Industry Focus: Technology—How Apparel-Technology Companies Could Reset the COVID-19 ‘Time Machine’
As consumers adapted to a new way of life with most of their shopping conducted through e-commerce, businesses that viewed this method of selling as uncharted territory learned quickly in order to survive. With almost nine months of COVID-19 under its belt, the apparel industry is rebooting, and, while the most-basic technologies have kept businesses relevant during this time, they will again have to adopt advanced methods of creating and selling apparel to remain agile, reduce waste and accommodate a changed, post-pandemic consumer.
Making our way into 2021, with the pandemic remaining a challenge, California Apparel News asked apparel-technology experts: What do you view as the most important technology that retailers and manufacturers should adopt during this COVID-19 climate?
Chief Operations Officer
Businesses and the planet cannot sustain oversupply. Accurate, current data are the basis of producing less, more-relevant and successful products. Standardization is key, and data-driven standards must underpin all product development. Companies must use data to generate standards on the size, shape and demographic characteristics of its target consumers. Only if these data are truly relevant to a defined consumer population will garments be relevant.
Digitalization enables companies to standardize and share all of their critical standards information and tools in a hub that everyone who needs to can access. A library of agreed-upon, defined and consistent standards, which would include body blocks, fabrics, fit standards and 3D avatars, must form the basis of all product development. These asset libraries are the key to generating authentic digital garments that are truly representative of the physical product.
We have an opportunity today with the technology and tools available to us to build a new future for the apparel industry—one where the digital and physical are closely connected and work together.
Chief Executive Officer and Founder
We are now living in a direct-to-consumer world where customer demand and the democratization of e-commerce are driving the supply chain of modern products. This supply chain has become retail’s competitive advantage. Technology is leading the charge to help retailers and manufacturers adapt to a new normal during this COVID-19 climate.
The first mile of the supply chain has become increasingly vital to get right. Product creation, vendor collaboration, assortment and demand planning in a direct-to-consumer economy have created stress on the traditional supply chain. Product-development, design and planning technology are must-have tools in today’s ecosystem. If you can’t nail the first mile there is no way you will win the race at retail in this new normal.
Chief Operating Officer
In these challenging times, it is essential to keep innovating and adapting all strategies, processes and products to the continuous changes in the market environment. Leading manufacturers need to make all of their production processes more efficient while at the same time constantly improving the performance of their products and shortening the supply chain. Priorities for manufacturers should be focused on maximizing cutting-room efficiencies with low operating costs and high cutting quality for large or flexible outputs.
Bierrebi was able to anticipate market trends, developing the Crystal machine, an innovative cutting system with very low consumption levels. Crystal does not use suction to keep the fabric on the cutting area as an electrostatic bar keeps the materials perfectly aligned on a special glass surface that offers less wear and maximum flatness.
Head of Business Development
While the technology or product may differ between retailer and manufacturer, the primary goal for them both is to use this break in play to discover sales-and-marketing enablement tools that can either change their approach or enhance it. We’re in a unique situation where marketing has been equalized. Your local mom-and-pop shop now has the same available marketing opportunities as a big box. Sure, the budgets are different, but the opportunities to have a voice are much more equal. The power is in how effectively you use your social networks and how you present yourself to prospective buyers.
At Brandboom, we provide an AI-driven marketplace called Connect, which has been helping brands find relevant buyers for their products. Our brands have been finding different channels, territories and buyers to work with, and they are able to present them with a beautiful look book to purchase straightaway.
Co-founder and Chairman
Over the last six months, fashion companies—particularly those reliant upon face-to-face interaction and commerce—have been forced to come up with new and more-innovative ways to do business.
Prior to the lockdown, virtual reality was generally used as a marketing gimmick rather than a serious sales channel. However, closed wholesale showrooms and a drop in shop footfall have rendered traditional sales channels unviable. Many businesses have had to reinvent their operations with incredible speed in order to survive.
The fashion industry has changed on a huge scale and will never be the same again. What was an inevitable move to digital over the next three to five years because of sustainability, market forces and pressures on margins has happened now because of COVID-19.
The future has arrived now, and the companies who are investing in immersive technologies for this sudden cultural shift are the ones who will prosper in this new world.
