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Buy, build or partner: A new model of working with startups

Earlier this summer Nike announced it was acquiring AI startup, Celect, in order to “beef up its predictive analytics strengths”. It’s a smart move. A data move. Like all things artificial intelligence, this solution needs a lot of consumer or retail data to get smarter. And Nike, with its $36.4 billion in revenue last year, has a lot of data. 

A tech acquisition is a complicated beast that comes with as many challenges as it does advantages. And it should not be seen as an innovation silver bullet by most corporates. 

Take augmented reality by comparison for instance, an area where we’ve seen multiple acquisitions over the past couple of years. This space is changing so rapidly, the tech you buy is almost immediately obsolete. There is higher image quality every day, new capabilities in what it can read – like skin diagnostics and not just makeup in beauty for instance – and constant challenges to stay ahead in the market as a result. 

For a company that has pulled such startups in-house, there needs to be serious commitment to advance the technology. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that a lot of the potential development work gets lost. A startup on the outside, by comparison, has to keep evolving in an aggressive way in order to survive. But how can an acquired startup remain competitive if they can’t seek out your competitors as clients? 

Another approach to innovation is building, where brands create solutions in-house, or with agency partners, from the get go. More often than not, this sort of work comes under the experiential header: a tech solution based on the creative. What we frequently see as a result, is big investments (six figures and above) for little return due to the fact the technology just doesn’t rise to the task. 

Not that there aren’t successes within all this – there are many examples of building solutions internally, especially foundational or backend tech – that do make sense. But in our experience with the companies we work with and have gotten to know, it often doesn’t work. Even for basic technology needs, building in-house can frequently be met with many of the same challenges as an acquisition does, namely the fact progress and development gets caught up in the politics and daily grind of everyday business. 

It doesn’t matter what size of organization you are in this case either. We work with large public companies that are leaders in the industry – and we see the same challenges time and again. Things don’t evolve quickly enough and objectives are not met. Eventually, no one is watching that investment any more and innovation gets a bad rep. 

So we believe in a third option. 

With the challenges presented by buying and building, not to mention a lack of progress in internal culture making room for innovation to be successful, we decided to create a platform for partnerships. This middle step is known as open innovation. 

Very simply, this is about setting objectives internally, creating a blueprint of what you want, and then searching exhaustively for the best external partners that fulfil that brief. 

One of the benefits of this tends to lie in the quality of output you receive. When working with an outside partner – particularly at the startup level – a new large corporate client could become the centrepiece to the startup’s growth. This often means the team will continue to update the product and guard its integration after launch. It becomes part of their story. Having the chance to work with an established brand or retailer is almost sacred to an entrepreneur, which is a very different mindset to what you may find in an employee. 

But startups struggle to deliver work ethic with a full understanding of execution needs, deadlines and ability to navigate the red tape in corporations that could hold back the project. That’s why we believe open innovation is most successful when it comes with an assigned partnership manager. Our ultimate role is about providing the framework that can lead to success. 

What we’re increasingly being asked for more recently however, and thus now offering, is essentially a hybrid model – one that is all about partnerships, but unique ones that more closely align with the optimal version of building. This is where we start talking about having your cake and eating it too. 

Many companies have figured out that working with curated top startups is the most cost-effective and efficient option. But then last year, we started to see a new conversation emerging around the fact that often what retail executives look for just doesn’t exist as yet. The kind of solution you have in mind is not what is being pitched to you. You look at all the possible startups in the space and all of them are missing that one thing. You don’t want an incomplete approach. You want the full package.

How are you thinking about new innovation? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Each of the rules referenced above is matched by one of our products and services. Interested in how? Get in touch to learn more.

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business Comment Retail Startups technology

Innovator Liz Bacelar on the intersection of fashion and technology

Thanks to Ruth O’Connor for permission to publish this piece, originally published in The Sunday Business Post, October 2019.

‘Pay attention. You’ll need to,” Liz Bacelar declares as she takes to the stage. “What I present to you here will not be the same as what I present to people next week. That’s how quickly this stuff moves.”

Inventor of the phrase “fashion tech”, Bacelar is an entrepreneur, journalist and a co-founder of Current Global, an innovation firm based in New York, London and Tokyo, which seeks to redefine how fashion and retail intersect with technology.

Established in 2013 with her co-founder Rachel Arthur, Current Global forges relationships between fashion retailers, the luxury sector, tech giants and start-ups. Put simply, Bacelar has put the tech intelligence into retail. She’s speaking today at Maven46’s ‘Be’ Summit 2019 at Dublin’s Richmond Education and Event Centre, and is offering a whirlwind trip through consumer beauty and fashion, augmented reality and the immersive reality of multiple platforms.

Prior to launching Current Global, Bacelar established Decoded Fashion – the world’s largest innovator community for consumer retail. The company launched in ten countries before she exited. “I wanted to be in the connection business, not the conference business,” she says.

She is also co-founder of Flow Journeys, which sees a handpicked group of thought leaders visit locations as diverse as Iceland and Cuba to build relationships and foster collaboration. It’s networking on another level.

She uses terms like “data-driven customer journeys”, “augmented worlds” and “a culture of purpose” – which sound like future jargon, but we’re already there. Think you’ve never used augmented reality? What about apps such as the Dulux Visualiser which allows you to try paint colours on your wall? Amazon App’s View in your Room function? Or the recent launch of Spark AR on Instagram allowing users to “try on” cosmetics or sunglasses from Nars Cosmetics and Ray-Ban?

Bacelar is frequently asked whether bricks-and-mortar stores are dead. She doesn’t believe so; she says that physical retail spaces remain important, but that innovative brands are leveraging those spaces differently and the customer has become more demanding.

“It’s about having a mixed-reality layer overlaid [on the mobile experience], so that when you go into a store today you know that there will be a mirror in which you can see the make-up on your face. In certain markets, this is becoming a consumer expectation. The customer does not want to have to try on the product physically – they want to try on the product virtually.”

Later when we talk, Bacelar says that we are living in an era of contradictory behaviours, a battle between the digital and the analogue. The desire for immediacy and convenience has become a way of life. “You can live in a rural setting and still want to receive things faster,” she says. “We all perceive that we have less time, yet we also have more things to do, so we need vendors to give us efficiency and speed. A lot of what’s driving implementation of these things is a chase for speed and free time.”

