Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

Retailing going bust 6: using technology

What is it about consultancies and technology? Or rather, what is it about them and computers?

What technologies transformed apparel buying most? Almost certainly the proliferation of manmade fibres in the middle of the 20th century, containerisation and the fax machine. But there’s a whole school of consultants for whom the only technology that matters is stuff connected with computers. So here’s what we get:

6) Intelligent technologies for intelligent consumers

Today’s shoppers are getting smarter and embracing new technology that gives them more information and control over how they manage their shopping process. Kiosks, RFID, mobile devices, smart carts, wireless sensors, contactless payment solutions, magic mirrors and virtual closets are all technology components that will evolve, morph, and integrate to adapt to the changing consumer needs. Retailers who are ahead of the curve will exploit the always-on, always-available

To get to the interesting point, we have to strip out a couple of red herrings:

  • Today’s shoppers are getting smarter. And the evidence for this is? Precisely zero. Starting an analysis by claiming previous generations were dumb merely shows you’ve not done any analysis
  • Retailers who are ahead of the curve will exploit the always-on etc. Nothing in this world is certain except for death and taxes. Sharp retailers are likely to be ahead of their competitors in understanding what motivates their customers, and how to provide that efficiently. But the technologies they use might be in elastomerics (to allow better body shape conformance or control), in body measurement to get sizing better, or maybe in some smart fabrics – though many recent fabric innovations have disappointed. Which technologies they use will vary massively – but really smart retailers are likely be too preoccupied with giving customers what they want to spend time worrying about funky new promotional systems. Not I said “likely”. The only people who say “will” are charlatan fortune tellers, religious fundamentalists (“the guilty will burn in Hell”) and snake-oil salesmen trying to pretend the hokum they’re peddling is objective advice. They’re the people who give consultancy a bad name.

The real problem with technology – or rather with computer technology – is that so much written about it is written by naive enthusiasts. We’re told that, for example “The emergence of smart phones, communication standards, and consolidation among carriers and mobile vendors will mean that mobile commerce is poised to fulfill its potential.” In clothing retail, we’re then always given examples that are, to use the enthusiasts’ jargon, awesome – in their triviality. And when you say this, you’re accused of being anti-progress.

Which is precisely what computer sceptics aren’t. The sensitivity a good retailer needs to have about what his customers value just can’t co-exist with an inability to change or to understand change. We’re sceptical because this computer fixation is itself anti-progress: it’s not concerned with changes in what influence people – but with a solemn conviction the rest of the world will eventually share the computer obsessive’s interests.

As with so many other examples, a recession just isn’t the time for this kind of self-indulgence. It’s the time for being very, very cautious about new investments. If there are ways computer technology helps us speak to or understand customers better – fine. But the process starts with the customer (and the shareholder and the bank manager) – not with a commitment to a particular kind of technology