Over the course of two decades, e-commerce had completely changed the way consumers buy fashion. Now, around 20% of fashion is bought online and that’s only going to increase in light of the rapid retail revolution brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.
But, given that the consumer, has so readily adopted the digital realm, it does perhaps seem strange that brands and retailers have been so resolutely wedded to doing their fashion buying via physical channels for all of this time.
An army of fashion buyers travelling around the world four, five or six times a year to visit showrooms, trade shows and fashion weeks is not only inefficient and expensive (not to mention exhausting) but it feels far from sustainable.
However, as it has with many other aspects of our lives, COVID-19 has focused the industry’s mind when it comes to the process of fashion buying and has accelerated at speed a movement towards digitisation that was already, slowly, underway.
A raft of digital solutions has emerged in recent months but one of the most exciting does not hail from Silicon Valley, as might be expected, but rather the valleys of Wales, well, Cardiff anyway, and the result is one of the most appealing, technically advanced and user-friendly of all of the platforms on the market, and it’s causing a stir.
Co Founder and creator Dan O’Connell and Jennifer Drury have come at the problem from a fashion brand and buyer perspective (O’Connell has established both his own brand and worked as a fashion agent while Drury was a fashion buyer) and their experience is borne out in the platform, whose 360-degree experience most closely emulates the real-life fashion buying process.
“As a fashion buyer I was always frustrated at the obstacles of trying to buy from multiple fashion brands with differing distribution models, as well as finding it hard to discover fashion brands at declining trade shows. It quickly became our goal to evolve traditional industry practices to create more efficient routes to market, a more immersive and enjoyable customer experience and a focus on industry solutions for sustainability,” explains Drury.
O’Connell says the need for the solution has been made all the more urgent given world events. “When we started out we thought that in 5-10 years the wholesale fashion market will have to become more digital due to market forces, with the expense of showrooms, trade shows and travel etc. COVID has made that happen now,” he says.
With most trade shows due to take place over the summer and autumn cancelled and catwalks shifting to hybrid digital and physical formats (plus a lack of appetite and ability to travel), buyers and brands need a solution fast.
While O’Connell sees the platform as a fantastic route to market for smaller and independent brands (on which more later), he also knew that if he were to be successful, it had to be impressive enough to attract big brands.
“We asked ourselves ‘how can we digitise the face to face appointment, how do we digitise showroom sales?’” he explains. And to do that, it seems, the best way is to emulate it as closely as possible.
Brands can create their presence as they see fit on the BrandLab platform, but it has the capacity, should they wish, to recreate their real life showroom inch by inch with 360-degree imagery of each product.
The behaviours are also very familiar with buyers, who are able to create an assortment just as they would in a physical showroom and coming soon buyers will be able to merchandise an empty rail with their selections, “We’ve made the experience as immersive and normal as possible,” O’Connell explains.
The buyer can also talk to the brand’s salesperson throughout the appointment, if they wish, to be guided through the experience. And if they would like their team to review the selection or carry out the buy with them, that’s OK too. Up to 6 members of a team can access the platform at one time.
BrandLab can also be integrated into a brand’s existing B2B ordering system for online checkout. The information tags on a garment are in effect web browsers so can be connected simply via a hyperlink.
This ability to integrate with a third-party online checkout also means that a future application of the platform could lie in consumer e-commerce. “We could emulate a store inch by inch and fully merchandise it,” says O’Connell, adding that the multi-user function could mean a group of friends could go shopping together and interact with the store’s sales associate giving e-commerce a whole new social dimension and a richer experience that the, albeit sophisticated, online catalogue approach used today.
Furthermore, the platform has the ability to recreate tradeshows, exhibitions and live events, and is already used by PR companies to stage press events where journalists can browse through brand collections and take part in virtual experiences. The scope is huge.
However, the focus for O’Connell and the team now is the fashion buying process. A number of large brands have taken the platform on including iconic British brand Barbour.
The 360-degree images and high resolution photography can help overcome any concerns that buyers may have about not physically seeing a garment but there is still nothing to stop a brand from sending a buyer physical samples of items they are particularly interested in. In the pipeline there are technologies, such as a glove that can replicate the feel of the fabric, but for now the combination of digital imagery plus physical sample if needed seems optimum.
For the buyer too, well executed digital showrooms offer a great opportunity to discover brands they may not otherwise have heard about. And, of course, for brands the chance to access buyers who may otherwise never have seen them is the holy grail.
The process for smaller brands to reach buyers is inherently inefficient and frustratingly difficult. Now, instead of sending out look books and begging for appointments that may never be granted, a brand presence can be established on BrandLab and the technology can take the strain.
This blend of the digital and the physical is how O’Connell sees the market evolving in the coming years. He’s not attempting to replace showrooms, trade shows or catwalks, just as e-commerce has not replaced physical retail, but to augment them.
O’Connell explains: “The average American buyer takes between 70-80 flights a year. They only care if the alternative to that suits them and going on a website and just looking at product isn’t it. We’re never going to replace physical showrooms completely, but we can enhance the existing model.”
With COVID making 7-8 flights a year seem impossible, let alone 70-80, BrandLab may find their alternative suits many more buyers than they think.