The more free time we have, however, the more we spend it in a digital vortex which sucks away our human experiences. “It’s a pendulum that keeps swinging from one side to the other,” Bacelar says. “Sometimes you do want to talk to somebody when you go to a store. So technology now is swinging towards personal connections.”

Think of when you first got a personalized email from a brand. It seemed cool and even intimate at the start, but not after the 300th time. “But what if the email is from Tanya, who you met at the store, and who logged you in to the loyalty system for the brand? It becomes harder to ignore that email when you know it was sent by a real person. Stores are rolling that out now, with the first touchpoint being a real person.”

Data-driven customer journeys can become skewed when those same customers supply incorrect information. Think of the child who uses a fake date of birth to set up a Gmail account in order set up an Instagram account because they’re under the age limit, or when you put in false details online for privacy reasons.

Liz Bacelar, co-founder & CEO of Current Global speaking at Maven46’s ‘Be’ Summit 2019

“The major platforms do have bad data,” says Bacelar. “A lot of brands over-rely on data from the social media giants and they don’t have their own way to create a deeper understanding of who their consumer is. There are a lot of start-ups that want brands to think outside of those major platforms by harnessing the data themselves to reach a place of accuracy.”

Since we spoke in Dublin, I’ve been anticipating the new Ken Loach and Paul Laverty film Sorry We Missed You, due for release in November. It’s a stark look at the zero-hour-contract gig economy and the appalling conditions in which the people who deliver our online shopping work because we demand immediacy through e-commerce. It raises the question of where the humanity lies in all of this.

Bacelar believes that the next big retail trend is the “trend of purpose”. Thanks to the “Greta effect” she believes that young people are becoming less interested in shopping from brands that lack purpose. “Kids are bouncing from digital to analogue at a very interesting pace and the way they are aggregating communities is very interesting. The sustainability and climate change effort does not belong to any specific social platform,” she says. “It is a globalization of mobilization – the ability to mobilize communities and groups from anywhere without being in one specific place.”

Bacelar says that we are living an “offline moment” through global climate change protests and that we are also living in an “exponential curve” – a period of change on a large scale at an accelerated pace. “The level of change we’ve seen in the past six months has been greater than in the past ten years when it comes to the subjects of sustainability, technology and data awareness. Change is happening very fast.”

If people in general are resistant to change, this is also the case in the corporate environment where she says many executives believe that innovation is gimmicky rather than “doing something in a new way to get different results”.

Bacelar adds that we, as consumers, have the power to shape the conversation. “I know of companies today who are only doing sustainability because you must show that you care,” she says.

“Companies like the Eileen Fisher womenswear brand have been doing this for many years and no one listened. It once looked stupid to take old clothes and remanufacture them. Now it sounds invigorating and inspiring to a consumer.

“If I were a luxury executive, I would be terrified of the ten-year-old kids today. Their futures depend on these executives and they are not aligned. These kids walking the streets with Greta Thunberg care about localization, activism, inclusivity, empowerment – everything that luxury hasn’t been.

“Luxury is trying to catch up. In eight years, these kids will be their consumers. They have eight years to change their ways.”

Ruth O’Connor is a journalist writing for Ireland’s top publications on fashion, design, craft, trends and business for the past 13 years. She graduated from University College Dublin in 1998 with a first class honours degree in English. She then studied pattern cutting and fashion design later going on to obtain a first class honours degree in journalism from Dublin City University in 2006 where her final thesis was an exploration of fashion in Ireland. @ruthoconnorsays

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Campaigns Comment digital snippets e-commerce product Retail social media sustainability technology

Vivienne Westwood calls to ban land ownership, Shiseido acquires Drunk Elephant, Hong Kong protests hit luxury

A round-up of everything you might have missed in relevant fashion, retail and tech industry news over the past week.

Top Stories
  • The ‘only way to save the world’ is to ban land ownership, says Vivienne Westwood (Dezeen)
  • Why Shiseido bought Drunk Elephant for $845million (BoF)
  • Hong Kong protests could hit Burberry sales by up to £100million (Quartz)
Technology
  • Adidas 1st to sell shoes via Snapchat game (Mobile Marketer)
  • 5G smartphone sales will top 1B by 2025 (Mobile Marketer)
  • Unicef now accepting donations through bitcoin and ether (The Guardian)
  • 3D-printed smart textiles consume less energy, water & chemicals (Sourcing Journal)
  • GOAT showcases world’s rarest sneakers with AR try-ons (Mobile Marketer)
  • Personal stylists are using data to strengthen relationships (Vogue Business)
  • O2 launches ‘worlds first live ad’ powered by 5G (Campaign)
Sustainability & Purpose
  • California bans animal fur products (Drapers)
  • Kat von D launches vegan footwear line from apple ‘leather’ (Sourcing Journal)
  • Farfetch partners with Thrift+, a second hand donation platform (Retail Gazette)
  • Chloe forges three-year partnership with UNICEF (WWD)
  • Forget carbon neutral, Patagonia wants to be ‘carbon positive’ (Sourcing Journal)
  • Little Mistress launches sustainable packaging (Fashion United)
  • John Lewis launches sustainable ‘buyback’ trial (Retail Gazette)
Retail & Commerce
  • Stance opens Carnaby Street flagship store (Retail Gazette)
  • Morphe launches in-store Youtube studios to drive foot traffic (Glossy)
  • H&M outlet brand Afound shifts focus towards online (BoF)
  • Rental service HURR Collective to stage pop-up shop (The Industry)
  • Vans brings new boutique concept to Covent Garden (Fashion United)
  • Givenchy unveils US e-commerce site (WWD)
  • HMV launches Europe’s largest music store (Retail Week)
Business
  • Ganni’s guerrilla approach to global growth (BoF)
  • New CEO at Stella McCartney (Drapers)
  • Race to buy Barneys heats up (WWD)
  • Toys R Us relaunches website amid Target partnership (Charged Retail)
  • Victoria’s Secret store exec departs (Retail Dive)
  • LVMH luxury venture fund invests in streetwear brand Madhappy (Fashion Law)
Marketing & Social Media
  • Instagram launches Threads, a close friend chat app with auto-status (TechCrunch)
  • The next generation of menswear designers might be on Youtube (Fashionista)
  • Teens choose Youtube over Netflix for the first time (CNBC)
  • Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister launch Instagram checkout (Retail Dive)
Product
  • Mens beauty grooming retailer Beast Inks deal for U.K rollout (WWD)
  • SprezzaBox and Esquire team up to launch subscription box (Fashion United)
  • Everlane launches ReCashmere sweater collection (Dezeen)
Culture
  • Adidas teams up with Universal Standard for a truly size-inclusive collaboration (Adweek)
  • Why 5,000-year-old fashion is making a comeback (BoF)
  • Lululemon partners with United Nations Foundation (Fashion United)
  • Kellogg’s autism-sensitive packaging for kids (Stylus)
  • Victoria’s Secret hires first plus-size model (Fashion United)
  • Havas and CALM team up to create self-care labelling for Topshop and Topman (Campaign)
  • The business of casting queer models (BoF)

