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The Future of Retail: Fashion and Technology

The Future of Retail: Fashion and Technology

Anita Tillmann is one of Berlin’s fashion pioneers. The fact that Germany’s capital has gained a significant place in the global fashion calendar is, in major parts, down to her. Even when things got rough (the departure of Bread & Butter, for example, the trade show many thought was indispensable as a magnet for press and buyers), Tillmann kept her faith in the city.

Today, Premium, the trade show founded by Tillmann, and its affiliated fairs such as Seek are the dominating events during fashion weeks in Berlin. Tillmann and her team are not only up to speed when it comes to trends in fashion, but across the entire business, which is why they started #Fashiontech, a conference at the intersection of – you guessed it – fashion and technology.

In 2017, it’s hard to imagine a world without technology, and its importance will only increase. Of course, the fashion world is affected too. Things happen quickly and the industry seems to be lagging behind, especially traditional bricks and mortar retailers. Our editor Björn Lüdtke talked to Anita Tillmann about how technology can empower retailers and propel them into the future.

Why did you start Fashiontech?

Our core business is fashion trade shows. Fashiontech is an extension of the smaller conferences that we had previously held as part of our Premium trade show, on topics such as sustainability or influencers. We see trends happening not just in fashion, but across the entire business. We saw that there’s a demand, so we started #Fashiontech. It has turned into a significant conference, with 4,000 visitors and top quality speakers. We want to identify and discuss the trends in different fields, like Wearables & Design, E-commerce & The Future of Retail, and Digital Marketing & Communication, to connect our industry with the relevant players in the digital industry.

Is there a general trend moving away from fashion and towards technology? Is technology the new fashion, especially for the younger generation?

Not from what I observe. Obviously fashion is my day-to-day business because it’s my job, but it's also a strong topic at home. So it comes as no surprise that my two twin girls are taking interest in their styling; they spend a lot of their pocket money on clothes. They’re nine years old. And it’s not just them: when I take them to school, I’ve never seen so many cool kids in one place. They all wear the right kicks, and they know everything about them—Adidas is a good example, and their NMDs.

Of course, they know their smartphones, too. But, to me, technology means progress—it gives us more options of ways to do business. The fashion industry just needs to make better use of it. How can I reach the kids? With which merchandise, and via which channels? That’s our task.

Does it still make sense to differentiate between the online and the physical retail world?

I think that end consumers experience a brand in its entirety. The digital space simply offers different channels, and they use them according to their current needs. If I’m busy I won’t have the time to go shopping, or maybe I'm too lazy and want to do it from the sofa. Brands need to work seamlessly across all channels.

Which channels should a brand use?

At the end of the day, a brand needs to be clear about a few things: who do I want to reach? Who is my customer? What is my message? And through which channels do I reach them? This can happen in the digital space, but, of course, also in the physical store. And, in the latter, you can do much more than is being done at this point in time.

How can I use technology to elevate the experience in physical stores?

Let’s stick with the very young target group. You need to incorporate music and social media like Instagram, Snapchat, or whatever the future has in store. Let them play their music while they’re taking their picture. We live in a culture of selfies; presenting yourself is what it’s all about.

And this is where fashion comes in. I think the generations that are growing up identify through fashion and this is how they show their belonging to a certain community. This has always been the case for youth, but I don’t think it’s ever been as big of a thing as it is now.

I believe that this needs to be taken into account in physical stores. Let them take their selfies, give them an experience, deliver the backdrop for their images, so to say. Give them something to eat and drink, and play their music, so your store becomes a place where their community wants to gather.

Are there technologies beyond social media for bricks and mortar retailers?

Of course, so many. Make paying easier, for example. Track your customers: what did they buy the last time? What do they like? What are they wearing today? Then you can lead them through your store. What are my customers interested in? Which price points? Just like online, give them options: “If you like this, you might like this…” Algorithms for the physical world. I’m certain that customers will appreciate it. Why? Because they’re used to it from online. Everybody shops at Amazon, and that can be translated to the physical environment. I think there’s a lot of potential.

Shopping needs to be made easy. Service is another buzzword in this context. Our banks are currently re-organizing: in the future, they’ll offer a whole lot more than they do now and will help you to decide what makes sense for you and what doesn’t, regarding your accounts, insurances, or pensions – all with the help of algorithms. That needs to be translated to the fashion retail world. I find we’re behind in this field.

Only in Germany?

No, everywhere. Nobody is to blame though, things are happening so fast and it’s hard to keep up. But you need to have an understanding of how algorithms work, what convenience means in the year 2017, and what the service of the future might look like. Of course, there are players who know this already, but most of the traditional fashion retailers are entering new grounds.

I think this is another reason for the success of our Fashiontech. There’s such a thirst for knowledge, and the traditional special interest media lag behind, too. People need hands-on advice: who offers the right products and services for me? Let it be smart price tags. This is why we’re planning another, bigger conference next year where we want to push the whole thing onto another level, because the demand is so high.

We talked about the younger generation. Does technology play a role for the older customer?

I think it’s exactly the same. If technology can help to facilitate shopping, then of course. It’s about making things more efficient, making them easier. However, the technology needs to be a no-brainer: you’re not supposed to think about it, it’s not supposed to cause you a headache, it just needs to happen. It’s the same as a good look—it needs to be effortless.

Do I need technology in a store or can I exist without?

I think it works wonderfully without technology. There’s a big enough audience who appreciate just that and want to escape the digital. However, and even more so, you need to find a very defined position in the market, have a very clear message, and understand who your customer is and how to reach them.

I’ve never worked in any business other than fashion. Back in the day, we used to tell our retailers to set up a database with their customers’ birthdays and call their husbands four weeks before! It can be as simple as that. It’s personal, and it creates loyalty. Just because there is digital doesn't mean that we don’t appreciate personal encounters anymore. I find the opposite is the case. How do I approach and interact with my customers? Encounters and the way I set them up is important. With everything I do, anywhere, across all channels. I think that human interaction still plays a major role.

Amazon has entered fashion retail and, of course, they want to become leaders. As a brand, on the one hand you don't want to miss out on a massive potential for sales, on the other hand you become rather dependent. What to do?

The answer to this is obviously not a simple one. I think it’s down to the individual brand. Sooner or later a lot will try, and I think it’s advisable to do so. However, it might not be advisable to offer all of my products on the platform; maybe I’ll offer a certain range, and keep more exclusive merchandise for my own channels, the way Nike does it, for example.

I think it’s important to keep control over the brand. Again, what’s caused major trouble here is the speed with which things currently happen. Nobody thought to make contracts that prohibit a retailer from re-selling brand merchandise on Amazon. Even though a brand might decide to pull their stuff from them, a department store might decide to sell their remaining stock through the platform, and in no time you’ll find your products at reduced prices when the algorithm decides it’s the time. And I dare to say that even Amazon was surprised. At this stage it’s all a bit trial and error. Make contracts with your other retailers so they won’t re-sell your merchandise, and to keep full control over your brand.

In your opinion, what do brands need to take extra care of when they present themselves in the digital space?

What I think is becoming more and more important is your visual language, the way you communicate through image. This is what counts today: can you grab somebody’s attention within a fraction of a second? Pictures, illustrations, film… All the people who understand how to visually communicate are more important than ever.

Interview by Björn Lüdtke.