the personal, more tailored selling experience.”

Offering a “more tailored selling experience” is not an added-on luxury for these specialist stores: for many boutiques, it is their USP and they are very good at it. Without doubt, almost as soon as an independent fashion stylist or consultant has enhanced knowledge of their customer’s physique, fit preferences and stylistic tastes, it is likely that he or she will run with it, offering a hugely enhanced service to their fashion tribe. They will make full use of any and all customer data permitted to be collected through AI, not just fit information.

As soon as this technology moves out across the different selling media, it will begin to evolve, and the face of fashion will likely change in ways that we have yet to guess. Curated fashion, individual or group customisation, bespoke sizing or design, spaces where gaming, social media and fashion fuse.

Finding the correct fit for online consumers may well be just the beginning. And it’s likely that the independent sector will be at the forefront of imagining an altogether new type of fashion retail.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.