How are you thinking about innovation? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more.

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business Comment e-commerce Editor's pick Retail Startups technology

6 rules for retail innovation

Innovation is one of those words that is often misconstrued in retail. Those who avoid it, claim they want to stay away from gimmicks. And those who love it, often use it as a PR-driven initiative or as an opportunity for technology to be deployed without much strategy. 

Sadly, innovation in retail has been largely about bells and whistles and not true fundamental change. 

Innovation in its true sense of the word – implementing new approaches to generate a different result – should be critical for anyone operating a major retailer or brand today. But it’s definitely not. A recent study by Gartner shows companies typically allocate 90% of their tech budget to “keeping the lights on”, or indeed what we can call ‘incremental innovation’, and only 10% to that which is deemed transformative.

The question then is how do you get it right? And how do you do it to bring progress and actual results? Frankly, the first step is to move away from old approaches. Over the past decade, numerous retailers around the world have introduced internal labs, accelerator programs and incubators. And what we’ve seen time and again, is that while such programs start strong and sharp, over time they are devoured and diminished by surrounding day-to-day business processes. The outcome even with the right intention, tends to only be marginal. 

What the industry needs is a new mindset and a willingness for new ways of working. 

We believe innovation should be actionable by connecting the right strategies to the right solutions, and closely managing integrations to make them a reality. This ties to our mission of solving challenges and facilitating change. So here are six rules for industry executives to follow to make this a reality:

1/ Validate the challenge

Deploying solutions without a defined problem is an unproductive method of innovation. It’s too easy to get lost in a sea of internal objectives and cost-cutting exercises while forgetting about what your customers really desire or need. 

To successfully determine the challenge, you must align on a united vision. Innovation internally is hard – it’s often political and frequently siloed. The best case studies out there have come from companies who have validated their roadmaps through a process of internal buy-in so they can achieve a common goal.

2/ Bring the outside in

Establishing a team that can bring different perspectives, both from outside the industry and in, as well as varied cross-disciplinary inputs, is always going to lead to greater results. New ideas come from diversity of thought – taking different things that work from other experiences, and making a new recipe out of them. It’s about getting outside your own department and making sure you have people from other parts of the company involved. Cross-pollination leads to the best ideas and strongest results. 

It’s for this reason we believe in the notion of “open innovation”: stepping outside of the internal model of building to co-create with a broader innovation ecosystem. It’s about resource and expertise coming in from experts on the outside, connected to ideas from around the globe. And it’s about increasing your chances of success by leveraging the knowledge and harnessing the success of others.

3/ Avoid the one-trick pony

The most successful projects should be updated over time, as opposed to achieving one incremental thing for a singular moment. This is about PR being the icing on the cake and not the cake itself. 

We all know innovation should have a broader goal, and often the challenge is convincing stakeholders to invest in the long term, laying the groundwork so that you gain economies of scale, not to mention scale itself, for every integration. It’s better to deploy two technologies with a clear purpose and defined ROI, then 10 pilots without strategy or buy-in.

4/ Mentor your partners

Simply put, you can’t treat startup partners like traditional vendors. These are companies big and small that provide collaborative partnerships. It’s crucial to work in a more hands-on sense, and to get help to manage these integrations if your own bandwidth is limited. 

Even when it is clear what value a technology brings to a retailer, partnerships fail due to cultural differences and conflicting expectations. To avoid this, try making time to offer your mentorship to these partners. Startups are not going to necessarily understand how to navigate your red tape or be as flexible with payments or delivery deadlines being moved. But with a strong connection in place, they could give you opportunities to co-create a brand new offering or be first to market with a technology.

5/ Empower your store teams

One of the biggest missteps with innovation is the idea of dumping new tech into store, for instance, without fully training or driving advocacy among employees. New technologies are worthless without buy-in and understanding to help things work smoothly and ensure shopper engagement. In-store, we’ve seen this with everything from smart mirrors to immersive experiences. 

This is simply about demonstrating the benefits in place for sales associates. If all this piece of tech does is add more to the checklist of things they need to do and doesn’t help their day-to-day relationship with the customer, it won’t interest them to help you as a retailer. Innovation ultimately needs to be enhancing the lives of those who have to use the tech.

6/ Calculated risks are better than failure

Innovation is usually associated with experimentation and accepting the Silicon Valley notion of ‘failure’. We’ve seen retailers trying to emulate this approach by investing in labs and incubators that fail to impact the bottom line. After all, retail corporate culture doesn’t believe in the “luxury” of merely trialing projects that won’t lead to actual results. 

So how can you test and learn with more of a conservative mindset? We believe there is a way to strategize calculated risks that allow learning and innovation to take place. Setting out a clear path of KPIs and objectives from the get-go with real measurements is the smarter way to ensure success. There’s no way around it – true innovation today is about results.

How are you thinking about retail innovation? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Each of the rules referenced above is matched by one of our products and services. Interested in how? Get in touch to learn more.

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Comment Editor's pick mobile Retail technology

Why retail is betting on virtual try-on for growth

Virtual try-on technologies are having a moment in retail this year. Interest with our clients is off-the-charts and adoption is growing everywhere.

