Quick we’re flatlining. Grab the defibrillator. Clear! The beating heart of shopping as we know it is in dire need of a restart. Last year, 85,000 retail jobs disappeared from the UK in just the first nine months. Department store chain House of Frasier went into administration. Turnover was down by £113 million at retail group Arcadia (home to Topman and Burton). The places men buy their clothes from most often are in real trouble. It’s not looking good, doc.
Millennials are doing their shopping online now you see, or so says your Dad firmly planted in his armchair. This is true, to some extent. Online retail sales have increased six-fold since 2008. Back then online sales made up just 4.9 per cent of all retail sales in the UK according to the ONS. In 2017, it made up 16.3 per cent. And it is indeed the young leading the way, with 73 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds having purchased an item of clothing online in 2018, compared to 24 per cent of those over 65.
In truth, however, online shopping is a long way from a majority share of the market and e-tailers aren’t immune from the same pressures bringing the high street to its knees. Even Asos issued a profit warning last year, which saw its shares plunge by 40 per cent.
What does all this doom and gloom mean for the average guy just looking for a new pair of jeans? The future, that’s what. It’s coming. In response to changing consumer habits, retailers and technologists are creating exciting new ways to find clothes you love, that fit you perfectly and which replace the time and hassle of shopping with something cool and engaging. It might even be fun again.
Here are four big ideas that will change the way you buy clothes forever.
1. Virtual Fitting Rooms
Yes, we’re buying more clothes online than ever before, but problems persist. For one thing, you can’t try before you buy as you can in-store. Which is a problem for us, and the retail industry, creating a swell of ‘serial returners’. A BBC survey of online fashion shoppers found that 56 per cent had returned an item of clothing in the past six months.
Fashion tech start-up MeTail pre-empted this situation when it was founded over a decade ago. Using its software you can build an avatar using just three measurements everyone should know off the top of their head – height, weight and bust (the software only creates female avatars at this stage, although they have a male model waiting to be rolled out). The avatar tries the clothes on for you and you can see on screen how you’d look in the items you’re browsing.
A Metail avatar modelling clothes
“We originally patented a system of building the shape by a photo, but it’s quite fiddly for the consumer,” says CEO and founder of MeTail, Tom Adeyoola. “You have to have a friend take the photo for you and if a consumer only has eight minutes in their lunch break will they have time to take and upload that photo.”
This is one of the problems that the much-hyped Zozo suit, created by the Japanese fashion e-tailer of the same name, may encounter. The suit is a full-body piece of lycra with polka dots all over which you clamber in before taking a full-body selfie. A connected app then takes a detailed assessment of your measurements from the inner thigh to your wrist size, which a made-to-measure piece of clothing can then be tailored around.
It’s a futuristic concept but is everyone going to squeeze themselves into a ladybird costume every time they want a new pair of trousers?
Another brand leading the way in how we shop online is Swedish fashion studio Atacac which generates realistic 3D renderings of its garments to be browsed online before making them specifically to your order to prevent over-production. The resulting visuals are vastly different from the rest of the e-commerce competition with product descriptions that list the clothes specifications in minute detail including the measurements of the leg opening and cut-outs of the material before its sewn together.
2. Artificial Intelligence At The Shops
How can real life shops possibly grab attentions away from the welcoming glow of our smartphone screens? Well, it’s a case of if you can’t beat them, join them according to Rachael Stott, senior creative researcher at trends consultancy firm, The Future Laboratory.
“Physical retailers recognise that they need to offer a comparable experience to e-commerce,” Stott says. “And that’s where we will increasingly see artificial intelligence most effectively used. Using consumer data profiling and facial recognition systems, we’ll start to see retailers use artificial intelligence to suggest hyper-personalised products, services, and discounts when a customer steps into a store, as they will have a wealth of data and knowledge about that individual’s preferences and behaviours.” You saw Minority Report, right?
“Digital touchpoints such as smart mirrors will play a key supporting role in this, and allow a brand to tailor each step of the customer journey.”
Tommy Hilfiger’s smart mirror
Smart mirrors are a key part of the customer retail experience at the Tommy Hilfiger UK flagship store. On a visit to the store, I had half expected to stare into the mirror and have clothes magically appear on my reflection. Instead, you scan clothes picked up in the store into the mirror and it comes up with pricing along with outfit recommendations.
It’s worth noting that Amazon, which already sells a webcam which photographs your outfits and makes recommendations based on your preferences and other users’ feedback, filed a patent for a blended reality mirror like the one of my dreams last year. It scans your body, creating a virtual likeness of yourself that you can then put clothes on and even transport to various locations across the world (the likeness, not actually you). But a patent is just an idea, not a readily available product.
“A lot of the technology that has been put into stores today has been using technology for technology’s sake,” warns Ayedoola. “I remember in the early days of tablets, going into Marks & Spencer stores and they’d given all their customer assistants iPads but the iPads just had the website on. It was a slower experience for the sales assistant to do anything when you thought it would be quicker. Your expectation is completely different from what is given to you.”
