Fashion Retail: Future or Present?
As I’ve written in previous articles, technology is becoming more of a driving force than ever and it’s no less the case in the world of retail fashion. There are already big name brands out there embracing technology and no doubt, many more to follow.
Let’s take a look at a couple of retailers who have started to use technology to enhance the in-store consumer experience and also to drive sales. First is M&S. The new Amsterdam store is essentially an e-shop, with two routes to purchase. The first is a touch screen catalogue, where you can browse through all of the clothing and make a decision of what to add to your basket. Once you’ve made your choice, you can swipe your card and buy the items, which are then delivered to your home.
Now this may seem like it’s just something that you can do online anyway, without getting up, getting out of your house and heading to a store. However, what you get in addition is the chance to take a look through some of the clothing and feel the ‘fiber of their fabric’, so to speak. This is via a more engaging secondary technology in the store. The user can pick up items, touch and feel the material and look, before swiping the bar code and seeing the item on a large touchscreen. The consumer can then decide to pull the item into their basket and email their basket contents to themselves, ready for future purpose.
These are both pretty interesting applications, for smaller stores especially, however there are some who have gone a little further. TopShop used MS Kinect technology, to allow the user to get an idea of how an item would actually look on.
This is more of a time saving device, perhaps, rather than taking multiple items into a dressing room to try, the consumer can get a feel for the ‘look’ before trying and buying.
There will always be the question of touch. We’ll likely always want to feel the product and get an idea of exactly what it’s like. Now we’ve already discussed how M&S cover this, but how can it be done another way?
In Cannes this year, there was a particularly interesting item on show. IBM have already been looking at a tactile digital product, that could be programmed to give the ‘feel’ of a particular piece of clothing or material. This could sit alongside the technology that M&S and TopShop are using and provide the consumer with something they can get their hands on.
These are just a few examples of how retailers can use technology to help the consumer, but this isn’t where the line will be drawn. There’s a great scene in ‘Minority Report’, which shows Tom Cruise going through a mall and a store picking up his ‘identity’ and offering new products to him. This really isn’t too far fetched anymore. With the ability for people to allow themselves to be tracked via device, they could be updated with products while shopping. Allowing a store to have access to your whereabouts via an app on a mobile device, for example, would mean that there’s the potential of picking up your proximity and getting in contact with you. This maybe a bit painful having multiple apps on your device all running at the same time for each store, but one store aggregator application would be able to make it more manageable for the user.
There are also plenty of opportunities through other technology. Google are making strides with Google Glass and with news that Sony have created a chip small enough to fit inside a contact lens, the tech is there for us to start using. Imagine being able to simply take a shot of someone in the street wearing a coat that you like and then being able to buy it.
You could be in a position to shop anywhere. “I like that coat”, “I want those shoes”, it wouldn’t matter what the article was, but the ability to connect to an open shopping application could be the next stage and could be pushed forward by people like Google and Amazon, as two options. You could take that snapshot, be given the item detail, locations of stores near you, or even go straight through to purchase.
So where does this lead us? Is this part of the future of fashion retail? I think it’s probably more like the present, or at least near future. Most of the technology is either here already, or on the way very soon, so maybe retailers of all sorts, not necessarily just those involved in fashion, should be looking at taking these steps and start to get ahead of their competition.
Here are some quick thoughts on mobile. I know a lot of this will be preaching to the choir, but it’s something that is worth a reminder. I’m going to hit briefly on a couple of things, the first being the difference between mobile friendly, optimized and responsive and the second being native apps vs HTML5.
Are you friendly, optimized, or responsive?
First point on this subject is that people need to understand what the difference is. Let’s take ‘mobile friendly’. Mobile friendly is the most simple of the three. Make your website for desktop, but make sure it’s fully usable and viewable on mobile. So, this means nothing like Flash can be used, as an example. The other thing with mobile friendly sites is that they use the same navigation and display as the desktop version. What this means for the user on mobile, is that they’ll need to do things like zoom to read text, or use menu items – especially if you’ve not got the most thing on fingers – and scroll a lot, once zoomed. This isn’t the best solution, but it works and the user gets the benefit of the full desktop website.
If you want a website mobile optimized, it’s a different thing. The idea of a mobile optimized website, is that of designing the site in a way that is comfortable and easy to use on a mobile device. What does this mean for the user? It means that they do not have the cumbersome experience, of zooming, pinching, scrolling etc, that you would have from a friendly version.
The third solution is to have a responsive (or adaptive) design for you website. How is this different to an optimized version? Well the main element here, is that mobile devices come in all shapes and sizes, from tablets to smartphones and we need to cater for all. This means having multiple templates for the design, both for portrait and landscape. One should remember that one of those templates should be designed for desktop, as we don’t have a separate desktop version for a responsive site. This will mean that the user will have a similar, if not the same experience from desktop to tablet, for example and for smartphones all of the site will be available in a familiar design to the desktop version that they may have experienced at home, or at work.
There is now one additional thing for everyone to consider and that’s the news that Google have changed their mobile search algorithm. The new algorithm takes the three different mobile website types into consideration for ranking. From now on, if you search through Google on your mobile device, any site that has been indexed and is not optimized, or responsive, will be demoted in the search results and ranking. This means that there is a danger that your site will drop off people’s radars, if it’s not pre-prepared.
Another point of interest is the growing use of mobile usage. A lot and in some cases the majority, of website use is now from mobile devices. This varies from country to country, but this growing trend means that you cannot risk losing website visitors, due to the fact that you’ve not considered mobile. In addition, platforms such as Facebook and YouTube are heavily promoting their responsive capabilities for apps and gadgets.
‘Mobile First’ has been a phrase that’s been mentioned a lot over the last few years, but it’s now a vital part of design and build. Designers will need to be fully clued up on optimized and responsive design and companies will need to bite the bullet and spend the money for website builds. Let’s make it clear, it is a longer UX, design and build process to create a responsive website, but in the long term, it’s worth the commitment and investment up front.
Are you a native?
This is another interesting debate, whether mobile apps should be native or web based. For a native app, the development process will use a programming language that is native to the device, so for example, for Apple devices using iOS, objective C will be the programming language used. For web-based apps, the choice of the moment is HTML5, which is more platform agnostic, than using objective C for iOS, or JAVA for Android.
HTML5 sounds really interesting on the surface, as it’s flexible enough for an app to be built once, for multiple platforms. If you build an app using objective C and want to use the app on an android device, you’re going to have to rebuild it. A HTML5 app is easier to distribute – for the most part – than using the stores available or mobile apps.
However, there are disadvantages for the HTML5 app developer. Much of the functionality of a device is not usable from HML5, as the APIs are just not complete. That means for those wanting to use things like the camera, GPS and accelerator, there’s no option aside from developing a native version.
So which way do you go, right now? Well I think it’s a big clue that people like Mark Zuckerburg have said that Facebook wasted two years on HTML5, before switching to native, although he did also say that he’s still excited about HTML5, but it’s just not there yet. My opinion is, as it stands, that native is the way to create the most engaging mobile apps, at least for now and the near future.