It all started with augmented reality mirrors and apps reshaping the way beauty consumers discover and try on products in the past five years. Now, fashion and accessories brands are finally subscribing to virtual try-on in a variety of ways with the hope of driving engagement, increasing sales and fighting back returns.  

Some of the most recent examples include Nike’s try-on shoe app launched this past May. It measures the shape, size and volume of feet in order to recommend to people the best size to buy in the sneakers they’re interested in. According to the brand, the accuracy is within two millimeters and the whole process takes less than a minute.

Gucci followed suit a month later with a try-on that enables users of its app to see the Ace Sneakers on their feet in real-time. Shoppers can look at the shoes from different angles, and take pics to share on social media. This pilot is powered by one of Current Global’s core technology partners, Wannaby – a Belarus-based startup that specializes in “augmented commerce”.

In the eyewear category, Ace & Tate launched a feature on its website where users can see what they look like in its sunglasses on screen. Michael Kors has also done this via Facebook. 

And in hard luxury, an experiential pop-up from Richemont in New York, called Arcadium, features a virtual try-on experience by Jaeger-LeCoultre that allows shoppers to try styles by placing a ‘marker’ bracelet on their wrist. 

So why is so much of this happening now? Three reasons:

1- Growing consumer expectations:  Virtual try-on was born in the cosmetics space – cutting its teeth with brands like L’Oréal through to Sephora. It gained ground as shoppers got used to the idea of being able to see their faces with all manner of filters on thanks to the realism on social apps including Snapchat and Instagram. What was once a tech-generated value that consumers took a while to understand, is now perceived as a right that is extending to footwear and eyewear. 

E-commerce is evolving to serve a time-stretched and more demanding shopper that is used to having everything they want at their fingertips. Included in that is the ability to see what something will look like specifically for them, before they hit purchase. It’s utilitarian. 

2- The tech has evolved: Behind this trend is the fact the technology has caught up to the expectation. It’s now smarter, more realistic and affordable. Five years ago, the artificial intelligence and augmented reality that was needed to provide realistic mapping to the human face or body, just wasn’t there. Many good teams tried and failed – mostly because market demand wasn’t enough to fund their growth. 

3- Reducing returns: The value of returned goods will rise from $350 billion in 2017 to $550 billion by 2020 in the US, according to forecasts from Happy Returns. A contributing factor to this worrisome growth is customers opting to shop from home instead of in-store. During our work sourcing solution partners for various retailers, we’ve observed virtual try-on solutions consistently delivering positive results – from a 20% increase in basket-size for Sunglass Hut to 120% increase in engagement in a brand app. The upside for brands lies primarily in driving conversions while reducing return rates since the more likely a product is right, the more likely the individual will both buy it and keep it. 

The human body, and the ability for virtual try-on of full clothing, has been developed in chapters. The challenge is to develop accurate visualization and mapping. We have dozens of tech partners with algorithms from the US to Eastern Europe to China that have accurately learned the face, flat feet (high-heels try-on is still in the works), and now are focused on the variations of consumers hands and ears. 

As accessory and footwear brands race to catch up on AR, it’s safe to say the next vertical to jump on board is sure to be jewelry. Tech companies are racing to develop realistic capabilities in that sector to establish themselves as category owners.

What about ready-to-wear? The technology is quite impressive and is already here, with two startups leading the way on mobile and in-store. But the high cost of the tech at the present moment has prevented widespread adoption. As the space moves fast with growing adoption of AR in consumer shopping behavior globally, we expect virtual try-on to be a staple in the corporate innovation toolbox for all retailers keeping up with the digital age. 

How are you thinking about virtual try-on? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more. 

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Comment Editor's pick sustainability

What Saint Laurent’s Malibu show can teach us about the environmental impact of events

The recent staging of Saint Laurent’s spring/summer 2020 show in Malibu, California, violated multiple environmental regulations, leaving the local community up in arms, according to reports.

The event, which was denied a permit by the local government (instead enabled via a filming permit from a contractor), went against rules designed to protect the area’s fragile natural resources, writes Vogue Business. Included in that was the fact grunion, a type of fish, were expected to spawn on the sand that evening. Residents also said pieces of the set were left to wash out into the surf and the whole affair was rife with plastics, including plastic sandbags banned by the city. 

This raises questions about the impact such elaborate events, which often last for less than an hour, have on the environment, and the responsibility the industry should be taking to minimize their presence. By comparison, Stockholm Fashion Week was just cancelled in order to pursue more sustainable opportunities for its brands instead. 

Our Event Producer, Grace Collins, who also runs a business called Ten Four, is an expert in this space, increasingly working towards more sustainable solutions. So I called her up to find out exactly what’s going on and how brands can make better decisions with regards to the environment when planning their own occasions…

RA: Given your experience running events, what is the usual sort of waste that is produced from something like a fashion show, a conference or an activation?

GC: On average, the typical event attendee produces 1.89kg of waste per day, 85% of which can be non-recyclable, depending on where and what type of event it is. Food can comprise anywhere between 20-60% of this waste. This is outside of the waste produced by the organizers themselves which, in fact, can be huge.

A lot of the time events, fashion shows and experiential activations in particular, can involve a ‘build’ of some sort – this ‘build’ is usually a one-off, an experiential moment, or a photo op (for example) for guests, and is broken down and thrown out post event without any consideration for the materials used and how they should be correctly disposed of. These can include the likes of wood, plastic, steel – so many materials that if considered in advance and regulated by local authorities could and should be disposed of more appropriately – ideally recycled. 

RA: Are you seeing this change as the industry starts to consider sustainability and the environment more broadly? How?

GC: I have definitely noticed small changes here and there but whether we like to admit it or not, there is a level of ignorance toward the matter until it’s either enforced by authorities or in more severe circumstances, publicly ridiculed. The plus side of the recent Saint Laurent show in Malibu, is that it has now drawn attention to the impact that destination events can have on the environment and the fact there can be such a huge amount of waste created and left behind when these take place. 