FashionAI store, Hong Kong
3. Netflix For Fashion
From Deliveroo to Uber, the desire for customer convenience has been the dominating trend in tech over the past decade. “The products that make things the most convenient, win,” says Ayedoola. He points towards American personal shopping service Stitch Fix, which he calls “the Netflix of the fashion industry” for its ability to use algorithms to make your shopping choices easier. In 2018, Stitch Fix was valued at $2 billion and is set to be launched in the UK this year. This simplicity and convenience could ultimately be the key to the future of high street stores.
Amazon Echo Look
“There are two polarised scenarios emerging in the retail landscape,” says Stott. “At one end of the spectrum, there is a rise in fully automated stores, particularly in Asia and the US. These spaces are not manned by staff, there is no check-out process and all purchases are automatically deducted via an app, with the focus being on convenience and speed.”
Take for example the new Nike flagship store in New York. There’s only one cashier at the six-storey store, down the stairs out of sight. Instead, the customer is guided through the store using the Nike app.
Go up to a mannequin, scan the code on it and shop the look on your phone. Pick an item to buy on the app and choose to pick it up at a designated point in the store. Find something in the store you like while browsing, just pop it in a bag and buy it on the app. “This is pre-existing technology Nike are using,” says Ayedoola. “It’s just about thinking about the customer experience first and then applying the technology around that.”
4. Shops As Theme Parks
At the other end of the spectrum, Stott points out how retail spaces are starting to be used less as shop windows for the products and more for the brands themselves. “We are seeing the physical shopping space being used as inspirational spaces that enable consumers to experience a brand on a deeper, physical level.”
The real leader here is the New York Samsung store, opened in 2016. Not a single product can be bought in-store. Instead, the South Korean electronics company uses the space as a ‘digital playground’ for customers to simply try out its latest tech in, from immersive virtual reality tunnels to workshops to help you craft the perfect selfie.
“Shopping is no longer doing what it used to do which is be a leisure activity, providing that endorphin hit,” says Ayedoola. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that a huge amount of it is now being eaten up by online purchasing which has the problem of being functional but not fun.”
The House of Vans shop-cum-skatepark
The answer then is something that lies somewhere in between, something that can appeal to an ever-growing millennial audience favouring experience over the tangible. Whether that be in-store skate parks like at the House of Vans London store, shop floor sleepovers like at Ikea or simply workshops and talks that help connect the brand with the consumer. As long as the future is fun and tailored to the customer’s needs, as it is online, it should find a way of wheedling itself back into the minds and hearts of the millennial consumer.
Speedfactory is a fully automated production line of products available made to order on the spot. The German sportswear brand first rolled the technology out for public eyes at a pop-up store in a Berlin shopping mall back in 2016. Customers would stand in a body scanner and within minutes a merino wool sweater would be made especially for them.
Adidas had been using the super-fast production line in its Ansbach, Germany factory since 2015 with it taking a first venture out of German territory last year in its Atlanta factory. While the futuristic tech of the Berlin pop-up is far away from being fit for mass public consumption, it has the potential to truly take fast fashion to the next level.
“New technologies such as rapid manufacturing will allow brands to be reactive to consumer demand and local cultural shifts, and produce new products in-store without the need for a long supply chain,” says Stott.
Amazon Echo Look
Not everyone can afford to erect a smart mirror like Tommy Hilfiger. But the Amazon Echo Look released to the US public in the summer of 2018, takes the same tact by offering an AI-powered personal stylist service and all without having to talk to another human being while you’re at it.
A small webcam-like camera able to take full-body selfies sits on your desk with built-in Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant. Upload the pics onto the app and get recommendations based on algorithms that rank outfits side-by-side or just put them up for judgement by other Amazon users. The device will develop as time goes on, with the hope that the data crunched by the Echo Look will start to save a database of your own personal fashion tastes and apply this to its AI advice.
While Alibaba might still be relatively unheard of among western customers, the Chinese conglomerate has worked its way up in two decades to become the world’s largest retailer and e-commerce company. Buy+ is its latest piece of tech, a virtual reality mall.
The VR technology doesn’t require one of those hefty and eye-wateringly expensive Oculus Rift headsets to work either. All you need is a smartphone and a simple cardboard headset and you can shop everything you can see and more.
Ever wondered why that medium-sized jumper from one shop fits perfectly while the same size from another sits on your shoulders like a sack of potatoes? According to the co-founders of modelling agency The Bureau, Jonny Sydes and Norv Bell, the issue is the lack of standardisation in ‘fit models’ (used by clothes designers to check fit while the garment is being made).
“If you work at somewhere like Asos, they have so many brands on their books,” says Sydes. “And you get a brand that will have to be called into a meeting about why they’re getting so many returns. Generally, you get all those people shopping online presuming a medium is a medium but you have Ted Baker measuring differently from Reiss and so on. It’s just a minefield of what the actual size is.”
The agency instead uses a 3D scanner to upload their fit models likeness and measurements onto their website to make the casting process easier for these brands. It hopes this will create a standardised list of measurements to be used across brands and curb the tide of online serial returners.