Celerant Technology Corp. and CAM Commerce
Director of Marketing and Assistant Vice President
Being able to quickly shift to online sales, market to your customers via digital marketing efforts such as personalized email marketing and social media—keeping in touch with your customers and staying top of their mind—is what has enabled the savviest of retailers to stay successful during these challenging times. But, most importantly, being able to continue to sell to your customers—however they want to shop—and then deliver the orders to them—however they want—has been absolutely vital these past nine months and, now, moving into 2021 as well.
If customers want to shop on your e-commerce site with same-day, in-store or curbside pickup, order online and have fast or free shipping to their door, or visit your store for contactless, mobile payment processing, retailers must adapt and meet the changing needs of all different customers.
At Celerant—after seeing a need back in April—in addition to our e-commerce we quickly launched our curbside-pickup application to help our retail customers streamline and organize the curbside-pickup process via text-message notifications. What’s most important is that retailers can pivot and adapt to newer technology to quickly meet the different needs of their customers.
Computer Generated Solutions
President of Business Applications
Retailers have accelerated their investment in e-commerce, which has become the preferred choice of consumers and a majority of the revenue stream for retailers during the shutdowns. Innovative retailers will measure sales from all channels as a single revenue stream and stop differentiating sales by channel. In the new normal, a sale will involve multiple channels rather than one or the other.
To ensure a seamless customer experience, consumers want to easily view and purchase online and choose delivery—shipping, pickup in-store or curbside. An omni-channel experience is critical to the success of retailers and brands alike, and a fully digitized supply chain is required to make that happen. Technology is the key to connecting the disparate links of the supply chain—from concept to consumer—to provide the experience consumers demand and the visibility retailers and brands need to thrive.
For buyers who continue to be unable to view the latest designers’ showcases—at trade shows, on runways, or at design studios and showrooms—technology has been a lifeline. Virtual showrooms and B2B platforms are imperative for designers and buyers alike. An immersive experience will allow for the most efficient and effective experience for retailers, wholesalers and, ultimately, consumers.
Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer
Grow and nurture digital sales channels is what I think any brand and retailer in the industry should do. Being able to sell your inventory across the multiple channels that your customers and potential customers are at is key to winning in the new era of commerce.
With bricks-and-mortar being closed on and off and digital commerce increasing, I think every brand should establish a wider online presence. Having your own e-com site is one thing, you should also make sure to be where your consumers are. We see drop-shipping and marketplaces becoming more and more significant in brands’ and retailers’ revenue streams, and I believe this will significantly increase in the coming years.
Cymbio’s drop-ship-and-marketplace platform seamlessly connects and automates all processes for brands, retailers and vendors. Since COVID-19, we’ve added new systems. We can now easily connect any brand, wholesaler and supplier to any retailer.
Senior Vice President and General Manager
Online sales have grown exponentially since COVID-19, accelerating a trend that was already emerging boldly, along with online sales calls for personalization, design-to-shelf speed and localization near the markets of consumption—the so-called reshoring phenomenon.
When thinking about technology in printing, digital is really key to riding the wave of these emerging trends thanks to faster time to market. Manufacturers are better able to react quickly to fashion trends and minimize losses from fashion flops. They can lower their costs with reduced setup time and leaner inventory management thanks to the possibility of efficient print-on-demand capabilities—all while delivering products with better and richer color palettes and more-detailed designs.
Digital possibilities are further enhanced in terms of time to market and, above all, sustainability, a crucial ask from consumers, by short green processes that reduce water, energy and chemicals consumption.
This market demand finds an answer in EFI Reggiani’s core approach to sustainable solutions under the theme of Innovation in Green, which includes an EFI Reggiani TERRA pigment solution that eliminates the need for steaming or washing on direct-to-textile applications and a high-quality direct-to-fabric sublimation process that ensures superior color brightness and penetration.
Epson America Inc.
Senior Product Manager of Professional Imaging
Producers turned to their digital equipment to quickly pivot and create the new products that were in demand. Nobody would have ever forecasted that printed face coverings would be the hot-selling product of 2020, and by using their digital-print equipment they were able to produce in-demand products and keep their businesses afloat.