The focus and pressure on the likes of these brands and corporate organizations to incorporate sustainable practices has a knock on effect for any event organizer. We need to understand and be more conscious of the footprint our one-off events are leaving on the environment.

A lot of corporate companies and brands alike are becoming more conscious of the impact their working environments and all things associated have on the environment. As event planners, it is our role and responsibility to reflect such sustainable conscience by making necessary changes to the events we produce on their behalf.

RA: What are the barriers or challenges surrounding this?

GC: Costs! A sustainable event strategy is something that can and should be considered and incorporated into every event management plan and event budget from initiation. However, it is quite often the costs that are associated with doing so that turn people off the idea of following through.

RA: What are you doing to help this change?

GC: I encourage my clients to think more sustainably when producing their events. I ask them to consider the likes of going paperless, talk them through the different options and ensure they feel confident in making these necessary changes. The bigger issue at hand – not to make life difficult for fellow planners but in an effort to make a positive change – is that many local governing bodies can be quite lenient when it comes to approving permits for events. 

Every event organizer has a responsibility to submit a waste management plan to their local council/governing body when applying to host an event, but only when hosting in a public space. Even in that case, the level of detail required is usually minimal and local councils do not hold a huge amount of responsibility over organizers or follow through with analyzing the damage that can be left behind on such occasions.

I’m working on a detailed waste management template and a list of suggested waste management suppliers/partners within my locality that can be shared with event agencies, and will hopefully go on to be accepted and monitored by local councils/governing bodies. These plans will need to be submitted and approved by councils’ in advance of any event taking place and then monitored to ensure companies are carrying out approved disposal plan properly.

RA: What are some easy solutions / things businesses could adapt to ensure less waste is produced or left behind from their events?

GC: There are a variety of different areas you can make effective changes in, from venues to catering and overall event production but in order to know where to begin, you need to reflect on and understand your impact. My tips for doing so, include: 

Develop a sustainability event strategy in the initial phases of your event plan, down to choosing a venue or location that is accessible by public transport (metro, buses, city bikes). If there are transfers required, I would suggest partnering with an electric car company, for example. If you can host your event and accommodation under the one roof – do! This will eliminate the requirement for transport.

  • Confirm whether or not your event venue recycles their waste. If they don’t have a system in place then start making a plan. Work with a local waste management company to dispose of planned materials on-site appropriately.
  • Look at previous event budgets to see if there were any areas whereby the quantity of product ordered was too high and ended up going to waste.
  • Use renewable energy sources. With advancements in technology there are many ways in which you can save on power to create a more sustainable event. Be conscious of what power you need and when you need it running. Options as simple as switching to LED lighting and lower power efficiency systems, although costly, will minimize your footprint – talk to your AV company about the options available.
  • Reduce print requirements, go paperless – think digital, incorporate an event app that allows guests to register and check-in without requiring a printed ticket or name badge. You can also make your event itinerary available to guests via this app/webpage, effectively communicating with them in real-time (which is of huge benefit to any event planner), and easily circulating new information/schedule changes. If you’re printing something for branding purposes, steer clear of including dates so that you can use again at future events.
  • Sustainable catering – ask your caterer if they can supply reusable, compostable or recyclable dinnerware? Do they have a food waste reduction strategy in place? Get an accurate guest count and finalize the amount of food needed in advance of the event so that you are reducing the potential waste. Donate leftover food to a nearby shelter. Help longterm by beginning to track typical food consumption patterns at your events.
  • Make it as easy as possible for your attendees to recycle and maintain the venue while still enjoying the event, simply by ensuring you place plenty of recycling stations throughout the venue.

Sustainable practices may not come naturally to everyone. Be patient, take baby steps, practice makes perfect, and every little counts in my eyes.

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Comment data e-commerce Editor's pick sustainability

Sustainable fashion: the rising need for quantifiable standardization

Search Google for the meaning of “sustainable fashion” and you’ll quickly discover there’s no standard for it in a qualified way, let alone a quantifiable one. 

Some of the definitions are so sweeping they could in fact refer to nearly anything loosely associated. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s version in London, referring to it as “ethical fashion”, reads: “An umbrella term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.” 

Does that mean as a brand you have to do all of them? Or does considering just one or two count? Arguably even then these groupings only touch the surface. 

And therein lies the problem. While the industry is wrapping its head around more sustainable practices against each of those different factors, there’s no agreed-upon guideline as to what each of them are, let alone how they should be accurately measured. 

At a time when consumer awareness is only increasing and the need for education is so high, having a different understanding of what sustainable actually means, is potentially a risky game to play. 

Take the new Net Sustain strategy from luxury e-commerce player, Net-a-Porter, released two weeks ago, for instance. This includes a list of brands it now refers to as “sustainable” as per key criteria identified with an agency that include locally made, craft & community, considered materials, considered processes and reducing waste. 

To qualify, items only have to hit one of these five areas, which means, for now, something that is made from organic cotton for instance, is classified the same as something where over 50% of it has been made in its own country or community. 

Farfetch meanwhile announced its Conscious Edit in April as part of its Positively Farfetch strategy. This comes via a partnership with ethical rating system Good On You, which tracks products in terms of impact to society, the environment and animals. As with Net-a-Porter, Farfetch has identified the need for “rigorous, independently-assessed criteria”, in which brands need to score a minimum of four out of five in one area to qualify. 

Another UK-based e-commerce entity, this time at the fast fashion end of the spectrum, is ASOS. It too has a new “Responsible Edit”, which appears as both a page on its site and a filter that can be used when browsing. It reportedly includes garments made from recycled materials and sustainable fibers, such as those using less water and resulting in less waste.

So that’s three major players all now actively thinking about sustainable fashion in a qualified manner and communicating such to consumers, but all in slightly different ways and to varying degrees. 

The actual means by which measurement is carried out is seemingly different for each too. Net-a-Porter is auditing all of the brands themselves with the agency they’ve brought on – interviewing the key players involved to determine whether what they “say” is true, is actually the case. One of the biggest challenges in this space is proving there’s authenticity in what is being shared – and not just because of falsified information, but often because the brands involved think they’re more sustainable than they really are. A rigorous approach to selection and curation is therefore essential. 

