Transforming Fashion Supply Chain with intelligent technologies

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The fashion and textile industry has been one of those most impacted by supply chain disruptions and social distancing limitations. Last-minute store closures, supply shortages or the cost of over-stocking have been compelling fashion retailers to transform their legacy business models. It is now incumbent on retailers to find solutions to remaining sustainable, profitable and still attractive to customers in an ever more competitive apparel landscape.

While new retail shoppers are more demanding and volatile in their purchasing patterns, they are also more noticeably influenced by sustainability issues and the new circular economy paradigm, which brands are conscious of embracing to win customer preference. Furthermore, increased awareness of global issues and new consumer attitudes have urged businesses to reconsider how they source, process and deliver their goods amid the structural challenges they have been facing.

These factors considered, a global supply chain like the fashion industry, which connects multiple component parts, is a challenging one to navigate. In response, specialist technology ecosystems can bring a wide cross-section of skills and experience together, helping to guide fashion businesses through each new industry challenge as they emerge.

So, what does a fashion-retail-specific technology ecosystem have to address?

 Supply chain data visibility

As the demand for non-essential products is fluctuating more than ever, as a consequence of safety regulations, responding to the most recent data will be of the utmost importance for retailers.

Retailers will need continuous data to help authenticate, track, trace, promote, sell and dispose of or recycle their products. In doing so they can ensure sustainable profit yields and competitive brand positioning, as well as mitigating the risks of sudden downturns.

Making the entire supply chain visible through smart tracking technologies can be used to support safe, calculated business decisions, including those that ultimately affect point-of-sales pricing and margins.

Additional layers of predictive intelligence can be applied to data collected from multiple touchpoints, both static and en route, to offer retailers a greater level of control. These provide the ability to manage back-end operations and processes in real time. In doing so, they also prevent and correct logistic or commercial disruptions way before they manifest, at which point it would be too late or indeed expensive to troubleshoot.

The need to predict disruptions by use of artificial intelligence (AI) has become evident with the recent surge of ecommerce, which has been propelled by the pandemic. While online sales have been compensating for the downturns occurring in brick-and-mortar channels, they also placed an unprecedented strain on order fulfilment and logistics, both of which require increasing levels of automation to stay competitive.

Artificial intelligence is in fact one of the most critical allies for retailers who are navigating the current “shock economy”. Its capabilities extend beyond prediction and supply chain automation: they can be strategically used to identify cohorts of shoppers with similar marketing attributes, define the best-selling merchandise mix across multiple points of sale and upgrade interactive interfaces with natural language processing functions which mimic human operators – just to mention some of the most common implementations.

Fashion at the core of the Circular Economy

Making supply chains visible and trackable brings along the added benefit of unlocking great value in terms of ecological sustainability (even just at the level of understanding the carbon footprint of clothing production and distribution). The same fashion point-of-sale can become itself a “smart bin” collection point for reusable/recyclable items, which can be streamed backwards into the raw materials production and branding cycle whilst attracting and retaining more customers.

It is no surprise that the “Circular Fashion Report”, a collective study published recently by Vogue Business and PWC, among other authors, estimated that the potential value of fashion’s circular economy could be worth as much as $5 trillion, including a $6 billion virtual fitting room market, $16 billion 3D printing market and $40 billion eco-fibre market.

Clearly, the complexity of recycling, on both ends of its value chain, cannot be tackled with traditional methods: it requires a high quota of digitisation and automation to ensure measurable and synchronised governance over all the processes and resources underpinning it.

If nowadays “green” is digital, fashion is definitely set to be so, too. Digital makes possible the convergence of economic and ecological sustainability – not only in fashion per se, but across the retail segment.

Sourcing tech expertise

To avoid creating gaps in data flow and allowing significant technical challenges to impact operations, retail businesses need to make sure that their tech investments are scalable, interoperable, and compatible with legacy infrastructures and policies.

At a time when results are key, implementing a solution that does not exist out of the box requires research, expertise and time. When end-to-end solutions do exist, they are not always easily visible to their direct market. Technology acquisition requires specialised know-how, from the definition of business outcomes to the final deployment and across all ongoing results assessments.

If interoperability and tech-governance do remain a business challenge, it is also true that the current technology ecosystem is more mature and ready to support those retailers that have decided to embrace digital transformation. The industry is richer in terms of available tech consultancy and managed services, which can be outsourced by retailers when they lack that kind of specialist expertise internally.

Building up the industry through innovation

A platform which connects companies via mutual needs and brings together all the available solutions can help innovative, specialist businesses find routes to market for their ideas. By consulting the technology ecosystem, businesses in the fashion industry can build partnerships which allow them to be more creative in their strategies too. Those who have the technology and the skills can take on the responsibility of designing, building and executing specialist solutions that fit the industry’s needs, while fashion businesses can take their abilities to the next stage with smart solutions.

The word ‘ecosystem’ may have become an IT buzzword in 2020, but during the course of the year the concept has proved its worth. During the pandemic, it has been collaboration between often diverse organisations across government, business, academia and healthcare that has allowed business to continue and given us hope for the future. The opportunity for the fashion industry is to leverage the same level of collaboration to connect the various aspects of business with tailor-made technology solutions that ready businesses for the future and contribute to the overall survival of a diverse industry.