Industry Focus: Technology—As 2021 draws to a close, what types of technology should apparel businesses consider investing in to successfully navigate 2022?

Industry Focus: Technology

As of Friday, December 17, 2021

With the new year arriving in a couple of weeks, a sense of opportunity and new beginnings has been felt as businesses look back on the progress made and lessons learned during 2021. Entering 2022, the apparel industry is looking toward a fresh start. To support this optimism that has been cultivated through overcoming challenges and applying hard work, businesses will need to continue to invest in technologies that allow them to remain agile, ready to shift direction with solutions when an obstacle lands in their path.

Whether solving issues within the supply chain, advancing retail strategy or approaching production from a different perspective, fashion businesses must invest in technologies to support their work when a problem strikes in order to avoid disastrous outcomes. California Apparel News asked apparel-technology experts: As 2021 draws to a close, what types of technology should apparel businesses consider investing in to successfully navigate 2022?

Shahrooz Kohan, Chief Executive Officer, AIMS360

­ The market is changing fast because of supply changes and buying patterns. The whole supply-to-delivery process is now omni-channel as it is impossible to know what will happen next. Costs and selling prices are constantly a moving target for each channel. One day goods are stuck in the port and brands require domestic production and the next day it changes again. We have had to upgrade our omni-channel automation software to accommodate the day-to-day changes in production, order taking and delivery. Our client brands are staying in business by being able to quickly adapt to changes.

Jason Wang, Chief Operations Officer, Alvanon

When it comes to samples, imagery and production, physical textiles have been the standard in fashion. One of the solutions to combat this waste is digital technology, with digital sampling and 3D digitized models that can not only help within the supply chain but also solve customers’ fit issues by creating realistic virtual body models to make clothes that fit every body.

Today, we’re using digital to help us get a more efficient supply chain by making 3D models streamlined across digital and physical forms. Alvanon enables companies to generate and leverage their authentic 3D digital assets across multiple platforms and applications. We have seen how 3D avatars can change the way we design, produce, merchandise and sell fashion. 3D digitized models will change the fashion production game in 2022.

Mark Kwong, Head of Business Development, Brandboom

As we’ve seen over the last couple of years with the pandemic, everything can change very quickly. Many countries still have heavy restrictions in place—and those restrictions change frequently. As the pandemic continues to create challenges, buyers often can’t, or don’t want to, travel. As a result, the ability to do everything online is not only expected—it’s demanded.

The name of the game is flexibility. Brands that have always used the standard seasonal approach to their lines now need to be more agile with planning and inventory. We’ve also seen brands benefit from expanding their product lines; for example, incorporating a new casual line or focusing on regional markets to accommodate the ever-changing “new normal.”

So, apparel businesses should be investing first and foremost in flexible technologies that are immediately fully functional while being able to accommodate frequent and unanticipated changes at super-fast speed.

Dan O’Connell, Co-founder, BrandLab360

Our unique technology is at the forefront of the rapidly building trend of using gamification to elevate e-commerce inside the metaverse. To successfully navigate 2022, it’s essential that apparel businesses consider investing in technology where people can meet, transact, work and play online. We believe this will be the catalyst for a cascading cultural shift in the future of e-commerce supported by the metaverse and Web 3.0.

Michele Salerno, Director of Marketing and Assistant Vice President, Celerant Technology Corp. & CAM Commerce

Apparel retailers have learned over the past 21 months how vital technology is for their businesses. Retailers who were still using inadequate and/or aging software to run their business definitely had a disadvantage versus retailers who were already using an innovative and more modern software solution.

Implementing new fulfillment methods such as buy online, pick up same day—whether it be in-store or curbside—was virtually impossible if you didn’t have the right technology foundation to support these initiatives. Flipping your entire store’s available inventory to an instant virtual store online to continue serving your local customers when perhaps they couldn’t come into your store—and doing this quickly across the many local communities you may serve with 100 different store locations—is virtually impossible without the right software as your business’s backbone.

Moving into 2022, we have all learned a lot from the past 21 months, and the most successful retailers have come out on top and will continue to thrive because they understand how important an innovative and comprehensive software solution is to manage both their bricks-and-mortar and online businesses.