It’s for that reason Net-a-Porter has only put forward 26 brands right now of the 800 it sells. The plus side is that it’s doing that curation on a product-by-product level, not just at the brand level. There can of course be a big difference in sustainability from one piece in the collection to the next, which must also be taken into consideration. 

Yet that also makes this a huge undertaking for the business. An enormous amount of resource needs to be involved, making the likelihood of scalability another challenge. 

ASOS by comparison has over 3,700 products included in its Responsible Edit, and says it’s going to be adding new products daily. Though this isn’t clarified, presumably those are not each independently verified – again for reasons of resource versus scale. 

Again, this is an indication that what we’re talking about here are different qualifiable definitions, standards and methodologies, and not quantified ones. 

And yet achieving the latter is incredibly difficult at present because of the fact there just isn’t enough data available to enable it. The majority of the fashion industry has no true view of its own supply chain. Can we categorize individual products as sustainable against individual criteria? Yes. But can we truly show depth of impact? No. 

I know this from our work with Google. We’re building out a data analytics and machine learning tool powered by Google Cloud technology that will enable fashion brands to make more responsible sourcing decisions at the raw materials stage of the supply chain. Without that, a lot of this is guesswork, or it’s a case of global averages and assumptive results. 

Creating regulated measurement for the industry is of course intensely hard. There have been numerous attempts already, but nothing that has been universally accepted under that umbrella phrase of “sustainable fashion”. Some of the strongest ones out there that could achieve this remain either too hard or time-intensive to use, or indeed just not proven as accurate enough yet. 

As an alternative, there are a multitude of standards and certifications brands can choose from to help them on this journey, but that space is also overrun and confusing, not to mention costly. One only needs to look at the enormous list Net-a-Porter is referencing on its breakdown of categories to see what I mean here. 

Without any unification on this, where does this all move down the line? Because frankly, we really need it. 

Two weeks ago, we also saw the UK government reject 18 recommendations put forward by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) to help move this space forward. Among them was the suggestion that government should oblige retailers to ensure full traceability in their supply chains to prove decent livelihoods and sustainably sourced materials. Without the role of regulation, we’re at another stalemate. It’s each for their own in terms of defining what is right and what is wrong, creating ambiguity at a time when consumers increasingly want to be told and thus guided.

Here’s the other thing: fast fashion brand BooHoo.com, as with others before it, just announced a new line called “For the Future”, which sees 34 pieces made from recycled polyester. Yet the brand was one of many that came under scrutiny for its standards more broadly in the EAC report. So the question is, even if this new collection is quantifiably better for the environment and for the people involved in making it, if the mainline brand is not, does this make it a better business overall all the same? 

Or rather, is this an example of brands jumping on a new market opportunity both because the consumer demand is growing and the industry expectation is there? In which case, the alternative we’re facing right now is the question of where the line is on greenwashing? Seemingly it’s moving ever more rapidly to a place that’s harder to identify. 

The result is that all of this presents more questions than not. Due credit goes to many of these businesses for moving in the right direction with their sustainable edits particularly, but there needs to be a common and quantifiable set of standards and measurements for us to all understand and use for the long term if we’re to achieve true change. 

How are you thinking about sustainability? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more.

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Your guide to SXSW 2019 through 10 key themes

SXSW has shifted quite remarkably in the past 10 years – from a launchpad for new technologies, to a reflection of much broader connected culture. During the Interactive portion of the festival, there remains an underpinning of innovation, but so too is there everything from politics to gender on the agenda.

The audience accordingly has widened from those looking for the latest tech trends or emerging startups, to those aiming to understand how societal shifts and digital consumer behaviors are impacting their businesses.

For 2019, that looks set to continue. For those headed down to Austin from the brand world therefore – from marketers to retail executives – it pays to be one step ahead in what to expect. Here are 10 themes to look out for during this year’s festival and the main events to head to in order to see them…

Entrepreneurship

There’s always a theme around entrepreneurship that pops up during SXSW, but this year’s line up looks particularly engaging. Top of the bill is Howard Schultz, former Starbucks Chairman and CEO, who will be talking about growing a global brand with an eye on humanity as well as profits. Meanwhile, Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are taking to the stage for the first time since leaving their company, to talk about their entrepreneurial journey. Other highlights come from Esther Perel, who is applying her relationship therapy to workplace dynamics, and Brene Brown, who will explore showing up and speaking out.

Wellness

Wellness as a theme has been increasingly emerging at SXSW over the past few years, as digital health has evolved beyond fitness trackers, for instance, into mental health and mindfulness. That plays out in a few different ways this year, from the expo dedicated to wellness as a theme, to the house Lululemon has with programming focused on yoga and meditation, and a keynote from Gwyneth Paltrow talking all things Goop. Over at the Current Global’s Innovation Mansion, highlights lie in a keynote from meditation app Calm’s co-founder and co-CEO, Michael Acton Smith, alongside a guided meditation experience from the app in our pool house, and a game show dedicated to the wellness revolution.

Michael Acton Smith, Calm
Michael Acton Smith, Calm
Sustainability

Sustainability follows neatly after wellness as we think about not just ourselves but our planet. On that note, there’s a lot for the fashion industry to stew over this SXSW, including a session featuring the H&M Group and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; another from Finery founders Brooklyn Decker and Whitney Casey, and one from SAP on a more sustainable supply chain. There’s also Rent the Runway talking about the sharing economy, Walmart looking at sustainable beauty, and a keynote at our Innovation Mansion? with the head of global product innovation at Levi’s.

Experiential

When it comes to retail, experience remains the buzzword du jour, and there’s a lot to learn at SXSW related to such a theme. From the large-scale activations taking place across the city, to those discussing how to do such things well. Giant Spoon is the agency behind last year’s winning Westworld experience at SXSW, and they’ll be on stage discussing how they do it. Also worth seeing is a session dedicated to how to ensure engagement, delight and success through experiential retail above and beyond the overdone ball-pit and photo-worthy backdrops. We’ll also be heading to Calvin Klein’s talk on how to humanize your brand experience in the robot era.