The manufacturing supply chain was shaken as customers suddenly shifted their purchasing from in-store retail to online. Mass production of a few designs going to major in-store shelves halted. Physical proximity to customers is now less of an advantage, and customers are looking for more-unique products. Digital production methods provided the means for companies to not only produce truly unique products but also to significantly reduce their finished-goods inventory.
Physical products are not required to sell online, and companies can market thousands of products with little to no inventory. Product is produced or replenished when orders are received, with minimal raw-material stock in hand. Lower fixed costs and predictable variable costs along with lower inventory-holding costs results in greater financial flexibility. The new normal with improved production efficiencies by using digital print equipment will help companies not only survive but thrive.
Global Content Manager
Whether we’re discussing fashion brands or contract fulfillers operating on a local or global scale, technologies that enable rapid, on-demand production are optimal, which is why we believe in digital workflow and production technologies.
When your processes demand considerable lead time, disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic catch you in an extremely vulnerable position with unsold goods translating to considerable waste and poor sales. Conversely, if you can change your output to meet these disruptions at the push of a button, that agility empowers you to meet new product demands and then continue to do so for the long term.
With consumers migrating heavily toward online shopping, producing on-demand becomes more feasible, even preferable, as a profitable business model. Your brand was built on team sportswear, but suddenly everyone wants face masks? You can make those instead, with little difficulty. The pandemic marketplace has subsided and consumers want your bread-and-butter pieces again? Digital commerce plus digital production means you can make only what you’ve sold, and it’s far more eco-friendly than most traditional analog processes. Digital means removing waste and vulnerability from the equation. The current level of quality, graphic detail and durability achievable via digital means is amazing.
Chief Marketing Officer
As we enter a post-pandemic world, the way brands connect with their customers will be more critical than ever, and, at a moment where companies seek to reduce costs, maintaining brand-building initiatives will be vital to driving brand equity. With that in mind, brands need to build smarter initiatives with smaller budgets, and to do this they need the right data-intelligence tools to help them understand how their brand is perceived through each of its actions and initiatives.
As the shift in the values that consumers consider when making buying decisions continues to change, brands must constantly monitor the evolution of their markets, to evaluate what is working now and how to quickly adapt to changes as the world reopens.
President of the Americas
Supply chains include people, processes and technology. Each of these needs to be revisited, introducing new technologies such as PLM to replace legacy systems. New processes need to be established to foster agility and collaboration, and people need to be upskilled to make this happen.
Adoption of innovative digital tools like 3D, virtual prototyping and material management, and the implementation at scale of collaborative processes will be critical assets for a successful transformation. In other words, any initiative that brings retail and manufacturing together will be critical. We have to think end-to-end.
Senior Textile Segment Specialist
Brands, textile-print-design agencies, suppliers and designers are all currently facing challenges with extended delays in their supply chains, specifically in regard to sample production. Sample production has been disrupted in the current COVID-19 climate, making it very difficult to obtain and produce samples within the pre-pandemic timelines.
Digital textile printing allows for these fashion-and-textile companies to print on-demand in any quantity for sample and small-lot production, resulting in increased speed to market and turnaround times. The flexibility to print some of their production on-demand in-house within the United States also reduces cost and risk associated with unsold stock inventory and markdowns, empowering companies with faster turnaround times to deliver the right products, in the right quantities, at the right time.
Businesses should seek partnerships with providers from whom they can obtain technical service, inks, software, pre- and post-treatments, and printers from a single source. A complete digital-printing solution enables textile-and-apparel-production adaptation within the United States.
As the industry moves through the COVID-19 pandemic, brands and fabric suppliers are going to continue to look for solutions to produce supply in the U.S.—solutions that Mimaki can provide.
Director of Sales for North America
Returns are soaring as bricks-and-mortar shoppers are forced online—some with little experience shopping online. Many are unsure of what size to order, especially with new brands. The situation is forcing e-commerce apparel retailers to review how products are presented to their shoppers and whether the common size chart is fit for the purpose.
Size-and-fit technology that translates the complicated size chart to shoppers—and recommends the correct size for their unique body shapes—is surging in popularity, more so now than ever. It is no longer a nice thing to have but rather a necessity for providing customers with a level of service on par with in-store experiences.