Paul Magel, President of Business Applications, Computer Generated Solutions

If recent history is any indication of what the apparel industry will universally focus on, it will be the supply chain. However, brands and distributers individually should be evaluating and investing in their companies’ greatest pain points. The supply chain has become a catchall for much of the 2020 and 2021 disruptions, but the specific technology needs within the supply chain can depend upon where the business priorities lie. Is the priority sustainability and compliance, reduction in supply-chain costs, or production lead times? How ready they are, as an organization, to adopt and implement technology will also be a consideration.

When priorities and corporate readiness are identified, only then can the appropriate technology be selected and deployed.

In 2022, the digitization of the supply chain will be critical, and that can mean anything from deploying a PLM platform that connects an apparel business’s designers, production and vendors to installing a shop-floor-control solution that allows for real-time production tracking with notifications sent to the brands as the goods move through the manufacturing process. Key to the success of any initiative will be the collection of data throughout the supply chain and transforming that data into meaningful information to be used to form insights and actionable intelligence.

Accelerated technology deployment will be a necessary business fundamental in 2022 for not only success but survival. Taking careful consideration of your business’s overall goals and priorities will be the key to choosing the right area to focus on.

Roy Avidor, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Cymbio

Automation has become a key driver in accelerating digital sales in 2022. The upcoming year will require businesses to lean on technology and provide the customer journey, scalability and data needed to keep up with the increasing changes. And while the rules are always evolving, in order to continue growing and moving forward businesses need to create a firm foundation today in order to grow digital sales.

Consumers are shopping differently; therefore, it’s crucial to accelerate the adoption of digital-first strategies and channels. Thanks to e-commerce, consumers have increased access to whatever they need more than ever before.

For brands, selling at retailers and marketplaces has become a must, and the only way to do this at scale is through automation. Automation enables brands to easily sell on any channel, regardless of their systems, while streamlining product data, imagery, mapping, inventory syncing, taxonomy, orders, billing, tracking, returns and reports. The bottom line is that businesses have even more power to reach and sell on a global scale with automation in their back pockets.

Tim Check, Product Manager of Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc.

As we approach the end of the year, take stock in where you’ve succeeded and what has worked well. If you’ve found success in a niche market, what are other products and services that would be a good fit?

Consider investments in new technology only when it will support your path to success. That could be in the way of faster production, lower operating costs or expanded capabilities. Only you know what is best for your business.

As an example, a regional sportswear-apparel producer faced a significant drop in team-apparel sales due to the pandemic and shifted its product offerings to cater to esports apparel and accessories. The existing dye-sublimation printers worked well to enable the company to start producing products such as video game–themed clothing, personalized gaming pads and energy-drink insulators. Sales picked up and, to the company’s surprise, they seemed to have uncovered a sizable market opportunity. Direct-to-garment turned out to be the solution they needed. They were able to produce the sublimated cut-and-sew apparel without any personalization and later used DTG to add personalization.

The customer-order pattern for esports products was different from team sportswear in that the number of unique orders was higher with smaller job sizes. Designing and producing personalized cut-and-sew apparel was difficult to do efficiently while the accessories, like gaming pads, were quite easy. Noting that the top-selling products consisted of a dozen esports game themes, they looked to find a more efficient solution to personalizing the apparel.

John Robinson, Senior Vice President of Client Engagement, Exenta From Aptean

In 2022 and beyond, companies absolutely must invest in technology that delivers real-time visibility into the key performance indicators of their business, including inventory of raw materials, inventory of product, sales, financial information, available inventory to sell and production orders against sales. Only a tailored, industry-specific ERP solution provides that level of visibility for fashion and apparel companies.

For companies designing and producing their own products, a PLM solution also delivers valuable efficiencies, helping apparel brands be not just quick to market but also smart to market. It’s important to get the right products to market at the right time. A PLM facilitates collaboration between designers and vendors, and a modern PLM really lifts administrative burdens from designers, freeing them to be creative.