International Women’s Day

Gender and equality isn’t a new topic to SXSW, but International Women’s Day takes place on the first day of the festival, which provides an appropriate opportunity for a celebration of women this year.  Cue lots of events and talks dedicated to the subject, including a full set of programming from Bumble, a panel featuring the women building brands we’ve always wanted, such as Rachel Blumenthal’s Rockets of Awesome, and a session on the rise of feminists with fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff. Also look out for actress Zoe Saldana’s keynote on changing the narrative for millennial and Gen Z audiences.

Melinda Gates on stage at SXSW 2018
Melinda Gates on stage at SXSW 2018
Retail Tech

What’s interesting about this year’s SXSW schedule is seeing talks by the likes of Magic Leap distinctly pointing their focus towards the retail audience. They’ll be talking about AR in the digital shopping experience, while Walmart, Amazon and Kohl’s are (separately) discussing the future of shopping via computer vision, machine learning and AI. Also not to miss is a session featuring the Current Global’s CTO, Scott Emmons, formerly head of the Neiman Marcus Innovation Lab, diving into how retailers can leverage emerging technologies to thrive in a rapidly changing landscape.

Street Culture

If we’re talking culture today, there’s no escaping all things streetwear in terms of mass consumer spread. SXSW is reflecting that fact with various sessions dedicated to the topic. StockX’s Josh Luber has a keynote session talking about his online marketplace designed to work like the stock market. Meanwhile, I’ll be hosting a panel on stage with Levi’s, NTWORK and Johannes Leonardo – the agency that has worked with the likes of Alexander Wang and Adidas Originals – to discuss how streetwear turns hype into big revenue. That story will continue over at our Innovation Mansion with a business of streetwear-themed gameshow. One additional talk to try and get to is with Nike’s Tinker Hatfield, who’s known as a legend among sneakerheads.

The Nike PG 3 NASA on StockX
The Nike PG 3 NASA on StockX
Blockchain

With a new track dedicated to blockchain at SXSW this year, it’s almost cheating to add it as a key theme, but there’s no escaping the growing presence it’s had at the festival over the past few years. The most interesting sessions for 2019 include a keynote from Joseph Lubin, co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain and CEO of ConsenSys, the Winklevoss twins talking about the cryptocurrency revolution, and a session on radical transparency in the food supply chain. ConsenSys also has a house during the festival where blockchain trends happening across entertainment, fashion, media and more, will be discussed.

Privacy

If blockchain is a key topic, then setting the stage for that, has to be trust. The past couple of years at SXSW have been heavily navigated towards fake news, but after a year of big data protection busts, 2019 orientates itself towards tech ethics and privacy above all else. There’s a not-to-miss session from the founder of Foursquare on location privacy, a couple of deep dives on user privacy in a post Cambridge Analytica and GDPR world, and a look at trust in the era of data.

Looking to the future

Rounding out our themes is the required nod to the future that SXSW has always brought. Malcolm Gladwell is in town to discuss self-driving cars, Publicis is going to explore invention in the age of creativity and the Current Global’s CEO, Liz Bacelar, will dive into the future of beauty with L’Oréal. We’re also looking forward to the Serpentine Galleries’ Hans Ulrich Obrist exploring the possibilities that AI presents for the creation of new art forms, and for those still in town by Wednesday, Bruce Sterling’s always enlightening annual closing remarks.

How are you thinking about retail innovation? We’re all about finding you the perfect partners to do so. The Current Global is a consultancy transforming how fashion, beauty and consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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5 bold predictions for e-commerce tech in 2018

Mike Mallazzo of Dynamic Yield, shares his views on the year ahead in e-commerce tech, from the need for vast amounts of data to gain ground in the machine learning era, to the idea of Patagonia as a target for Amazon.

Bold predictions for e-commerce tech in 2018
Bold predictions for e-commerce tech in 2018

Fifteen years ago, the existential threat to many major retailers was a small online bookshop. Ten years ago, the medium that drives 60% of online retail traffic didn’t exist. Five years ago, personalisation was a nascent technology experiment being conducted by a few enterprise retailers. One year ago, the term “retail apocalypse” didn’t even exist.

With the pace of innovation in e-commerce technology, predicting how retail tech will shake out in 2018 is the ultimate fool’s errand.

1. The golden age of customer experience will shine brighter

Today’s e-commerce professionals aren’t just thinking about changing colours on banners and buttons. The conversation has shifted to thinking about the entire shopper journey and how to optimise every element of it.

As barriers to entry in e-commerce crumble, there are scores of e-commerce start-ups in every category competing for your affection. Concurrently, there are thousands of marketing technology vendors trying to sell these companies technologies to help them deliver superior digital experiences.

The competitive landscape is fierce, breeding incredible innovations in every corner of retail from supply chain and logistics to in-app augmented reality. With smart people competing across the internet to capture our attention, the end experience for the end user will continue to get better and better.

2. Artificial intelligence will finally make a real impact, but with little glitz and glamour

With honorable mentions to “growth hacking” and “storytelling”, no buzzword was more abused in 2017 than “artificial intelligence”, or AI. It’s replaced big data as the new teen sex with everyone talking about it and nobody doing it.

However, the problem with adoption of AI in e-commerce has not been limitations of the technology itself. It’s been in access to data to help the machines learn. In order to meaningfully impact the customer experience, machine learning algorithms need to ingest vast amounts of data; machine learners are ultimately only as good as the school supplies you arm them with. However, even for tech-forward retailers, this data often exists across a myriad of software programmes and dusty basements of servers making it impossible for them to create unified profiles of their customer.

Low hanging applications of AI in retail lie in solving unsexy problems, such as which recommendations strategy to serve new visitors to an e-commerce website. While AI won’t upend retail anytime soon, practical applications of machine learning to common e-commerce problems will proliferate in 2018, benefiting brands that adopt the technology.

3. Retail’s middle class will face its toughest year yet

Already eviscerated, retailers and department stores that sell to the middle class will encounter even tougher market conditions in 2018.

All of the feel good articles saying that a lemonade stand can compete with Amazon leave out an inconvenient truth – most of the brands successfully competing with Amazon sell really expensive goods. The median household income in America simply can’t buy Away luggage, a Rent the Runway subscription or $150 shoes from Rothy’s.