If brands can reduce the need for shoppers to buy two of the same garment in different sizes, they can significantly reduce the impact of the worst holiday-return hangover that is approaching. The customer journey is equally as important, ensuring new and returning customers feel confident about their purchases, providing the additional benefit of increased conversions for the retailer. Being proactive and thinking ahead with a technology such as MySizeID will be key to ensuring retailers and manufacturers are successful as we all explore a new retail landscape.
President and Chief Strategy Officer
Digital supply chains are, by far, the most important technology for fashion retailers during COVID-19 and beyond. Dedicating resources to digitizing the supply chain is a significant priority for all retail and brand executives I meet.
Retailers can’t run their businesses on disconnected systems, spreadsheets and email. Digital supply chains bring disparate systems together into a single, enterprise-wide digital platform. This provides the resiliency, agility and speed that retailers need, and it is essential during a crisis such as COVID-19. Retailers must be able to respond to sharp fluctuations in customer demand, which is what happened this year when demand for fashion apparel plunged almost overnight. Companies that were able to quickly adjust production levels or pivot to casualwear or personal protective equipment have fared much better than many other retailers and brands.
A digital supply chain provides the visibility retailers need to understand the full impact of a crisis such as the coronavirus, as well as ongoing concerns such as looming shortages or overstocks on merchandise and bans on cotton from Xinjiang. COVID-19 wasn’t the first crisis to hit retailers and it won’t be the last. Retailers that digitalize their supply chains can weather the storm.
Senior Vice President and General Manager
The most important technology for retailers and manufacturers to adopt and fine-tune is forecasting. With all the changes in consumer buying habits that have happened in 2020, including many shopping online for the first time and the increase in e-commerce, it has been challenging to get a holistic view of demand. As more consumers shifted to shop online, retailers needed to quickly reconcile multiple data inputs to get a holistic view of demand and pivot to change their replenishment strategies.
We learned from our holiday-shopping survey that a lack of inventory is the fastest way for retailers to end up on this year’s naughty list, with 47 percent of respondents saying out-of-stock merchandise topped their list for a bad shopping experience and 63 percent unwilling to wait for an item to be back in stock before trying another brand. During the holidays, it will be critical for retailers to fill the shelves and use their physical locations both to serve shoppers and as fulfillment centers to handle online orders and get shipments out to customers as quickly and safely as possible to ensure a holly, jolly season for all.
Co–Chief Executive Officer
There are a number of factors in play that have led to the rapid ascent of buy now, pay later (BNPL) globally this year. I believe that merchants should adopt BNPL in order to reach consumers where they love to shop—whether that’s online or at physical retail locations. At Quadpay, we offer our 3 million U.S. customers the flexibility to shop where they prefer across hundreds of thousands of retailers.
BNPL empowers merchants to provide their customers with flexibility to pay over time, which ultimately fosters customer loyalty, increases conversions and creates a better customer experience. Consumers—particularly Millennials—are wary of high-interest credit cards and accruing additional debt. This concern was prevalent before 2020 as many Millennials are saddled with student-loan debt and now has been heightened by the economic impact from COVID-19. The BNPL industry has been a major disruptor to credit cards, and companies like Quadpay represent the new world of interest-free and transparent digital-payment products.
Although we are shifting the way we live due to COVID-19, people are still spending money, and that was very evident this past Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. The upcoming holiday shopping season will be pivotal for retailers, and adding payment options that consumers are using and want is an important step for growth.
Ricoma International Corporation
Chief Executive Officer
Embroidery machines are the most important pieces of technology during this COVID-19 climate. Since the pandemic’s inception, we’ve seen a surge in requests for custom-embroidered face masks as well as other items such as patches, uniforms and more for essential and nonessential workers.
Consequently, decorators are now investing in embroidery technology as a way to generate more revenue for their businesses while also playing a role in the fight against COVID-19. Moreover, as we adapt to the new norm, it’s safe to say that embroidery machines will be fundamental in providing customized apparel that will keep millions of people safe and healthy for years to come.
Vice President of Customer Success
Now is the perfect opportunity for retailers and manufacturers to innovate and digitize their supply chain’s infrastructure. As opposed to further investing in the siloed, antiquated software systems of the past, industry innovators should invest in next-generation supply-chain-management platforms.
Systems that create visibility from product conception through to delivery and connectivity across all supply-chain participants will be what sets apart manufacturers and retailers from their competition moving forward.