Those businesses that manufacture their own products—essentially any operation that includes running machinery and having labor involved in getting a job done—want to maximize productivity from their investment in equipment and human capital. Investing in shop-floor control, or manufacturing execution software, allows manufacturers to track the efficiency of each operation and each operator in real time and delivers visibility into real-time WIP, eliminating production bottlenecks.

To succeed today, apparel companies need to bring digital transformation to every aspect of their business. Even brands not directly engaged in e-commerce often have a need to support that for retail customers who do, including a way to keep inventory current, receive online orders, drop-ship to the end customer and facilitate the process in reverse for returns. Future-proofing an apparel-business supply chain requires nonstop progression toward becoming more agile at every phase of the game, from design and development all the way through to a client’s experience in engaging with a brand online or in the retail store.

Tirsa Parrish, Managing Partner, Fashion Index

Going into 2022, apparel companies and retailers, even smaller retailers, should adapt their websites and platforms to ensure they have a drop-ship functionality. This will allow them to significantly speak to the commitment to socially responsible production, which provides zero waste and no inventory options!

Ulla Hald, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, FAVES

Live selling and planning tools are the two investment areas I recommend for 2022. But let’s be clear, making technology investments without human adaption is meaningless at best. There’s no magic pill. To be successful in the ever-changing apparel landscape, both technology and human processes need to innovate and adapt.

Live selling really took off in 2021, allowing savvy retailers a new way to connect with customers. Those who were engaging and authentic and showed up on social channels consistently were rewarded with a substantial increase in sales.

To win in 2022, I suggest more apparel retailers experiment with live selling and invest in technology platforms to help automate the process. Live selling is a game changer. It’s the unlock to connecting with customers anywhere. But as with any social presence, it requires a commitment to being authentic and present.

We can’t control global logistics, but we can control the products we order. It amazes me how many retailers use their gut when investing in inventory and all too often end up with similar or redundant products from multiple vendors or forgetting to order key styles.

Another trouble spot is losing track of when products are supposed to arrive. Nobody wants to receive an order of Rudolph sweaters on Dec. 26. Staying on top of orders and expected deliveries is essential, but it’s not easy without the right tools.

Chris Kronenthal, President and Chief Technology Officer, FreedomPay

2021 has shown us that consumers’ appetite for buy-now, pay-later options is growing and is not limited to bigger-ticket items or online purchases. Apparel retailers need to meet this growing consumer demand in 2022 and need the right technology to make BNPL as seamless as any other transaction. This calls for a platform that can swiftly and securely connect disparate systems like POS, customer loyalty app and a BNPL solution behind the scenes.

Katja Dömer, Chief Marketing Officer, inriver

As e-commerce continues to dominate the apparel landscape, both from a retail and wholesale perspective, it’s more crucial than ever that product details are consistent and accurate across marketplaces. A product-information-management solution, especially one that provides digital marketplace auditing, can be a game-changer for apparel businesses looking to amplify their online selling game, eliminate return costs and attract repeat customers.

Kristin Savilia, CEO, JOOR

Virtual showrooms have become a critical investment for apparel brands to maintain business continuity. As brands now consider the reintegration of in-person selling, having a virtual showroom will remain a necessity in order to efficiently conduct business with partners around the world. Selecting the right marketplace is critical, especially when it comes to imagery and intelligence. Look for virtual channels that offer rich 3D imagery, including augmented reality, and product-attribute tagging that incorporates artificial intelligence. These technologies enable better discoverability and can eliminate the need to ship samples to buyers. Regarding the global supply chain, apparel brands and buyers must rely on seamless inventory management systems, which bring together an up-to-the-minute view of their wholesale businesses.

Robert Zoch, Global Content Manager, Kornit Digital

The successful apparel business is one that invests in tools to minimize the time—and perhaps complexity, even more so—involved in the accurate fulfillment of real demand for its products. If there were ever any doubt that forecast-based production cycles were on the way out, a global pandemic, the explosion of e-commerce and a serious shipping crisis certainly laid those doubts to rest. On-demand production, nearer to the purchaser for quick delivery, is key to serving today’s marketplace, and the tools exist to align production with those demands, eliminating waste and driving healthier profit margins in the process.