Quietly, the retail apocalypse has also been a boom time for hyper discount retailers such as Dollar Tree, who can still compete with Amazon on the basis of price. Incredibly, one company, LA-based Hollar, has successfully managed to take the dollar-store experience online, blending competitive pricing with sophisticated supply chain and digital technology.

Expect Hollar to become a true household name in 2018 and beyond and a company that delivers real value to the e-commerce ecosystem.

4. Amazon will meaningfully enter fashion by way of acquisition

Last time Jeff Bezos couldn’t crack a niche e-commerce market, he simply bought out his competitor, Vito Coreloning diapers startup Quidsi. Look for Amazon to bring back this playbook in 2018 to finally break into fashion.

Amazon whisperer and NYU professor Scott Galloway predicts that Nordstrom will join the Amazon empire next year to plug this gap. An even bolder prediction from Gene Munster has Amazon buying Target in 2018 for about $40 billion. While Amazon has shown a willingness to swing big with the Whole Foods acquisition, I’d look for slightly smaller stores with high margins, nouveau riche clienteles and chic brick and mortar presences to be prime targets. Amazon can buy a retailer with less than $1bn in revenue with pocket change while avoiding pesky antitrust concerns.

Bold prediction: Amazon unites the South American topographies by making a bid for Patagonia. Bezos picks up a socially active brand beloved by millennials while Patagonia does the deal to lower prices and to provide financial cover for even more political activity

5. Brands will have less value than ever

While Amazon’s shadow looms everywhere, retail’s old guard is also being hammered by the fact that more shoppers every month are simply ambivalent about the logo on their clothes.  For many millennials, the $12 black polo with no logo is just as good as the $70 Lacoste polo with a cute little crocodile.

Perhaps nothing is more telling than the fact that one of the VC darlings in e-commerce is literally called “Brandless”. In 2018, expect a lot more nice apparel from no-name brands to flood the market, increasing pressure on many iconic brands to win on the basis of customer experience rather than brand equity.

Mike Mallazzo is the head of content at Dynamic Yield, a personalisation technology start-up. His writing on the future of commerce, media and technology has appeared in Quartz, Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Next Web, MediaPost and the Chicago Tribune. 

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Comment counts: To reignite retail, value has to come from a digital core

We’re entering a retail renaissance where value will come from personalised shopping experiences, innovative delivery services, and entertainment blended with commerce, says Lori Mitchell-Keller of SAP.

Digital is facilitating a retail renaissance, says SAP
Digital is facilitating a retail renaissance, says SAP

The retail industry has seen significant changes in 2017. Following traditional brick-and-mortar store closures across the spectrum – from sporting goods to fashion and general merchandise – some allege we’re on the brink of a retail apocalypse. However, in my opinion, the industry is undergoing an extraordinary period of change – one that is much more representative of a retail renaissance.

To stay competitive in the digital landscape, we’re seeing many retailers redefining their business models and putting technology at the heart of their strategies. To be successful and meet growing consumer expectations, retailers must focus on establishing a strong digital core and leverage the benefits it provides: creating personalised shopping experiences, offering innovative delivery services, and blending entertainment with commerce.


Personalised shopping experiences

With consumer demands continuously growing, it’s important that retailers are actively using technology to provide personalised offerings to make the shopping experience unique to each individual. In my experience, consumers expect retailers to have a comprehensive understanding of their likes and dislikes prior to purchase. After all, more than 61% of consumers value the ability to ask a sales associate for product recommendations.

One retailer that understands this and is employing a dynamic platform to collect data and build a comprehensive consumer history is ULTA Beauty. Through ULTA Beauty’s clientelling app, store associates have access to consumer’s shopping histories and preferences. This allows employees to assist with the selection process and ensure consumers, such as myself, are not overwhelmed while browsing the more than 20,000 products ULTA Beauty carries. Employees can review items specific to each consumer and provide targeted product recommendations – making our shopping experiences both enjoyable and more convenient.


Innovative delivery services

Another way retailers are using technology to invigorate their business processes is by providing enhanced delivery services. In this era of unprecedented innovation, consumers are starting to expect near real-time delivery. Therefore, it’s crucial that retailers expand consumer delivery options – an investment that has even greater ROI.

For example, sunglass manufacturer Maui Jim invested in UberRUSH to make purchasing items more convenient, affordable, and reliable. Through the partnership, the company can now ensure door-to-door delivery in one hour or less, elevating consumer satisfaction. Another service that many companies are implementing is click and collect, including curbside delivery. Retailers such as Walmart are focusing on incorporating the benefits of both traditional shopping and e-commerce by offering online purchasing and one-hour curbside delivery at local franchises – drastically improving the entire shopping experience.


Blending entertainment with commerce

Today, it’s clear that shoppers expect curated offerings unique to their specific styles and preferences. Many retailers are finding success by focusing on delivering personalised shopping experiences for consumers, instead of merely trying to sell their products. Amazon’s upcoming launch of a home makeover show, Overhaul, is designed to sell products by merging entertainment and commerce, for instance. It will feature many of Amazon’s home furnishings, and allow viewers to click on and purchase the items directly through the site.

Another example of a retailer that has merged entertainment with commerce to deliver a heightened shopping experience and increased sales is Nike. The company recently invested in the development of a new physical store location in New York City that features a mini indoor basketball court and a soccer field. By providing an entertaining environment, the retailer can attract consumers while expanding the shopping experience beyond just purchasing products.


The future of retail

The retail industry is rapidly changing to meet the dynamic demands of consumers and incorporate elements of personalisation, innovation and entertainment into their overall business strategies. Evident by new store openings from retailers like Bonobos, Warby Parker and Zara, it’s clear that traditional brick-and-mortar locations are not a thing of the past, but a living canvas of innovation and opportunity.

The retailers that understand that consumers are willing to pay more for a better shopping experience and incorporate technology into every aspect of their value chain will find great success – and, as participant and advisor, I’m excited to see how the industry continues to evolve during this time of extreme transformation.

Lori Mitchell-Keller is the global general manager of consumer industries at SAP. Comment Counts is a series of opinion pieces from experts within the industry. Do you have something to say? Get in touch via info@fashionandmash.com.