Business Development and Partnerships Manager
Platforms that have built-in custom tools—that enable you to move beyond your pre-COVID-19 business to give you streamlined communication with existing clients and unlimited opportunities with new clients—should be prioritized.
At SynZenBe, the B2B online fabric-sourcing platform, we have digitized over 10,000 materials through high-quality photographs, enabling brands to continue sourcing and developing new materials without the need for in-person meetings or trade shows due to an added one-on-one scheduling tool with integrated call, video and instant-chat features.
COVID-19 has accelerated the digitization process; however, many platforms’ business models are built entirely without any offline interaction even for accounting, marketing, supply-chain management, etc. Retailers and manufacturers should spend their time leveraging technology that exists out there rather than trying to build their own systems. Time is precious, and it should be focused on how retailers and manufacturers want to showcase their companies and products in the best way.
Retail E-Commerce Supply Chain Product Marketing Manager
COVID-19 has propelled digital commerce, but not all brands are equipped for the shift. With rolling shutdowns, reluctant shoppers and surging online orders, inventory can be tied up in shuttered stores while e-commerce platforms are maxing out and siloed fulfillment channels are throttling capacity.
Retailers with omni-channel order-management capabilities are able to scale order-processing capacity, virtualize disparate inventory, route orders dynamically, handle returns without hassle and offer flexible fulfillment like click-and-collect, helping to meet shifting customer expectations.
Business Development Manager
With travel restricted and trade shows canceled, now more than ever we need to optimize our workday and streamline processes. Online communication and direct integration between suppliers and customers decrease time to market and build business fast.
Texbase Connect is a proven solution that allows brands and retailers to collaborate with their supply-chain partners and testing labs to accelerate the process of sourcing fabric and trim, testing and certifying materials, and ensuring the quality of finished products.
These types of technologies, which eliminate the need to use email to exchange material-definition templates, are integral to adapting. Customers define requirements and push them to suppliers, where test results are collected and performance confirmed. Lot-to-lot production testing is captured and automatically analyzed to guarantee quality. Sustainability metrics, supply-chain mapping and certificates of compliance ensure transparency
Adopting multi-tier collaboration platforms that mimic the way the industry works should be a priority of apparel businesses. Suppliers enter and update data, thereby eliminating work while increasing accuracy and automating processes.
COVID-19 has accelerated and sustained demand for online fashion. Brands who are most successful will make permanent changes in the way they do business. Retailers must reassess and reimagine how to use customer data to add value for the customer—through personalization and perpetuating a loyalty loop, which improves customer lifetime value.
Consumers who shopped online by necessity during the pandemic rather than by choice and found that e-commerce worked for them will present retailers with long-term opportunities. Data from our Fashion Genome show that demand for online personalization has increased upwards of 123 percent since March. For many apparel and footwear brands, the insistence from customers to improve one-on-one engagement is where their strategic focus must land.
The most important technology that retailers should adopt builds true personalization that gives online shoppers more confidence in their purchases. Retailers need access to customer data, not just around the purchases that they make within that retailer’s brand but on style, size and fit preferences across the multitude of brands they shop. To understand how a shopper behaves across a multitude of fashion-buying journeys allows retailers to build those personalized journeys as well as designs and offers.
Chief Executive Officer and Founder
Retailers and manufacturers both need to adopt 3D-design-and-fit software if they haven’t already. Companies that already had 3D-fashion-design software had to figure out the transition to working from home, while those businesses where it wasn’t implemented had the additional challenge of training on a new technology while also working remotely.
Another issue lies in the desire of many fashion businesses that want to be made in the U.S.A.; however, there is a notable skills gap because of decades of offshoring manufacturing. Simplified digital-design tools bridge the gap so that the technical skills required are not so intimidating.
Reshoring production must be much more streamlined because labor is so much more expensive in the U.S.A., but manufacturing closer to the customer allows for more agility in responding to market demand. Micro-factories are a great option for domestic manufacturing because they allow for the production of goods only after they have been sold.
Tukatech has lowered the barrier to entry into a 3D-design process by offering subscription-based 3D-visualization software and readymade 3D garments available for purchase, along with its Automatic Pattern Making add-on module for TUKAdesign.
*Responses have been condensed for space.