Producers need tools to harness that demand, whether it’s coming from online stores, social media or design apps that empower users to bring their own creations to life. The Internet of Things—like smart devices—it’s all part of that digital revolution, which eliminates the guesswork for businesses that make the effort to tune in. Starting with the more effective capture of consumer demand and sentiment, they can invest in highly automated workflow software that eliminates friction from point of sale to the production floor to shipping finished goods.

A truly modern and intelligent end-to-end workflow enables immediate flexibility and agility to answer demand in real time, eliminating overproduction.

Alison Bringé, Chief Marketing Officer, Launchmetrics

Going into the new year, brands should consider providers that support two things: launch and metrics. When managing an apparel business, there are two sides to the coin; on one side you have technology that digitizes internal processes and optimizes resources in order to increase efficiency, and on the other you have tools that allow you to track marketing strategies by leveraging data and insights in order to make smarter decisions around your branding efforts.

In 2022, as we settle into the new era, it will be pivotal that brands invest in both in order to enable their executives to succeed with the right tools and services while implementing a holistic approach to their brand performance. If the past years have taught us anything it’s that we need to be more efficient so as to spend more time on what really matters.

Leonard Marano, President Americas, Lectra

As we look back on the challenges of both 2020 and 2021, we realize the need for digitalization to increase transparency and agility in the supply chain. Digitalization creates a seamless data workflow and reduces the number of errors, time wasted and money spent, which today is vital to the health of any business. That digitalization combined with automated technology and Industry 4.0–enabled solutions reduces the exposure producers have from shipping delays, raw-materials shortages and hard-to-find labor.

To operate in a more effective way, businesses need to implement fully connected workflows across the entire supply chain. One example is the use of AI to gain competitive analysis and make more-accurate decisions about what is needed to produce, avoid overstock, optimize price and margins, and save time and money. Another is leveraging a fully connected suite of products that connects data, accurately, from PLM and development in 2D/3D CAD to production planning and manufacturing. Whether you are producing made to order, customized or mass-produced garments, seamlessly connecting the data eliminates errors and reduces the labor gap.

Catherine Cole, Chief Executive Officer, MOTIF

Our industry is changing so rapidly and will go through so much disruption over the next decade due to sustainability and 3D development imperatives that individuals and companies can’t be complacent. The best thing newcomers and industry veterans can do is make sure their arsenal of skills is well stocked. We all need to embrace continuous learning with an open mindset to successfully navigate 2022.

Learning should never be a one-time event but ongoing with built-in opportunities for immediate application. We are launching a new series of live virtual master classes between February and June 2022 so learners can interact in real time with an instructor.

Tommy Fazio, Fashion Director, NuOrder

Investment in digital transformation is key for brands and retailers in 2022. This year, we have seen more and more companies making the move to digital, allowing them to more efficiently run their businesses through real-time data and insights, immersive storytelling as well as virtual selling between retailers and brands.

Greg Flinn, Solutions Director of Planning and Optimization, Oracle Retail

Retailers should focus their efforts in three areas as they finish up 2021. First, they should explore robust, AI-native forecasting capabilities to better understand if the category shifts that occurred over the last two years will maintain their trajectory and for how long. Second, apparel retailers should investigate enhanced order-management systems that take better advantage of the supply chain to most efficiently and profitably fulfill orders from any selling or inventory-holding location. Finally, retailers should evaluate mobile POS systems that facilitate the ability to service the customer wherever they want to shop. Certainly the existence of a powerful planning solution sets the framework on which to build these focus areas and better manage open-to-buy as well as productivity across the entire enterprise.

Esther Kestenbaum Prozan, President, Ruby Has

Apparel businesses should think deeply about technology-enabled services overall and specifically about the technology capabilities of third-party e-commerce-fulfillment providers. It’s not enough to have the right technology if it doesn’t integrate with the provider. Invest in a relationship with a fulfillment provider who has a robust and comprehensive set of integrations with every platform and utilizes seamless e-commerce demands. Also look for intelligent use of automation and robotics such as world-class sortation systems that can bring speed as well as economies of scale.

Galina Sobolev, Chief Marketing Officer, StyleScan

As we have learned in the time since 2020, apparel businesses should continue directing significant efforts toward enhancing their e-commerce, specifically by digitizing clothing into 3D. Many large industry names—Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, PVH and Lululemon—are embracing the digital direction and have already begun using 3D apparel for B2B and B2C sales.

