E-commerce, personalization

Fashion apparel retailing is being forced to change as consumer preferences shift and technologies such as artificial intelligence power a new breed of company that brings to market products, services and an overall shopping experience that shoppers demand and are delighted by.

This transformation requires a cultural shift of traditional retailers (as well as designers and manufacturers) that is centered on optimizing data and leveraging consumer insights to offer products and services that shoppers want. And the engine that will drive this change is AI. But that doesn’t mean the creative merchant and design activities will be replaced by robots. Instead, AI will eliminate redundancies and use automation to free up time to allow merchants to focus on what they do best: create.

This was the consensus during a breakfast session earlier this week hosted by WWD and done in partnership with Accenture and the Council of Fashion Designers of America Inc. The panelists were: Vijay Subramanian, chief analytics officer at Rent the Runway; Marleen Vogelaar, founder and chief executive officer of on-demand fashion brand Ziel; Ali Dalloul, general manager of Ambient Intelligence at Microsoft; David Simchi-Levi, professor of engineering systems at MIT and chairman of Opalytics; Shyam Thyagaraj, managing director of Accenture’s technology advisory practice, and Courtney Spitz, managing director in the global retail consulting practice at Accenture.

The panelists agreed that there’s no “silver bullet” technology solution that will transform a retailer or brand in this new age of retailing. Instead, they said companies should see AI as part of a larger ecosystem of technologies aimed at building a brand’s overall capabilities. Retailers need to start slow and develop a strategy. They need to identify where automation can be deployed, and then start investing in AI. Once the automation begins to generate savings, that money should be reinvested into additional AI technologies.

Prior to the panel session Spitz and Thyagaraj presented an Accenture abstract on a new model for retailing that essentially positions AI as a “colleague” and not a “scary, robotic monster out to take someone’s job.”

Spitz and Thyagaraj said in the report that the current retail market has “left merchants frustrated with their jobs and feeling overwhelmed, at time when retailers need them to be at their most innovative and inspired. But it does not have to be this way. By adopting a new model, we can shed the routine, math-intensive aspects of the merchants’ job and empower them to do more creative, strategic work that can have a bigger impact on the consumer and ultimately the retailer.”

Accenture said the new model “drives new ways of working” and is defined by three core layers, which include execution, intelligence and strategic.

“Merchants of the future will concentrate time and creative efforts differentiating their products and services, while offloading tasks to machines,” they noted.

The execution layer involves retailers and brands applying “automation to highly predictable occurrences (e.g. item setup, order management and vendor inquiries) and/or repeatable processes that require minimal human judgment, thereby reducing errors, saving costs and freeing up time.” The intelligence layer leverages “advanced analytics” aimed at creating actionable, data-driven insights as well as using “hyperlocalized and hyperpersonalized” tactics in the merchant-consumer relationship.

Regarding the strategic part of the model, Accenture said that with execution and intelligence capabilities in place, “merchants can invest brainpower in inspiring actions that deliver unique value propositions. Merchants will be equipped to sense the needs of consumers and respond in meaningful and innovative ways — giving people what they want, when they want it, from someone they trust.”

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