Tech Companies Look to Consumers and Connectivity to Drive Apparel Industry

From the shifting nature of analytics to consumers’ growing influence to the consumer connectivity of the “Internet of things,” key technology issues and their impact on apparel retailers and brands were discussed by technology experts who recently gathered in Los Angeles.

“Tech is the foundation to deliver the product,” said Mary McFadden, director of CAD product management for Gerber Technology, the Tolland, Conn.–based maker of automated manufacturing systems and software solutions.

To make consumers happy, apparel needs to have the right fit, the appropriate level of quality and be sold at the right price point, McFadden said. “In order to do that, you need a foundation that supports product from design through development, production and delivery. Technology lets you respond to trends in the marketplace to meet that peak demand.”

McFadden was speaking on a panel at the Apparel West 2015 conference, held March 25 at The Reef in downtown Los Angeles and organized by Apparel magazine.

“Technology allows companies to combine customer feedback with operational insight to help them determine what sells well—and, more importantly, why it sells well,” said Quach Hai, senior director of product management for PTC, a technology solutions provider based in Needham, Mass.

Traditional analytics can help a company “guess better or guess faster,” said Bob McKee, senior product development director of New York–based Infor, which provides business application software and cloud services. “I think we should look at how we can replenish quicker rather than how we can guess better.”

Companies have the ability to “assimilate massive amounts of data,” including consumer feedback and social sentiment and “overlay information such as geolocation,” said Jon Buchan, chief customer advocate and chief executive officer of PA Group USA, the U.S. division of Italian software provider Gruppo PA.

Technology can help an apparel company “identify who your brand loyalists are and what they’re thinking,” Buchan said. “We think it’s important to include them in the product-development process—particularly millennials. They enjoy being part of the process.”

But it’s all in the execution, said Info’s McKee, who said he recently was in a major specialty retailer looking to purchase a suit.

“They have mobile checkout people, and every single one of them was standing at the cash wrap,” he said. “Execution is key. Social media has changed the world, but a lot of it is noise. Brand loyalty is not as prevalent today as it once was. Technology is leading what you’re doing. It’s up to you to take advantage of the technology.”

Several panelists discussed the “Internet of things,” which is the connectivity network that allows physical objects to collect and exchange electronic data to automate processes. (Recent examples are smart electronics such as wireless thermostats or cars with built-in sensors.)

“IoT is not just a fad. It’s here to stay,” PTC’s Hai said. “IoT can be used to do a lot of important things for you as a retailer and brand. It helps improve the relationship with consumers [and create a frictionless buying experience]. They want to go into a store and have a compelling purchasing experience. IoT is a way to leverage a brand’s current sales systems. It can bring all those disparate data systems together.”

On the supply-chain side, Hai said, companies can see inventory levels and availability of raw materials.

Gerbers’ McFadden described it as “inventory without borders.”

“From the manufacturing perspective, we can use IoT connectivity to help supply chains because we can do predictive support on our equipment,” she said, explaining that connected equipment means a company can see that a motor is about to fail on a machine thousands of miles away and take steps to repair it.

The all-day event also featured the results of a survey conducted by EKN, a research company owned by Edgell Communications, which also owns Apparel magazine.

According to the apparel retailers and brands surveyed, most will be focusing their analysis on customer profiling, promotion effectiveness and pricing improvements in the coming year, said Sahir Anand, vice president and principal analyst of EKN.

“A number [of executives] are talking about how to improve data analytics and where to put the budget,” Anand said. Currently, these companies are focusing their budgets on Web analytics, social-media analytics and enterprise data warehouse analytics.

In the next two years, many companies will shift focus to spending on predictive analytics, mobile business intelligence and omni-channel analytics, Anand said.

The conference also featured keynote addresses by Claire Ortiz, chief executive officer of Los Angeles–based Ortiz Industries, which fuses performance fabrics with professional dress, and David Aquino, senior vice president of supply chain, operations and information technology for Gardena, Calif.–based Barco Uniforms.

There was also a discussion of financing opportunities held by Kevin Sullivan, executive vice president of Wells Fargo Capital Finance.

Attendees also had a chance to discuss current issues and needs at the conference’s Technology Topic Briefings hosted by Gerber, Infor, PA, PTC, Centric Software Inc., NGC Software, Tradestone Software and 7thonline.