For B2B, digital clothing enables garments to be designed, merchandised and sold before being manufactured. It increases speed and efficiency, saves costs and helps the environment.

For B2C, 3D apparel can also facilitate virtual try-ons, be worn in the metaverse and digitally dress endless photos/videos—all the elements necessary to position apparel brands for the future.

Guy Courtin, Vice President and Industry Principal of Retail, Tecsys

What we are experiencing with our supply chains is not seasonal, pandemic-driven issues; rather, they are the result of some fundamental weaknesses within our networks. At the macro level, governments and NGOs will need to take concrete actions to fix infrastructure, deal with labor issues and rethink how we structure our global supply chains.

But what about further down chain? The act of shopping is happening across more and more channels, both online and offline; this is introducing a great deal of complexity on two fronts: digital orchestration and physical execution.

Digital orchestration refers to the technology backbone that allows retailers to operate more-sophisticated and -optimized order routing. This entails virtual pooling of inventory and its network of dispensing nodes like stores, distribution centers, dark stores, micro fulfillment centers, pickup lockers, pop-up stores and more.

Physical execution refers to the warehousing activities involved in managing the complexity behind the curtain that makes these brands so shoppable. Warehouses are being asked to balance the traditional function of pallets and cases moving from manufacturer to store but then also to layer on top of that all the wrinkles involved in fulfilling online orders, processing direct-to-consumer channels and managing distributed dispensing nodes. And all this while meeting increasingly uncompromising consumer expectations in terms of deliveries and returns.

Joe Walkuski, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Texbase

Sustainability and traceability will affect the value of your brand more than anything else in the next two years. Get it right and you’ll succeed. Get it wrong and your brand may never recover.

As such, it’s imperative that companies solidify their strategies and invest in software to create fact-based supply chains defined by accurate data in support of their sustainability and traceability objectives.

Consumers are demanding to know what’s in the products they’re buying and where they come from. Companies need to be fortifying the processes and systems they use to define and manage supplier, material and product interactions. Only then will they be able to accurately educate the consumer and therefore gain their trust.

Chris Walia, Chief Operating Officer, Tukatech

The most important technological aspect of the fashion business in 2022 will be agility. Is the technology going to allow you to pivot to meet market demands or face the kinds of global supply-chain disruptions we’ve seen over the last two years? Consider adapting at least part of your business to a demand-manufacturing or micro-factory production model. You could design, develop, sell, then make products rather than sitting on expensive inventory and waiting for it to be sold.

Virtual design tools like readymade pattern templates and 3D software are a must in order to visualize how a garment will look before it is cut and sewn with very little technical skill required. Then fabric can be printed as needed and laser cut according to what has been ordered. The beauty of the microfactory is that it doesn’t have to mean small. It can be scaled to suit the needs of any level of production.

Suresh Menon, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Software Solutions, Zebra Technologies

Today’s apparel-store associates have seen their roles shift dramatically over the last couple of years, with more change on the horizon. Understaffed workforces throughout the retail industry, including those on the apparel side, have led to increased workloads, making it difficult for them to complete their daily tasks in an effective and efficient manner.

With a substantial increase in demand for omni-channel services, apparel associates continue to manage increased demand for curbside pickup and buy-online, pickup-in-store orders, online returns, and in-store appointment-scheduling services. Apparel retailers will continue to see these challenges well into the future, which means that this pressure on store associates will not abate anytime soon.

By embracing intelligent retail technology, retailers can alleviate some of the burden on associates, fostering a more agile workforce that can react in real time to challenges. Forward-thinking apparel retailers have been investing in artificial intelligence–driven workforce management, real-time store execution and prescriptive analytics to simplify work and drive continuous operational improvement at stores. Empowering workers with mobile access to intelligent retail technology ensures that they always have access to the most accurate and up-to-date information. Whether it’s important communication from their manager, a new high-priority task or other key operational information, these solutions ensure that staff is in the right place at the right time to elevate the customer experience.

*Responses have been condensed for space.