Fabric trends at Texworld.

Retail has changed. As a whole, the industry is undergoing a monumental shift in how retailers interact with consumers, function as a business and intermingle with outside partners, such as suppliers. How retailers go about buying and sourcing products is not something easily transformed, as the process is deeply rooted within each retail company. It takes a revolutionary mind to think of a new way to do a traditionally routine processes. Some retailers are beginning to use digital channels to not only buy but brainstorm new products.

So this shift begs the question: How can retailers use groundbreaking methods and integrate technology to convert a traditional practice while still delivering on consumer needs and adding value to their organization?

Traditional vs. Digital Sourcing

The traditional model of sourcing required retailers to spend weeks sourcing just one product — a dress, for example. The inspiration for the color of the dress probably came from Pantone’s announcement of its 2017 Color of the Year — the shade of honor this year is “Greenery.” Based on industry data and gut feeling, the designer/developer was told shoppers wanted fun, bright summer dresses for the season. In order to source materials to design the dress in Greenery, multiple parties within the retailer’s organization had to travel overseas to meet with numerous suppliers. Let’s also not forget the thousands of hours spent prior to those trips categorizing suppliers, along with even more hours during and after the trip uploading and e-mailing product samples to other internal teams.

Pantone Top 10 Spring 2017 Colors Counts on New York Fashion Week for Inspiration

PANTONE 15-0343  Courtesy of Pantone

I’m exhausted just writing about it — imagine actually doing it. The good news is, there’s an alternative to traditional sourcing that leverages digital platforms and virtual showrooms — and all it requires is an open mind, a comfortable chair and a connected device.

Digital channels are required in today’s connected world to match the speed and needs of the consumer, and companies not using digital means are seeing roadblocks. Too often, retailers erroneously believe that their backend processes of sourcing can be traditional and manual, while simultaneously embracing front-end technology that provides a new and better shopping experience to customers. In reality, these retailers are hindering their supply chain members by not allowing them to shop for products the way they do in their personal lives: digitally.

Enter digital sourcing. Digital sourcing is a way for retailers to share information virtually. It’s a way for teams to share information around new product ideas, concepts and existing products they are looking for, all in a virtual way. Suppliers are also added to the mix to collaborate directly with retailers to adequately source the Greenery dress, all in the same environment.

The Imperative for Change

Digital sourcing is more than just an electronically powered way to do what you’ve always done. By moving sourcing to a digital format, retailers can see improvements across the board. They’ll be better prepared to:

Move at lightning speed: Not so long ago, retailers used to source and develop products 18 to 24 months in advance of when it would land on shelves. Now, retailers are expected to turn around that same product — like the Greenery dress — in as little as a few weeks. The visual aspect of digital sourcing provides the platform for teams to curate and collaborate on a given idea instantly, with no backlog of e-mail files, and make decisions faster than ever before. These decisions are enhanced by the supplier’s involvement and expertise throughout the whole sourcing and purchasing process. Retailers can award a supplier business in as little as six weeks, not months down the road. Now, developers can use their time for what truly matters: gathering inspiration for new products, such as a fun hat to go along with the Greenery dress, and focusing on differentiation within their product range.

Enhance visibility throughout the supply chain: Through digital showrooms, retailers can see an endless amount of options at the click of a mouse while simultaneously collaborating with their team, regardless of anyone’s location. Further visibility is provided when opening a product up for sourcing to different suppliers in terms of bids and timeline.

Leverage your community: A team of one isn’t really a team. As a product developer or designer, having access to your community is vital — but what if that community was global? Digital sourcing allows for increased collaboration among teams, regardless of geographic location. A designer or merchandiser has the ability to leverage a supplier’s capabilities, along with his intimate knowledge of his unique market, which can support retailers who are entering new markets, or looking to expand in a market that isn’t as familiar.

• Make all parties strategic partners: In the world of digital sourcing, all participants play a role. No matter how big or small, everyone is a strategic asset. Suppliers bring forward products they believe fall in line with what the developer is seeking based on their expertise, and developers collaborate with their teams to make decisions. Suppliers can source products directly from a digital showroom, while retailers can brainstorm a new color palette within that same showroom. This act of collaboration through a digital platform drives value to the business and permits internal teams to be more productive and proactive.

Ann Diamante is chief product officer at Bamboo Rose, which offers product lifecycle management solutions.

More guest columns from WWD:

Think Tank: Where Is Fashion’s March on Washington?

Think Tank: What Retailers Need to Know When Eyeing Technology

Think Tank: Luxottica, Essilor Merger Is Bad for Brands — and Consumers Too

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