Smart use of technology is proving to be the way to get ahead in the cutthroat world of fashion retail. Technological innovations can help retailers understand and interact better with their customers, personalise products and shopping experiences, and refine the logistics process to nibble away at their cost base.
The industry is increasingly waking up to using AR and VR to solve real problems in fashion retail, rather than treating these technologies as cool gimmicks.
Fashion brands have already used augmented and virtual reality to bring the catwalk to life and enable people to watch it outside the immediate venue.
At Paris Fashion Week last year, an AR fashion show enabled audience members to scan models using a dedicated smartphone app to reveal hidden designs. The models wore black and white clothing where the design was mostly obscured; only by scanning it could the real item of clothing be revealed on the audience member’s smartphone.
This particular fashion event seems gimmicky, but AR and VR could be used to solve one of fashion eCommerce’s biggest problems: how to show the consumer what the clothing will look like on them.
If the industry could crack this concern, it could significantly reduce the rate of returns, as well as possibly encourage consumers to feel confident enough to make an online purchase in the first place.
There are two main approaches to solve the ‘will it fit?’ dilemma. One option is to use technology to generate images of what the customer will look like in the item – the ‘virtual changing room’ approach.
The second is to enable the customer to upload their measurements to check the fit online, and perhaps even have the item custom made to their requirements.
Gap’s virtual dressing room
Gap is one retailer that’s exploring the first option. Its DressingRoom app lets customers choose which one of 5 body types is most like them. They then see an image of the clothing they are interested in modeled for that body type, virtually represented in their immediate location using the camera device.
Gap’s model has obvious limitations – there are more than 5 body types and this isn’t a very precise way to fit clothes.
Using VR to display the clothing in the customer’s environment is little more than a gimmick and doesn’t help with the fit. But it’s certainly a start. This so-called ‘immersive tech’, such as Gap’s idea of using AR to show the model in the customer’s living room, is certainly personalised.
Gap’s solution means customers don’t need to upload their own body data. There are obvious concerns about privacy and data sharing if the customer is sharing intimate information such as body measurements or even body scans with an e-tailer. Ensuring consumer privacy is going to be paramount if these types of solution are used.
AR and VR tech offers the potential to revolutionise the customer’s brand experience. From a retailer’s perspective, it could help reduce customer barriers to purchase, such as the question whether an item will fit, but there could also be potential for upsell and cross-sell of other products.
For example, a customer that’s out dress shopping may not think to take a pair of shoes into the changing room – but a suitable pair can easily be offered in a virtual shopping environment where they can ‘try them on’ with a swipe of their screen.
With no restrictions on the number of items that can be tried on, customers may easily be persuaded to explore more items of clothing than they would in-store.
Retailers can also try suggesting items of clothing based on known preferences, or whatever’s popular at that particular time. There are many possibilities for changing the customer experience and broadening their horizons.
It’s early days for this technology, but many retailers are exploring ‘try before you buy’ technologies, and other retail sectors are getting on board too.
IKEA is experimenting with an app that lets customers virtually place items of furniture in their living space to see how it will look. Preliminary research conducted by Metail with Tufts University and the Kellogg School of Management indicates that having an AR application can boost sales by 22%.
Technology to solve problems
But it isn’t just about boosting sales. There may be other benefits for retailers adopting this technology.
With changing room theft a significant concern for retailers, one advantage is that theft may be reduced if more customers are persuaded to try clothes on virtually instead of in-store. It’s even possible that some retailers may abandon changing rooms altogether if the virtual equivalent takes off.
Even more importantly, the technology could impact on return rates. Early data from the industry’s initial experiments with this kind of technology should hopefully reveal its impact on return rates.
With returned items representing a significant frustration and cost drain for online retailers, anything that can reduce customer propensity to return items is going to be helpful to the bottom line.
By letting customers try clothes on virtually, rather than take advantage of the free returns option, retailers may be able to tackle this industry-wide frustration.
Fashion brands work hard to flatter customers and make them feel good about themselves in order to inspire purchase behaviour. Stores have for years employed tricks such as distorted mirrors in changing rooms to help customers appear slimmer and to flatter them into completing a purchase.
It’s unclear how these AR and VR tech solutions may tackle the issue of how to flatter customers on screen. Technology features can be used to improve the customer’s appearance as they try clothing on, in the same way, Snapchat filters can make selfies appear more flattering.
Although fashion is just getting started with applying AR and VR technologies, already the industry is talking about the next step – using this tech to personalise and customise products.
Already the car industry is talking about using tech to help people custom-build their own vehicles. Could fashion take this step next?
The ultimate test is whether this exciting new tech can drive real results for retail businesses, or whether it will remain a cool gimmick that livens up a runway.
It’s very easy to throw a lot of money at technology and not see the right kind of results. Any retailer engaging with these new technologies needs to have a firm idea of the desired outcome, and how AR and VR tech can fit into their business strategy.