Goodbye legacy retail. I never liked you anyway. By Matthew Drinkwater

I remember presenting at the Digital Catapult a couple of years back and suggesting a collaborative project to explore a new retail concept utilizing AI, machine learning, sensor technology that would eliminate the need for sales assistants.  It was spawned by an experience where I had queued for an unreasonably long amount of time at a large chain of chemists for items that I resent having to line-up for to buy (razor blades, deodorant, shampoo etc).

Upon reaching the check-out, I was greeted by a somewhat disinterested staff member who would rather have been anywhere else than scanning my dull purchases.  Then came payment; No contactless; An astonishingly long wait for authorization.  Awful.  Every part of the process felt dated and obsolete.  So it was with this in mind that I started my pitch to eradicate the dreadful experience and lead us into a glorious new era of retail.

The response from the crowd was decidedly luke-warm.  No takers.  The retailers in the room looked decidedly uncomfortable.

Every part of the process felt dated and obsolete.

Fast-forward a couple of years and not much has changed on the high street.

There are a few more iPad’s in stores, a few magic mirrors but, genuinely, do we feel that things are any different???

Where is the omni-channel experience so many executives claim is key to their business?  It’s certainly not at the Scandinavian clothing retailer I visited recently where, when I suggested I would buy a size unavailable at the time of my visit online, I was told ‘you can’t return it here, if you do…’ So much for the omni-channel revolution there then.

It didn’t come as a huge surprise that the biggest news in retail technology in 2016 came from Amazon.  With significant R&D budgets and an embedded culture of innovation, it will be the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook that rewire retail as we know it today. It is no surprise that all feature in the top 6 of Fast Company World’s most innovative Brands list 2017.

Amazon Go is a trial store in Seattle that is currently open only to Amazon employees, but when they open the doors to the general public later this year (and rumour has it they are looking for a site in London too) the game will be changed for everyone.

Amazon are using computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning algorithms to enable customers to simply pick up items and leave the store without the need to use a check-out. This is exactly what I had imagined as I stood in line at the Chemist that day and I cannot wait for it to arrive.

It will be the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook that rewire retail as we know it today.

Amazon Go takes a multitude of emerging technologies and hides them from the customer. No iPads, no gimmicks.  It’s shopping the way we know, but better, a seamless integration which create a perfect customer experience. Shopping 2.0.

So what can fashion retail learn from this?  A lot, I would suggest.  The application of emerging technologies could make immediate differences to the fashion industry, right now.

Brand experiences could be transformed by new sensor technologies.  Stores will be able to understand, in real time, who their customers are, where those customers go, what product they touch and the products they try on.  If those garments are purchased, brands could begin to understand when they are worn, how often they are worn, where you go when you wear them and who you meet when you wear them.

For consumers, a trade-off in privacy would allow for a totally new narrative with a brand and the creation of a real digital wardrobe.  The clueless closet is getting much closer to reality.

The biggest movers in the field are Avery Dennison – their partnership with IoT specialists EVRYTHNG and the creation of the Janela platform is the first step towards this vision. They aim to digitize 10 billion garments over a 3-year period and with entrenched relationships in fashion retail, are in a very good position to make those numbers a reality.

Technology will also start to change how retail staff are remunerated.  Talking to a CEO of a luxury label last week, he questioned how to incentive teams now that more and more revenue was from the collection of online orders instore.  The staff were becoming less of a sales associate and more brand ambassadors.  The traditional revenue and commission model felt increasingly outdated. How could they measure and reward their effectiveness?

But from speaking to another menswear retail manager, the art of selling isn’t completely lost though.  Her team uses the collection as an opportunity to up-sell:

“When clients collect their orders we often get them to try them on, especially trousers which are sold with unfinished hems.  We can then sell our tailoring service and it gives us the chance to start a conversation and they may also then add a shirt, wallet or tie”.

RFID, NFC, Artificial Intelligence, Sensors, Augmented and Virtual Realities and wearable technology are going to create magical and incredible experiences for retail.  Let’s ensure that we use such advances to rediscover a sense of fun and adventure in stores.  We’ll even have smart assistants to help guide us through the journey.

Now, Alexa, what shall I wear today?

Matthew works at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, where he heads up the Fashion Innovation Agency. He delivered the world’s first digital skirt for Nokia, wireless charging clothing for Microsoft, a 3D-printed bionic arm to help celebrate the launch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and what Forbes described as ‘the first example of truly beautiful wearable tech’ for Disney. Matthew was named in the 100 most influential in the world of Wearable Technology, amongst the ‘Top 15 people in UK tech’ by BBC3 and as a ‘fashion-tech trailblazer changing the course of retail’ by Drapers.

T. @drinkmatt                  E.  m.drinkwater@fashion.arts.ac.uk

www.hudsonwalker.com